constitution

In recent weeks, I have been as troubled by the conservative revival around nullification as I have disturbed by the progressive bloggers who have dismissed the modern-day nullifiers as “nutty.”

Over at the HUFFINGTON POST, Chris Weigant recently called nullification “nutty.” Jay Bookman blogged similarly over at the ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION, and the tone of a recent NEW YORKER post sounded as smug.

Nullification is no joke. Just in case you slept through high school American history, nullification holds that state legislators have the capacity to invalidate federal laws to which they are opposed. Nullification was a concept that has been around since the Revolutionary era. But the nullification debate came to a head during the Jackson administration-era debate over tariffs. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician and pro-slavery advocate, argued most passionately in favor of nullification. The concept resurfaced on the eve of the Civil War, and became the foundation for the philosophy of states' rights.

Maybe it’s the historian in me, but we shouldn’t dismiss the legislators in South Carolina, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Georgia who recently introduced nullification resolutions. In some cases, these bills have passed in at least one chamber by considerable margins.

President Obama taught constitutional law. He reveres President Lincoln. "Team of Rivals" ranks among his favorite books. So it is no surprise that Obama’s opponents, struggling to counter his intellect, charisma and high poll numbers invoke the concept of nullification.

But we shouldn't quickly or derisively dismiss what's been happening lately. History suggests that when Americans debate nullification, the most elemental issues of political philosophy and human freedom are at stake. We can’t afford to label modern nullifiers as “nuts.” Remember: The last time Americans had a debate over nullification and the extent of federal power, America went to war with itself and the future of millions of African Americans hung in the balance. At the conclusion of the Civil War, states' rights became the siren call of segregation.

My advice to the rest of us: Don’t play. Study up. Get informed. Big questions are on the table and we need to be ready. Am I wrong?

—JENNIFER BASZILE