There’s Nothing Radical about Nullification

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Joel Poindexter

Joel Poindexter

Written by Joel Poindexter                                            

Picture the single most barbaric, inhumane, and morally reprehensible act imaginable. It could be anything. You could choose genocide, the most depraved form of torture, or slavery, whatever really. History is replete with examples, the twentieth century in particular, but the nineteenth century had its share of them as well.

There doesn’t have to be a geographic limitation, either. But for the sake of argument, try to keep it local, as in here in the United States. Whatever you chose, On the official Maddow Blog, MSNBC’s Steve Benen believes that “[n]ullification must never be on the table” as a means to protect innocent lives and property.

Apparently he can’t think of a single reason that nullification should be used by states or local governing bodies. The logical implication is that opponents of slavery – that is advocates of freedom – in the antebellum period were wrong to have used nullification as a means to protect the lives and freedom of former slaves. No doubt, Harriet Tubman would be described by Benen as a radical, and her willful defiance of federal slave laws would be denounced, had the two been contemporaries.

Another case where nullification could arguably have been employed is in preventing or at least deterring the murderous and detestable “Trail of Tears” death march across the southern United States. Imagine if the forcible relocation of more than a hundred thousand members of various native tribes weren’t marched through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, or Kentucky because those states refused to participate. The lives of thousands could have been saved by such resistance. Opponents of nullification however, are self-righteously indignant at such a thought.

In the same way, the disgusting treatment of individuals in certain ethnic groups under Franklin Roosevelt would be tolerable as well. Had the state legislatures refused to cooperate with federal troops who rounded up Americans and placed them in concentration camps, Benen surely would have condemned them, as well.

Rosa Parks, too, falls into this camp of saying “no.” Her act of nullification cannot be reconciled with Benen’s view of government power, and thus it must be concluded that Benen is squarely in favor of Jim Crow laws.

Am I putting words in his mouth? No. I’m merely taking his statement to the logical extreme, demonstrating through reductio ad absurdum that his thesis – and that of anyone firmly opposed to nullification – is morally bankrupt. There can be no other conclusion.

Had he (and others who hold such allegiance to absolute central power) merely argued that nullifying gun legislation, or the Affordable Care Act, or certain environmental protection laws are wrong on partisan grounds, it would be different. Such an argument would reveal an intellectual bankruptcy, and expose what a hack he is, but that’s nothing surprising. But suggesting there is absolutely no reason to ever put nullification on the table is altogether different.

Benen expresses his “sincere hope that this is just a bizarre fad among radicalized Republicans” which “will soon fade without incident.” Unfortunately for him, it’s not a bizarre fad, nor is it exclusive to Republicans, and it’s not even radical.

By definition, a fad is short-lived. Another element common to fads is they’re often limited in scope. Nullification doesn’t fit either of these cases. It’s practically everywhere, actually. As a tool against federal usurpation it has been ongoing since 1996, when California voters approved Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act. As of now, one third of the states have nullified the Controlled Substance Act and allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. I challenge anyone to prove that nullification of the drug laws at the individual level isn’t pervasive in the remaining states.

Suggesting that nullification is really just a means for embittered Republicans to exact revenge on Democrats is absurd, when looking at the whole picture.

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Andrew Nappi is the State Coordinator for the Florida Tenth Amendment Center. He lives in the Tampa Bay Area with wife Tammy and dogs Emma and Bud Lite.

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