Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck's history lesson

I have studied and written history for some time now, but I was unaware — until Glenn Beck straightened me out — that the recent U.S. government assistance to banks and auto companies was the historical equivalent of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. I also did not realize that Glenn Beck, and his far-right followers, are the true heirs to the civil rights movement.

In laying the groundwork for his divinely inspired strictly nonpartisan rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, Beck vowed to "reclaim the civil rights moment," explaining, "We will take that movement because we are the people that did it in the first place."

If by "we" Beck means Republicans, as I think he does, he just possibly is forgetting a bit of the post–Abraham Lincoln history of the Grand Old Party. If by "we" he means conservatives, he definitely is.

For the very brief period following the end of the Civil War when members of the Republican Party did champion civil rights, they were known — almost always disparagingly — as "radical Republicans." The Southern Democrats who opposed them called themselves  . . . "conservatives."

Those were completely accurate political labels. The radical Republicans envisioned a sweeping transformation of the Southern social order, and along with such progressive (socialist?) reforms as the first public schools in the South, a progressive tax system, increased rights for women, and an end to the economic hegemony of the old planter class, they championed black voting rights and equality of economic opportunity.

The conservatives opposed them at every turn — and frequently with horrific violence, as I document in my book The Bloody Shirt.

But by 1876 the Republicans had all but abandoned the cause of civil rights, and so things remained until 1948 — when progressives in the Democratic Party dared to grab the bull by the horns. President Harry S Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, and the Democratic Party boldly adopted a platform calling for Federal action to outlaw employment discrimination and reestablish black voting rights (which had been taken away in all the ex-Confederate states first by white violence and fraud, and then by new state constitutions in the 1890s written for the express purpose of disfranchising African American voters).

In response, Strom Thurmond and his fellow Southern conservatives bolted the Democratic party, and Thurmond's States' Rights Party that year carried Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina on a platform that (aside from eerily echoing the rhetoric of today's Tea Partyniks on "states rights" and fears of a "centralized, bureaucratic central government") declared:

We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. . . . We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.

Thurmond himself declared in a campaign speech that year: "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

The historic realignment of the parties in the South was solidified when Southern whites abandoned the Democratic Party in droves following Lyndon Johnson's support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964, backing Barry Goldwater for president. Here's a graph (click on it to enlarge) which I made showing the percentage of the vote the Democratic candidate for president received in each of the former Confederate states, relative to the candidate's percentage in the country as a whole. (For example, in 1940 FDR received 54.7% nationally; in Alabama he received 85.2%, so the difference is 30.5%.) Points above zero mean a state is voting more Democratic than the nation as a whole; below zero, less Democratic.

Basic data: uselectionatlas.org

Were it not for the huge increase in African American voting in the South following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the drop in the curve would be even more dramatic. (In 2008, only 10–15% of white voters in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example, voted for Obama — about a minus 40 on this graph.)

Another bit of history: Those few Republicans who did truly attempt to reclaim the GOP's century-old mantle of civil rights "radicalism" in the late 1960s and early 1970s found themselves cut adrift by the cynical calculation of the party's leadership.

Linwood Holton in 1969 became the first Republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction by putting together a winning coalition of moderates, pro-business voters, and blacks — garnering probably 40% of the African American vote in the process, a stunning achievement. But as Holton sadly wrote later, "This was lost . . . on the national Republican Party, which was willing to accept the membership of Southern white supremacists as the price to pay for a hoped-for Republican Senate majority." Their tactic, Holton explained, "was simple: lace your speeches with coded appeals to racists in Southern states, dressing up the policies in the language of fiscal conservatism." It was, Holton argued in vain, a policy that "was not only morally bankrupt but short-sighted" politically.

Morally bankrupt, yes; but politically short-sighted? Sadly, probably not.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making sausage at the newsweekly

This is the time of year we old trench-coat-wearing reporters used to call "the silly season"; those weeks in August when anyone even vaguely important was away, nothing happened, and the pages had to be filled with stories about dogs that bark the opening bars to "Nessun Dorma" and freakishly shaped vegetables that appeared in someone's garden bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary.

Actually there's been a lot going on this August, not least the rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend at which ex-DJ/ex-drug-addict/current gold-coin-scam-promoter Glenn Beck will unveil, courtesy of divine providence, his "100 year plan for America."

Still, out of nostalgic respect for the venerable traditions of print journalism, I did not want August to pass by without making space for at least one totally-off-the-news column, and what better topic for such a column than the old traditions of print journalism itself. There's much about the old traditions of print journalism that no sane person would ever feel nostalgic for, but one aspect of the old days that I think deserves more respect than it gets from the brash denizens of today's Internet instant-rumor-forwarding mill was the almost superstitious dread we all used to have of getting something wrong. It was a haunting fear that could make even the most grizzled, cigar-chomping, martini-imbibing desk editor wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  

U.S. News & World Report was a totally crazy place for the twelve years I worked there, and we (and I) certainly made our share of mistakes, but no one could deny the pains we took to get things right. It was virtually obsessive. We had teams of fact checkers, copy editors, editors, proofreaders; everybody checked everything literally 5 or 6 or more times; when I first arrived there the magazine still had a superb library staffed with reference experts and an "economics unit" filled with smart people who could lay their hands on every statistic known to man and who took it extremely personally if anyone tried to employ a number out of its proper context.

The supposed monopoly that the "mainstream media" had on information back then was almost always, on balance, a force for good as far as I'm concerned — precisely because of this almost bred-in-the-bone reverence for accuracy. I remember interviewing Hal Bruno, ABC News's political director and an old pro who was clearly heartbroken over the shoddy standards for reporting rumor, gossip, and innuendo that were taking over his profession in the late 1990s with the advent of Drudge et al. He told me (I'm relying on memory but it was very close to this), "Back in the fifties for god's sake I worked at the Hearst paper, in Chicago for god's sake, and we were in cutthroat competition with the other paper in town. But there was only one thing worse than being beaten on a story — and that was getting something wrong in our own story."

He related the old newsroom joke: 

   Reporter A: [makes some innocuous observation about life]
   Reporter B: Where did you hear that? 
   Reporter A: My mother told me. 
   Reporter B: Did you check it out?

He also made what's to me still the crucial point: the real reason for "checking it out" was because we'd be damned if we were going to let ourselves be used or spun by people with an ax to grind — of whom there was never a shortage. Of course U.S. News went the way of almost all print journalism; by the time I left, the once-magnificent library was down to a corner of the newsroom with a few shelves, the economics unit was long gone, the staff was dwindling weekly . . . but that's another story.

I'm off for several days; back next week. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Biting the hand that elects you

When voters were asked recently by the Pew Research Center what considerations would most influence their choice of congressman in the fall, the most popular response by far (at 53 percent) was whether the candidate "has a record of bringing government projects and money to your district." 

This is not news to anyone who has ever had the tedious job of reading the gaseous miasma of press releases belched forth by the offices of 435 congressmen and 100 senators. Indistinguishable by party, time, or place, they always began exactly the same:

"Congressman [fill in the blank] today announced that [fill in the blank local project of no conceivable significance to the nation as a whole] has been awarded $[fill in the blank] million in federal funding . . ." 

This perennial exercise in self-publicity by a congressman eager to burnish his bringing-home-the-bacon credentials starts to become awkward, however, when the leaders of the self-congratulating congressman's own party — and sometimes even the very self-same congressman himself — are simultaneously railing against the evils of Big Government, Washington pork barrelling, earmark spending, and out-of-control Federal deficits.

The last time the Republican Party found itself in this intellectually nuanced spot was (no small coincidence) the last time they faced a Democratic president in the White House. Then it was Bill Clinton, who (no small irony) would go on to become the first president in 30 years to balance a budget — and who when he left office in 2001 had delivered three years in a row of budget surpluses and placed spending and revenues on a path to pay off the entire net Federal debt by 2009.

But back in 1995 the Republicans who swept into office in the "Gingrich revolution" were sure they had a great issue in railing against the evils of deficit spending. Their outrage had been curiously silent while Reagan and Bush I quadrupled the debt, and of course for the eight years of Bush II they again succumbed to a mass epidemic of mutism regarding the unprecedented deficits racked up by $1.3 trillion in Bush tax cuts targeted at the wealthiest. But Inauguration Day 2009 had barely come and gone before the Capitol South Metro station in Washington was plastered with advertising posters on every vertical (and even some horizontal) surfaces purchased by the GOP to terrify visiting tourists with vivid depictions of the astronomical trillions in debt that will crush our children as flat as flounders.

The schizophrenic requirement to denounce government spending in general while taking credit for it in the particular has led to some wonderful moments. Last year, one Republican congressman even managed to denounce the "Democrats' massive spending bill for pet projects" on the same day he sent out a press release taking credit for spending for pet projects in his own district that was included in the bill. My favorite insight into the psychology of the human mind that makes such thinking possible was provided during the Speaker Gingrich years, when I was a writer at U.S. News & World Report. My friend and colleague Lew Lord, who was from Natchez, Mississippi, came back from one visit home and reported the following conversation he had had with a nice southern Republican lady at a dinner he had attended. The nice southern Republican lady had been going on at some length about the terrible out-of-control government spending in Washington. She then began saying how urgently the town needed Federal help to shore up the bluff along the Mississippi River. (They would eventually get about $25 million for it.) As I recall Lew's account, the ensuing dialogue went something like this:

Lew: Uh, isn't there something maybe a little inconsistent about wanting to get so much Federal money for Natchez when we also need to cut government spending?
Nice Southern Republican Lady (perplexed by such a novel juxtaposition of ideas): But . . . we've got to save the bluff . . . !

To those of you who revel in political hypocrisy as much as I do, it's probably no surprise where this is heading. Here's a chart I produced using data from the nonpartisan Tax Foundation and the election results from 2008, showing an excellent correlation between states that vote Republican and states that receive more in Federal spending than they pay in Federal taxes. The vertical axis is the ratio of Federal dollars received to dollars paid in Federal taxes; each dot represents one state. (That blue-state outlier is New Mexico, which combines a small population with not one, but two nuclear-weapons laboratories — which explains why it has a dollars-received to taxes-paid ratio of over 2.0.)

Federal spending received per Federal tax dollar paid, by state

      ratio of Republican to Democratic presidential vote, 2008

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First resort

The unrelenting campaign of vilification of the proposed Cordoba Center brings to mind one of my favorite definitions in Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary:

Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.
   In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Victimization and vengeance

The moments in American political history when one voice broke with decorum to denounce the truly reprehensible are so memorable precisely because they are so rare: Joseph Welch confronting Joseph McCarthy with "have you no sense of decency, sir?"; FDR calling Senator Burton Wheeler's snide comparison of Lend-Lease to New Deal farm programs ("it will plow under every fourth American boy," Wheeler sneered) "the rottenest thing that has been said in public life in my generation."

The lukewarm defenses of the proposed Islamic community center in New York City against the truly despicable demagoguery of the past few weeks cry out for comparison to those other moments. The utterances of Newt Gingrich, for one — comparing the "ground zero mosque" (which is neither a mosque nor at ground zero) to Nazis desecrating the Holocaust Museum or accusing Obama of "pandering to radical Islam" after the President offered the daring proposition that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country" — are certainly good candidates for "the rottenest thing" said in our generation. Gingrich, Palin, and the predictable chorus line of Fox News "commentators" have been fanning even uglier talk, notably the line ricocheting around the right-wing blogosphere that the Cordoba Center would be a "victory shrine" to those who "attacked us."

Never mind even the baldness of the lies (as Frank Rich noted in yesterday's New York Times, the Cordoba Center's board is full of Christians and Jews, and the imam spearheading the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is such an Islamic radical that he delivered a moving eulogy at the memorial service for Daniel Pearl at which he declared "I am a Jew . . . I am a Christian") — where is the politician who will call this right-wing demagoguery what it is: a vileness of a kind that throughout history has been the recourse of the most despicable regimes and totalitarianisms that America has always stood against. The mindset that can willfully equate every member of one racial or religious group with the actions of a few who share that racial or religious identity is the mindset that literally spawned the greatest evils of our age.

Meanwhile we have had to content ourselves with the small satisfaction provided by the reliable hypocrisy that demagogues always offer to cheer us up. Catching moralists with their pants down is a never-fail source of joy even on the solemnest occasions, and the prize this time surely goes to Bernard Kerik, who joined the chorus of phony outrage over desecration of the "sacred ground" of the World Trade Center site in a Twitter message he somehow managed to have delivered from his current home, the Federal prison at Cumberland, Maryland.

Kerik, for those who may have forgotten, is the former New York Police Commissioner and protege of Rudy Giuliani whom Bush named to be the first head of the Department of Homeland Security — until his detour to Western Maryland, where he is now enjoying four years at taxpayer expense for tax fraud and other felonies arising from an earlier conviction in state court for having accepted $165,000 in free renovations to his apartment from a company with mob connections. In the months following the 9/11 attack, Kerik displayed his own personal reverence for the hallowed precincts of Ground Zero by using an apartment directly overlooking the site (originally donated to the city so exhausted rescue workers would have a place to rest) as a place to bonk right-wing book publisher Judith Regan.

But there's a problem that goes much deeper than simple hypocrisy and inconsistency with the entire notion of reverence for a place where we became victims of an act of war. When I was writing my book Air Power, one fact I came across took my breath away as much as I thought I knew about World War II, and it still does every time I encounter it anew. In eight months of air raids over Britain from September 1940 to spring 1941, German bombers killed 40,000 British civilians, seriously injured 50,000 others, demolished hundreds of thousands of houses and damaged millions more. Leonard Woolf, in his extraordinary memoirs, describes the haunting silence the morning after an especially heavy German bombing that seemed to have left half of London in ruins; vast piles of rubble in the streets blocking traffic everywhere; almost no one moving about; losing his way again and again as he tried to walk across town to his office, unable to find a single familiar landmark other than the dome of St. Paul's now and then appearing in view.

It is hard in this age of endless memorialization to even express this view without sounding callous: but Londoners did not turn their entire city into a "hallowed ground" or a shrine for the dead or a monument to British victimhood. They rebuilt, they went on, they rightly saw that the truest memorial to the dead was to show the Nazis that their city would rise again as if the Nazis had never existed on the face of the earth. I have always felt a deep discomfort similarly with the entire holocaust-memorial and holocaust-study industry. As a Jew, I hate the idea that the defining fact of my people's entire history should be what the fucking Nazis did to us.

There is a great Spanish proverb: olvidar la injuria es la mejor venganza: to forget an insult is the greatest revenge.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

For number freaks only

It's time to move on to the evils of Newt Gingrich and other fertile fields, but for those of you who have inquired about the basis of the numbers in my locavore story, here's a quick guide to the sources.

First, as to the assertion I am attacking a "straw man," here and here are some of Bill McKibben's typical pronouncements on the subject, which were in fact why I began looking into the issue at all. It just didn't sound right to me that transportation could be a significant fraction of the energy costs of food production. It turned out I was right.

For the energy efficiency of long-distance transportation, I used (in very round numbers) about 400 ton-miles per gallon of diesel fuel for trains, 150 for tractor-trailers. Here is one source; you can find many other recent estimates that are in good agreement with these numbers. Note that fuel efficiency of tractor-trailers has more than doubled since the 1980s. The key point is that even if these approximations are off by a factor of, say, two, it doesn't change the conclusion: the energy required to ship produce across the country approaches the trivial in the overall picture.

For the figure of 5,000 kcal of total fossil fuel inputs to get one lettuce to your dinner table, see Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, p.150. NOTE ADDED 8/23: You can find other estimates ranging from about 2,000 kcal to 8,000 kcal. David Pimentel's 1980 calculations of tractor-trailer fuel consumption that many have cited are completely out of date given huge gains in fuel efficiency since then, and were questionable even at the time. Refrigerated tractor-trailers get about 20% lower fuel economy than non-refrigerated ones; long-haul refrigerated tractor-trailers get about 6 miles per gallon, which agrees well with the 100–150 ton-mile per gallon figure I used in my original article. A more recent study by Pimentel (pdf here) arrives at total on-farm fossil inputs of about 3 million kcal per acre for corn, the bulk of which is the energy cost of nitrogen fertilizer (about 1 million kcal) and machinery (about 0.5 million). Many vegetable crops use even more N per acre than does field corn (e.g., 150-200 lbs for watermelons) and are easily as machinery-intensive if not more. At 20,000 heads of lettuce per acre, it comes down to about 150 kcal per lettuce for on-farm production; 400 kcal for hauling 3,000 miles (100 kcal if by rail); and the rest is home preparation, local transportation (a huge input), and home storage (ditto). I just looked in my refrigerator and estimate I have 25 pounds of food in there at any given time, which is probably also about the net weight of groceries I bring home from the store each week. That means each 1-pound head of lettuce racks up nearly 1,000 kcal just for its share of my once a week trip to the store and running the refrigerator for that time. But let's not get lost down the rabbit hole: the whole point is the big picture, namely that transportation is 14% of the energy inputs of the whole U.S. food system, and only a minor part of that 14% is long-distance transport. You will easily blow the entire energy savings of "buying local" with one trip to the farmer's market in your car.

The proportion of total U.S. energy consumption that goes to residential use, the food system overall, and various components of the food system (transportation, on-farm production, etc.) comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration here and here and the pdf fact sheet from the University of Michigan here. (Note that total U.S. energy use is almost exactly 100 quads a year; on-farm inputs are 2 quads per the University of Michigan fact sheet.)

Data on land in U.S. farms comes from the U.S. Census of Agriculture and the Historical Statistics of the United States.

Thanks to hybrid varieties and the extensive use of nitrogen fertilizer (which is made by using methane as a hydrogen feedstock and energy source but which, yes, derives the nitrogen directly from infinitely renewable nitrogen in the air), yield per acre of grains has tripled or more in the last century. That translates to hundreds of millions of acres of land that has been spared from the plow.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Energy or land: pick one

A short follow-up in response to the many very interesting comments I've received today about my Times Op-Ed and my earlier post today on local food.

The fundamental fact is that we have an inescapable choice in our food system: use small amounts of energy, or vast amounts of land. By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best — we have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That's land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty, and it's also often land that is highly erodible or otherwise unsuitable for farming. Let's not forget that in the old days of local agriculture, vast amounts of unsuitable land were plowed, especially in the Northeast and Appalachia, with truly devastating effects on soil erosion.

A second point is that while conventional wisdom brands chemical fertilizer and herbicides and long-distance transport as "unsustainable," in fact the supposed "sustainable" alternatives are frequently much worse. If you don't use chemical fertilizer (produced from the infinitely renewable source of nitrogen in the air), the "organic" alternative is to use fertilizer made from ground-up fish mass-harvested in trawl nets. If you don't use herbicides to control weeds (which also virtually eliminates the need for tillage of any kind), the alternative is labor- or fuel-intensive mechanical plowing and cultivation that results in markedly greater soil erosion.

Finally, my point in comparing the transportation costs of food to such home energy inputs to the food system as refrigeration was to point out the absurdity of making a cause célèbre of the trivial while ignoring the vast. If we really want to do something about the energy wastes in our food system, there would be a tremendous — and immediate — impact if people with ten-year-old refrigerators replaced them with a new Energy Star model. You could cover the energy cost of shipping several thousand lettuces a year across the country with what you'd save by upgrading one home refrigerator.

Finally finally:  Tomatoes were not the best example for me to use, I admit: the ones grown for shipping do taste lousy. But I can buy in my supermarket excellent green onions, jalapenos, onions, potatoes, savoy cabbage, and many other fruits and vegetables that come from Florida, California, and Mexico, and I don't think anyone could tell the difference between those and ones grown next door.


I am truly grateful for all of you who have taken the time to write comments and send them to my blog. I've been even more grateful for the fact that with extremely few exceptions, you have been civil, sane, thoughtful, calm, respectful to others, and have added interesting and valuable perspectives even when sometimes very sharply criticizing me or your fellow commentors. Many of your comments are models of how to disagree without being disagreeable, and my hat is off to you.

Let me stress: I thoroughly welcome disagreement and lively debate. But there are some rules I will enforce. I will not post any comments that contain insults, unfounded personal accusations, or that impugn the motives of others.

Thanks again, and keep those cards and letters coming!

Local, schmocal

The New York Times ran my Op-Ed today about the fallacies of the "local food" movement. As I noted in the lede, nobody beats me in the eating-local department: here on Black Sheep Farm we raise our own lambs plus most of our vegetables for three seasons of the year. There's undeniable advantages in freshness, variety, and preservation of open space that accrues from local agriculture.

The problem is the way the food gurus have turned the whole "locavore" thing into one of those doctrinaire, authoritarian, and joyless religions that all too often make environmentalists their own worst enemies.

Their first mistake is one of proportion and context. As I pointed out in my piece, transportation is in fact a trivial component of the total energy inputs that go into our food system. (Among the greatest energy hogs: your home refrigerator.) You may have heard environmental oracle Bill McKibben claim that it takes 97 fossil fuel calories to bring one food calorie of iceberg lettuce across the country. But that's the total energy needed to grow that lettuce, from seed to dinner table. Of that 97 (actually it's probably more like 70) calories, only 1 or 2  was used to haul that lettuce across the country in a train or tractor-trailer. For the same energy expenditure it takes your local organic farmer to haul a load of produce 20 miles from his farm to the farmers' market in a pickup truck, you can send that same amount of food across the whole country in a freight train. Here's the breakdown of energy consumption in the U.S. food system, courtesy of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems:

The larger point is that not only is it not really bad to eat non-local food: eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds. The relative pittance of energy we expend on "industrial" agriculture (agricultural production consumes just 2% of total U.S. energy use) pays huge environmental dividends which the organic and local gurus always ignore: intensive farming via chemical fertilizer and machinery have spared literally hundreds of millions of acres for nature that would otherwise have come under the plow. (For a brilliant analysis of this, see the study by Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the clearest thinkers on the subject of agriculture and land use.) So two cheers for that California lettuce.

More seriously: environmentalism ought to be about pragmatism, not dogmatism.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Steve's guide to Ground Zero

Constitutional cultists

Fringe movements obsessed with paranoid conspiracy theories are hardly new to American politics. The populists of the 1890s were convinced the Rothschilds and "international bankers" were behind the farmers' troubles; the John Birch Society spent the 1960s warning that fluoridation and the United Nations were Soviet Communist plots.

What is new this year is the penetration of longstanding far-right conspiracy theories into the mainstream of the Republican Party, vividly on display in the platforms recently adopted by the Iowa and Maine GOPs. Many of the planks in these platforms are especially creepy for the cult-like manner in which they allude to bizarre and occult theories as if they were common knowledge: "Return to the principles of Austrian economics"; "make public the declaration of war made against the US on 23 Feb 1998"; "Reject any effort to give foreign citizens the right to vote in the U.S."

The one that probably will have most historians and constitutional scholars scratching their heads, though, is the reference in the Iowa platform to restoring "the original 13th Amendment, not the 13th Amendment in today’s Constitution." The one "in today's Constitution" is that one that abolished slavery in 1865. There was an amendment proposed in 1810 that would have become the 13th—had it been ratified—and it turns out that this is the centerpiece of one of the weirdest conspiracy theories of them all to make it into mainstream Republican "thinking" this year. 

Article I of the Constitution bars the United States or any state government from granting a title of nobility and forbids any Federal official from accepting such a title from "any King, Prince or foreign state." The proposed "original" 13th Amendment would have gone further, barring from office anyone who did accept such a title of "nobility or honour." Only twelve states ever ratified the proposed amendment and it was thus never adopted. But in 1991, a self-described "legal representative" for "sovereign citizens" (more on this below) began publishing articles in an extremist journal called AntiShyster claiming not only that the amendment had been ratified (a fact that a conspiracy of lawyers, bankers, and foreign interests subsequently suppressed) but that it also meant that all Federal government actions ever since were illegal because—ready for this?—lawyers, by using the title "esquire," had adopted a "title of honor" and thus could not legally serve as members of Congress.

This would seem like harmless loony tunes were it not for the fact that the people who invented and promoted these claims about "the original 13th Amendment" were part of the violent anti-government (and often white-supremacist and anti-Semitic) groups that began showing up at the same time. The "sovereign citizens" regularly claimed that the government has no authority to collect income taxes, enforce mortgage contracts, or even require drivers' licenses or hunting and fishing licenses, and several of their adherents even used the "original 13th Amendment" claim as an attempted legal defense after shooting and killing police officers—whom they insisted had no legal authority to stop them and demand to see their drivers' licenses. 

It has been a little-noted fact that the constitutional cultism of the Tea Party, and now much of the "mainstream" Republican Party as well (besides the "original" 13th Amendment, this includes assertions that the 14th Amendment was illegally adopted, that the 17th Amendment providing for direct election of U.S. senators should be repealed, that the Federal Reserve and most Federal regulatory laws are unconstitutional), comes right out of the extremist tax-protest, Posse Comitatus, and sovereign citizens movements of the 1990s. Jol Silversmith, who wrote the definitive law review article on the "missing" 13th Amendment, noted that the press has tended to view those advancing these outre constitutional conspiracy theories as "lovable rogues,"  ignoring their ties to anti-government extremist groups that use "constitutional nonsense"—and sometimes violence—as their weapons.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lies set in stone

The centennial observance of the Civil War, back in 1961, was an almost complete disaster. Slavery, emancipation, and the 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors who served in the Union army and navy were written out of the story altogether. This naturally suited the southern agenda of resistance to civil rights going on at the time, but it also reflected the triumph of the concerted ex-Confederate campaign, begun while the smoldering ashes of Richmond were still warm, to rewrite the story of the war altogether as one of southern valor in a noble lost cause.

The national commission created to encourage the commemoration tiptoed around anything that might upset the southern states. The director of the Commission, Karl S. Betts, warned that any mention of John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry—or even slavery—“might have the effect of antagonizing the entire South to the great damage of the proposed Civil War Centennial observances.”

Obviously much has changed in society and historical knowledge in the last fifty years, and one of the best things has been the emergence of grassroots groups like the African American Historical Alliance, which have been working in a low-key but very effective way, in anticipation of next year's sesquicentennial, to bring attention to the stories of African American soldiers and lawmakers who played a valiant role in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

One thing that hasn't changed are the historical markers assiduously erected by Confederate veterans groups that perpetuate the "lost cause" mythology. I've written about the egregious marker at Hamburg, South Carolina, that celebrates the one white man killed during the massacre of black state militia members by an armed-to-the-teeth white mob in 1876. (The white victim, the monument declares, died to assure the "supremacy" of "Anglo Saxon civilization.") There's the grotesque Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, which retroactively incorporates Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland into the Confederacy and depicts the South as a fallen woman grasping the Constitution. Sprinkled throughout the South are also "loyal slave" and "mammy" statues erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of a campaign to tell the touching stories of "faithful slaves." The UDC actually succeeded in 1923 in getting the Senate to approve a $200,000 appropriation for a national mammy monument to be placed in Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C., which would have been a sight to behold, but the bill died in the House.

But the worst of the southern lies set in stone are the markers the state of Georgia erected near the notorious Andersonville prison, which repeat the Southern exculpatory myths that it was simply wartime shortages (for which the North was to blame) that caused 13,000 Union prisoners to die there and that deaths among the prison guards "were as high as among the prisoners." These contentions are constantly invoked by Confederate partisans to this day, as is the claim that the North was to blame as well for halting prisoner exchanges.

In fact, death rates among the prisoners at Andersonville were 5 to 6 times greater than among guards, and the reason prisoner exchanges were halted was simple and unequivocal: the South declared its intention to execute white officers of black Union troops (for "inciting servile insurrection") and to return captured black soldiers to slavery. In 1863 and 1864 the Union offered to resume exchanges provided  all Union soldiers were treated the same; as historian James McPherson recounts in his excellent book on Lincoln as commander-in-chief, Tried By War, the Confederate exchange commissioner replied that the South "would die in the last ditch" before "giving up the right to send slaves back as property recaptured." Robert E. Lee similarly rebuffed a later offer by Ulysses S. Grant saying, "negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange."

It's probably impossible to remove any Civil War monuments today, no matter how historically distorted they are. In some places the National Park Service has erected new markers next to the old which offer context and explanation. A great project for the sesquicentennial would be a systematic cataloging of the lies and distortions that remain literally etched in stone across the country.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Republican class notes

Recent activities of the Grand Old Party. Dan Maes, Republican candidate for governor of Colorado, warned that a bike-sharing program in Denver was part of a "very well-disguised" plan that "could threaten our personal freedoms" by placing American cities under United Nations control. Marg Baker, GOP candidate for the Florida House, proposed constructing camps to hold illegal immigrants, "because there are a lot of these people roaming among us." Housing in the camps would be "regular homes like a lot of poor people live in." Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle and a Republican candidate for the Arizona House, indignantly dismissed reports that he had written for an internet porn site. He then admitted he had written for an internet porn site, telling a local TV station, "this is four years ago . . . this is a smear on me." Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, revealed that God has called her to run against Harry Reid, that Democrats have violated the First Commandment by enacting health care and other acts of "idolatry," and that she opposes extending unemployment benefits because "we really have spoiled our citizenry . . . they don't want the jobs that are available." Rand Paul, Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Kentucky, denied that he had kidnapped a woman in a college fraternity stunt and tried to force her to smoke pot, but refused to address her accusation that he had blindfolded her and made her bow down in a creek while repeating, "I worship you, Aqua Buddha, I worship you."

PS: Last time we checked . . .

A short follow-up to my last post about Newt Gingrich's simulated outrage over the Democrats' "abusive power grab" and "subverting the will of the people" (i.e., passing legislation with majority votes in the House and Senate).

In Newt's call for outraged citizens to demand that their congressmen take the pledge not to hold a lame duck session (like the one Newt called to impeach Bill Clinton), Newt also declares:

We know the Left are capable of using cheap tricks. We saw it during the health care reform debate. We know they are willing to ignore the will of the people. They ignored the town hall meetings and the clear signal the voters of Massachusetts sent by electing Scott Brown and passed the health care bill anyway. 

Right: Why bother electing those other 99 senators and 435 congressmen, when we can just ascertain the "will of the people" through a single special election of a senator in Massachusetts? (Or better, by reading Newt Gingrich's assertions of what the people really want, regardless of who they voted for in the last election?)

Just for the record, the Democrats not only still have a majority last time I checked, but hold greater majorities in both the House and the Senate than the Republicans have held in either house since . . . 1928. Here's the makeup of the House and Senate since 1928, Dems in blue, GOPs in red:

Composition of U.S. House of Representatives by Party, 1928 to 2008

Composition of U.S. Senate by Political Party, 1928 to 2008

Friday, August 13, 2010

Lame ducks, lame history

For the first 150 years of the republic, each Congress normally held two regular annual sessions, both running from December to March. The second session always took place after the elections for the next Congress had taken place: the incoming Congress, in fact, did not take its seats until thirteen months after having been voted in by the people.

Now that was a lame duck session, and it was a regular feature of the American political landscape. Among actions taken by lame duck Congresses in the early republic were the 1801 expansion of the Federal judiciary (and the ensuing swift confirmation of sixteen judges appointed by outgoing lame duck president John Adams); the 1809 repeal of Thomas Jefferson's trade embargo law; and a series of measures adopted in 1813 escalating the war with Britain and adding tens of millions of dollars to the Federal budget—with no way to pay for them. This last occurred in spite of major gains posted by the anti-war Federalist party in the elections in the fall of 1812.

Since 1935, when the Constitution was amended to have the new Congress assemble just two months after election day, seventeen lame duck sessions have been held during the November-December period following the election. Some have been merely pro forma sessions, but substantive business has also been transacted, even in the face of a major political shift or even a reversal of political control in the upcoming Congress. Lame-duck actions included a new excess profits tax in 1950, the Senate censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, trade reform in 1974, budget bills in 1980, a Congressional pay raise and denial of funding for the controversial MX missile in 1982, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994, the sweeping intelligence overhaul in 2004—and most notoriously of all, the House vote to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. (You can read a full report on all of these in a Congressional Research Service study, available as a pdf here.)

Newt Gingrich, the twice-divorced/newly Catholic/perennially ethically challenged Republican presidential hopeful, has this past week been manufacturing vast quantities of simulated moral outrage over the prospect that the Democrats in Congress might hold a lame duck session this year. Right wing nut blogs are full of angry exhortations to their followers to send their congressman a  "pledge" (the favorite device of moral bullies everywhere) drafted by Gingrich in which they would penitently acknowledge that a lame duck session "smacks of the worst kind of political corruption . . . subverts the will of the American people and is an abusive power grab."

Many commentators have pointed out the remarkable chutzpah of Gingrich, who was the very man who reconvened the House in a lame duck session to vote on the Clinton impeachment—and then himself resigned as Speaker in the wake of his party's election setbacks just a month before. (Though there was also his growing ethical and corruption problems, which included setting up phony charities that spent their money on, among other things, having a former Gingrich staffer write his biography). Others have noted that there in fact is little chance the Democrats will even hold a lame duck session, and that if they do there's still the obstacle of needing 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything (by the way, how's that for "subverting the will of the people"? We don't seem to hear much from the right about this issue as we did when the shoe was on the other foot and it was the Democrats who were the minority in the Senate).

But what is really despicable about this latest Gingrich ploy actually cuts deeper, because it is part of a larger and concerted effort by the Republican Party to delegitimize political opposition altogether. The new profile of Gingrich just out in Esquire magazine quotes Gingrich as viewing this kind of no-holds-barred attack politics as just the nature of the game. But it's not. Winston Churchill, a political fighter with the best of them, always drew a furious line at anything that disrespected the rule of law and Parliamentary democracy. He fervently believed in the legitimacy and importance of the opposition party in a democracy. That of course is a true conservative position, one of respect for the continuity and augustness of institutions.

But Republicans long ago ceased being a conservative party in any rational sense of that word, and are quite happy to undermine respect for and trust in the institutions of democracy themselves if it offers a path to power. Not just the Tea Party fringe but the mainstream of the Republican Party has increasingly been employing revolutionary language that is far beyond the accepted bounds of political disagreement in a democratic polity. They don't just say that they oppose Democratic policies and offer an alternative the voters might choose; rather they declare that the Democrats are "railroading" and "cramming through" legislation (by that nefarious device known as voting); they are engaging in a "power grab" (by holding a session of Congress in accordance with utterly uncontroversial precedent); they are employing "unconstitutional" measures and bringing about "the end of freedom as we know it" (by using the same legislative procedure to pass the final health care bill that the Republicans used to enact a $1 trillion tax cut when they were in charge). The way the GOPs have been throwing around terms like "unconstitutional," "abuse of power," "Armageddon," "tyranny," "last stand for freedom" in the face of the routine, democratic exercise of power by the legitimately elected representatives of the people is not a coincidence. This is exactly the same calculated effort that has whipped up the paranoid belief (now subscribed to by almost half of the Republican rank and file) that Obama was foreign born and thus is not legitimately the President at all.

Gingrich is simply wrong in claiming that everyone does this. Democrats, who tend to believe in the importance of government, accept that election defeats are part of democracy. Republicans increasingly do not—and react to being outvoted by pulling the temple down upon us all.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Still bracing for the anti-incumbent tide

When I was a writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was always amused by the way the political reporters and columnists were forever declaring the existence of some political trend—very often it was a rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling—based on absolutely nothing whatsoever. Often the "trend" was nothing more than Republican agitprop wrapped in the language of all-wise, knowing punditry, and the political reporters were suckers for it, because they could stroke their beards (well, they didn't have beards, but you know what I mean), and adopting a smug, wise, knowing, slightly cynical air, they would declare at editorial meetings, "There's a rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling in the country."

Then when their predictions failed to pan out, they never once to my recollection ever admitted that they had been wrong, much less that they didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Instead the story now was that voters had "defied the rising tide of anti-incumbent feeling," or that in "a surprising reversal of the anti-incumbent feeling which had been sweeping the nation," or  . . .

We've been hearing all this year about—yes, the anti-incumbent tide. In fact, if you Google "anti-incumbent tide," you'll get 458,000 hits.

So far this year, a total of four incumbent House members have been defeated in primaries since March. Still, after yesterday's primaries in Colorado, Georgia, Connecticut, and Minnesota—where every single incumbent seeking reelection won—the New York Times predictably ran a story whose lead declared, "Senator Michael Bennet’s win in the Colorado primary gives Democrats hope of stemming an anti-incumbent tide in November."

Here's a chart I generated using data from Larry Sabato and others graphically documenting the unstoppable tidal wave of anti-incumbent sentiment this year:

Incumbents defeated in primaries

Set the Wayback Machine to 1840

In Henry James's The Bostonians, the young, ambitious, and reactionary Mississippi lawyer who is the antagonist of the novel submits some of his essays on race relations and similar topics to several weekly and monthly journals. The editor of one returns them with a note stating: "Doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them."

I suppose the present-day Republican Party's predilection for enthusiastically reinventing ideas that died a century or two ago from sheer intellectual bankruptcy—or the sheer moral repugnance they finally aroused—should not be too much of a surprise. Along with Confederate nostalgia, literacy tests for voting, opposition to public education, belief in "creationism," support for a return to laissez-faire financial regulation, and abolition of Social Security, we have recently been treated to proposals from the thinkers of the Republican Party to repeal the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship for all persons born in the United States (but also to extend the 14th Amendment's protections to "the unborn"—that's presumably the native-born unborn, not the illegal-immigrant unborn).

Most of these fresh ideas, including that bit about the unborn, are incorporated in the recently adopted platform of the Republican Party of Iowa (Plank No. 2: "America is good.")

Still, some ideas are so utterly inane, so thoroughly discredited, so manifestly ridiculous, that it is almost impossible to believe that grownups can still believe them. Such is the case with the increasingly popular call on the right for the abolition of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard. The Iowa GOP duly included this in their platform; ex-DJ/ex-drug addict/current Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck, when he is not reading from his diary or producing crocodile tears, is warning of the impending collapse of the non-gold-standard dollar—and then shilling for a scam that offers to take those (presumably worthless?) paper dollars in exchange for gold coins sold for as much as 200% over their actual value (the company is now under investigation for fraud); and libertarian GOP congressman Ron Paul wants not only a return to a gold standard but a drastic contraction of the money supply through an end to fractional reserve banking—meaning that banks would have to maintain reserves equal on average to the full amount that they have out on loan at any given time.

The crippling depression of the 1890s taught every sentient economist that when the money supply fails to keep pace with growth of the economy, the result is deflation (fewer dollars are chasing more goods, so the value of the dollar rises), which sets off a paralyzing cycle: wages fall, borrowing becomes prohibitive, purchases are put off on the expectation of future price drops, and the economy goes into a tailspin. The Federal Reserve was created as a direct consequence of that lesson. What would have happened had we remained on the gold standard? Here's a graph I made of the world's cumulative supply of gold, versus the size of the U.S. economy (as measured by real GDP), each plotted with an index of 1929=100:

So—we can adopt the brilliant strategy of allowing the growth of our money supply to be determined by the amount of a metal dug up out of the ground each year in China, Russia, Uzbekistan, South Africa, Ghana, Indonesia, and other wonderful places; or we can use the tools proven by every central bank over the last century of adjusting interest rates and other interventions so that the money supply keeps pace with the economy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Notorious socialist president Dwight D. Eisenhower

In the summer of 1813, the United States was mired in a valiant but seemingly endless and hopeless war on land and sea with Great Britain, the mightiest naval power on earth. On top of a $56 million debt that still remained unpaid from the Revolution, the government was facing an annual budget shortfall of $17 million as it struggled to meet the surging costs of the army and navy. Loans were offered and found no takers. The nation was literally on the brink of default and bankruptcy.

For the twelve previous years, the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had pledged its unwavering fealty to the doctrine of no new taxes—or rather, no taxes at all. Total internal revenues collected by the United States in 1813 amounted to less than five thousand dollars—for the whole country. Madison and his cabinet were painfully aware that taxes were now unavoidable: the alternatives were unthinkable. Still, the reality of war and impending national ruin were one thing; political guts quite another. "Every one is for taxing ever body," dryly noted Jefferson's son-in-law John Eppes, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, "except himself and his Constituents." Congress met for months through a sweltering summer session in Washington, unable to bite the bullet.

Yes, some things never change.

Actually, one important thing has. The populist appeal of Jefferson's and Madison's party was aimed unwaveringly at the "middling" classes, the artisans and small farmers who quite reasonably felt that whatever taxation there was ought to  fall upon the wealthy merchant classes and consumers of luxury goods (in the form of import duties), and not (in the form of poll taxes and whiskey taxes) on the cash-strapped toilers and workers who, with the sweat of their brows, were building a nation.

The astonishing feat of political prestidigitation pulled off by the Republican Party over the last two decades has been to hijack the rhetoric and trappings of populist revolt and Jeffersonian republicanism (small "r") in the service of  . . . cutting taxes on the extremely rich. As recent polls of Tea Party activists have shown, behind all the faux populism and Patrick Henryesque rhetoric about liberty and Jeffersonian denunciations of the dangers of tyrannical government is the same old old rich guys who for decades have spearheaded the conservative crusade of the Republican Party to shift the tax burden to the less privileged.

The thing they will never admit is that the wealthiest have already enjoyed immense tax cuts, steadily, for the last fifty years. If you want to win a bet in a bar, ask someone to guess what the top income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans was during the Eisenhower administration. (It's 35% now.) The answer is 91%. Here's an interesting chart showing the top marginal tax rate over the last century, which I generated using data provided by the Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center:

Recently, the official Republican script has called for all GOP members of Congress to robotically repeat the mantra "job-killing tax increases" whenever alluding to the impending expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Those cuts cost all of us well over $1 trillion in the last decade by anyone's reckoning;  sent Federal revenues into a tailspin; and disproportionately benefited the wealthiest of Americans ($100 billion a year goes to the top 2 percent). It doesn't take a Nobel Prize in economics to grasp that an extra dollar in the hands of each of ten working families will create more economic demand—and  jobs—than ten dollars in the hands of one billionaire. That was certainly the experience of that socialist redistributionist Dwight D. Eisenhower, who along with Bill Clinton led us through the two greatest sustained periods of prosperity since World War II.

One of the most striking points made by Reagan's budget chief David Stockman, in his recent remarks denouncing the "unconscionable" hypocrisy of fellow Republicans in supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts, was that revenues as a percentage of GDP are now at their lowest levels since the 1940s. Here's a graph that I generated using the official historical budget figures for the United States:

What I think is most interesting about this graph is how it shows quite vividly that receipts fell dramatically to a modern low with the Bush tax cuts in 2001 to 2003, while outlays—even with all of the recent emergency stimulus spending to counteract the recession—are scarcely higher than their historical highs during the 1950s and 1980s. And outlays are of course still vastly lower than the huge highs reached during World War II—which I don't recall causing us economic ruin either.


Endnote: David Stockman's remarks are well worth reading in full, both his New York Times Op-Ed and his interview over the weekend on NPR, in which he stated:

I find it unconscionable that the Republican leadership, faced with a 1.5 trillion deficit, could possibly believe that good public policy is to maintain tax cuts for the top 2 percent of the population who, after all, have benefited enormously from this phony boom we've had over the last 10 years as a result of the casino on Wall Street.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dressing up in a tricorn hat doesn't make you a historian

There’s much that is despicable (ugly anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric), scary (overt calls to violence), and fatuous (exhibitionists in tricorn hats talking in fake English accents) in the Tea Party movement. But for sheer irritation value, it’s their cartoonish version of American history, the founding fathers, and the Constitution that the tea partiers keep trying to foist on the rest of us that takes the prize.

Mercifully there’s comic relief even here, provided most recently by an amusing account of tea partiers being shown up for the fools they are by the costumed reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg. I’ve never been a big fan of “living history,” but clearly even actors putting on a show for the tourists are infinitely better informed about history than the Tea Party crowd, who have lately been descending on Colonial Williamsburg for the chance to rub elbows with their Revolutionary heroes.

Typical exchange between Tea Party tourist and “George Washington”:
Tourist: What should we do about Americans who remain loyal to the tyrannical British king?

George Washington (shocked): I hope that we’re all loyal, sir.
One of the greatest distortions of history perpetrated by the tea partyites is their attempt to enlist the authority of the founding fathers to back up their tendentious reading of the Constitution with respect to “states’ rights.” (A small aside: you have to be surpassingly ignorant of the last 150 years of American history not to realize that “states’ rights” has meant one thing and one thing only: the attempt by the South to justify slavery, secession, and then a century of disfranchisement of African Americans. But we’ll let that one go for now.) Typical is the assertion made by Virginia Tea Party activist Rick Buchanan: “the founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.”
My friend and colleague David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former op-ed page editor of Newsday, once told me that his publisher at Newsday used to say, “Writing letters to the editor is the first sign of insanity.” But nonetheless I responded to Buchanan’s statement with a letter to the Washington Post pointing out that the actual history is precisely the opposite: it was fear of the state governments which was overwhelmingly the driving force that led the founders to call for a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Most of the crafters and proponents of the Constitution fully expected to see the Federal government transcend, and in time supplant, the state governments in most basic functions of government. The Constitution gave the federal government direct taxation power (“to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States”) and sharply circumscribed the power of the states, forbidding them to enact laws impairing contracts, to issue currency, and to levy duties, among many other restrictions. It also created a Federal judiciary—something completely new, and which the framers of the Constitution fully expected would (as historian Gordon Wood notes in his superb new book Empire of Liberty) “break down state loyalties and nationalize the society” by ensuring that Federal authority, even over common crimes, would “penetrate the membrane of state sovereignty and operate directly on individuals.” (How the Federal courts in the end abandoned the administration of the common law is a long and interesting story, which I’ll plan to return to at a later date.)

Even a republican stalwart like James Madison had been horrified by the “excesses of democracy” (yes, that was the phrase commonly used) of the state legislatures, in which partisan and local special interests were rampant, factional fighting rife, and all the worst sorts of political backscratching  and pork-barrel corruption on display. Madison saw a much-empowered Federal government as absolutely vital to check the “local prejudices” and “schemes of injustice” so manifest in local politics. He even proposed a Federal veto over all state legislation, and when the Constitutional Convention failed to adopt that idea he was sure the new Constitution was doomed to failure.

And when the convention adopted the big-state/small-state compromise of giving the states equal representation in the Senate, Madison was so horrified by the power that that would give to the state legislatures (which under the original Constitution chose each state’s two U.S. senators), he swiftly moved to strip away many of the powers that he had all along conceived of being exercised by the Senate, including appointing Federal officials and conducting foreign affairs, and give them to the president instead. (The 17th Amendment—adopted in 1913 in reaction to the massive corruption in state legislatures’ selection of U.S. senators—instituted popular election of senators. The Tea Party in one of its absolute nuttiest ideas wants to repeal that and return to the good old anti-democratic method of having senators chosen by the state legislatures.)

What’s fascinating about all this is that the tea partyniks are not just a little bit wrong: they have managed to get their history almost exactly backwards.