Editorial | Nullify the Nullification Talk

January 26, 2013 

South Carolina has a proud tradition of obstinacy. In the federal family, we’re the child who automatically responds to every suggestion with an emphatic “nuh-uh” or “make me.” Ingrained over centuries, stubborn refusal has become our gut feeling, our knee-jerk reaction. The federal government says po-tay-to and we say po-tah-to. Of course, if the feds at any point changed course and started saying po-tah-to, we’d immediately insist that real Americans say po-tay-to.

This disdain for and distrust of authority has led us into confrontations of all sizes, from bloody wars to congressmen who publicly call the president a liar during a State of the Union address. The recent calls by state legislators for reviving nullification only adds to this long tradition of digging in our heels.

How far back does this intransigence go? Consider the case of the very first national Thanksgiving, in 1789. The holiday was proposed in Congress as a fine way of celebrating the just-ratified Constitution. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, it was the folks from South Carolina who spoke out against this idea.

Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina, as Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote, objected on the grounds that a Thanksgiving was too European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.”

Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina also complained and in doing so began the refrain that South Carolinians have been singing ever since: “Why should the president direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” he asked.

The clash, which obviously the S.C. politicians lost, was near the beginning of what were to be plenty more fights with federal authority, from the extreme of secession up to present day battles over expanding federal health care programs. On Wednesday, dozens of students and residents met at Coastal Carolina University to discuss the Confederate battle flag’s place in the state, 150 years after the war. If we still can’t decide how we feel about that flag, a century and a half after it first flew, who should be surprised that John C. Calhoun’s 1830s nullification idea has come back up?

State politicians, notably Sens. Tom Davis, Lee Bright and Larry Grooms, have proposed a number of bills that would criminalize or seek to work around federal mandates, from the Affordable Care Act to gun control to light bulb regulations.

We can appreciate their fervor, but such actions are in the end simply a waste of time. The only real outcome of such talk – and perhaps it’s the only one such politicians truly care about – is to raise the profile of those promoting it. We don’t get to pick and choose the federal laws we want to follow, particularly when our state receives an outsize amount of its revenue from that same federal government. For every tax dollar paid to the federal government from 2007 to 2009, for instance, South Carolina received back $2.13, according to CCU political science professor Holley Tankersley.

The system works as it should. We elected our representatives to Washington, and they had their say just like the representatives from every other state. If we don’t agree with the decision those United States arrived at, tough luck. There will undoubtedly be times when the good people of other states don’t agree with a federal policy our state supports. Many in border states may not agree with current immigration law, for example. Does that mean we should just stand by and let the Southwest ignore it? Of course not. We effect change through the system in place. It’s imperfect, to be sure, but simply disregarding it when we want to it is not an option. That way lies anarchy.

South Carolina continues a proud tradition of stubbornness, and a necessary one. Somebody needs to be willing to stand up at times and say enough is enough, we’ve gone too far, don’t tread on me. The stability of our nation depends on these checks and balances. But there’s a limit.

Dig in our heels too much and we’re not checking the excesses of our government. We’re merely holding back progress as a matter of habit.

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