Sedition in the Name of Patriotism

On many occasions during the last few years, as I heard talk of secession and nullification, and of defiance of the courts, and of duly enacted statutes representing slavery and tyranny, and of Higher Laws and a Right to Revolution, and most recently, of allegiance to a foreign government–all more or less countenanced by one of our two major political parties–I’ve thought of a historical parallel, as described in one of my favorite books, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England.

The period in question was just prior to World War I when a Liberal majority government committed by mandate and party alliance to Home Rule for Ireland was obstructed by a Tory minority in alliance with Ulster Unionists which explicitly and implicitly threatened civil war. Here’s how Dangerfield describes a crucial lurch into sedition, when Tory leader Bonar Law traveled to Belfast to pledge allegiance to Ulster and its political leader, Sir Edward Carson, at a huge rally:

At this historical gathering the sedition being preached by Mr. Bonar Law, who led off with a scholarly appeal to Ulster’s worst fighting instincts, was nearly surpassed by Mr. Walter Long. “If they put Lord Londonderry and Sir Edward Carson in the dock,” roared Mr. Long, “they will have to find one large enough for the whole Unionist Party.” Whereat Mr. Bonar Law and Sir Edward Carson turned toward each other, clasped hands, and maintained this affecting attitude long enough for the whole assembly to realize that they were doing their level best to look like generals on the eve of battle. And then, while everyone stood with bared heads, Sir Edward released Mr. Law, and strode to the front of the speakers’ stand. “Raise you hands,” he shouted. “Repeat after me–never under any circumstances will we submit to Home Rule.” In the centre of the show grounds there was a signalling tower, with a flagstaff ninety feet tall, and while the audience, and the Marquess of Londonderry, and the Protestant Primate, and the Presbyterian Moderator, with obedient thunder intoned those words after Sir Edward, a Union Jack was broken from the flagstaff. It measured forty-eight feet by twenty-five. It was the largest ever woven. Patriotism could do no more.

Sedition in the name of patriotism should sound familiar today. Just over a century ago in England, the seditionists–aptly described by Dangerfield as cynical opportunists in league with sectarian fanatics–won. The country recovered, but was never quite the same. Are we headed in that same direction?

You have to wonder, as does Paul Waldman today at the Plum Line:

The American political system runs according to a whole series of norms, many of which we don’t notice until they’re violated. For instance, the Speaker of the House can invite a foreign leader to address Congress for the sole purpose of criticizing the administration, and he can even do it without letting the White House know in advance. There’s no law against it. But doing so violates a norm not only of simple respect and courtesy, but one that says that the exercise of foreign policy belongs to the administration. Congress can advise, criticize, and legislate to shape it, but if they simply take it upon themselves to make their own foreign policy, they’ve gone too far.

But as has happened so many times before, Republicans seem to have concluded that there is one set of rules and norms that apply in ordinary times, and an entirely different set that applies when Barack Obama is the president. You no longer need to show the president even a modicum of respect. You can tell states to ignore the law. You can sabotage delicate negotiations with a hostile foreign power by communicating directly with that power.

I wonder what they’d say if you asked them whether it would be acceptable for Democrats to treat the next Republican president that way. My guess is that the question wouldn’t even make sense to them. After all, that person would be a Republican. So how could anyone even think of such a thing?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.