West Virginia Republicans are trying to nullify Obamacare. No, really: A proposed state law declares the Affordable Care Act “invalid” and imposes criminal penalties on government officials for carrying it out. As pointless political stunts go, this one is especially cruel and poorly timed. Just this week, Gallup found that from 2013 to 2014, the state’s uninsured rate fell nearly seven percentage points, from almost 18 percent of West Virginians to just under 11 percent. And, as Democracy editor (and Mountain State native) Michael Tomasky notes, this is West Virginia—the state born of opposition to the Confederacy. The mind reels.
Reading about this latest round of anti-Obamacare grandstanding, I thought of an NPR report from Tuesday morning wondering if, six years on, the Tea Party has run its course. Without making a strong prediction, the piece’s gist seems to be: “maybe.” But that conclusion is reached only through a basic misunderstanding of what the Tea Party was and is. The report credulously accepts the movement’s self-presentation as a revival of small-government populism (“There was disillusionment with Wall Street, the big political parties, big deficits and big government in general”). Running with this inaccurate narrative, it goes on to note that populist fervor has to wane eventually: “its moment might have passed.”
This way of thinking is too short-term, and West Virginia’s experiment with nullification is a good illustration of why. The Tea Party, or some version of it, will surface again—because the Tea Party is simply the latest iteration of a long reactionary tradition in American politics that always takes sectionalist (or, if you like, anti-national) form. In U.S. history, reactionary politics and sectionalism go hand-in-hand: In the nineteenth century, as John Judis has noted, sectionalist thinking was marshalled to defend slavery; in the twentieth, it was set against the New Deal and civil rights. Only what Judis calls the “spirit of national unification” that prevailed after World War II enabled a rough consensus around “a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security.” That spirit has died; so has the politics that accompanied it. Sean Wilentz has made similar points in these pages: Rejecting the idea that the Tea Party is a populist movement akin to the Jacksonian Democrats, Wilentz noted that Jackson’s party was “a polyglot, majority national party and not an ideological or sectional faction,” that Jackson himself “was the nation’s foremost opponent of anti-federal localism until the arrival of Abraham Lincoln,” and that the Tea Party is motivated not by populism, but rather by “a persistent nullifying ideology, initiated long ago to protect Southern agrarian slave interests and white supremacy,” and “merged with the reactionary big business Republicanism that has spent the last 80 years trying to overthrow the ‘socialist’ reforms of first the New Deal and then the Great Society.”
This history matters because it puts the lie to the idea that Tea Party mobilization is in any way populist. Quite the contrary: America’s sectionalist reactionaries always mobilize against federal action when some meaningful democratic expansion is imminent. And in American history, such expansions almost always come about in this way: whether it was the federal government going to war against secession and slavery; or the federal government taming corporate power and the class divisions of the industrialist era through the Progressive Movement and the New Deal; or the federal government attacking racial apartheid through federal civil rights law. Each of these actions served to unite the whole United States under a more uniform system of laws and democratic practices, ending sectionalist exceptions to democratic norms. With each step, new groups were incorporated into the national life of American democracy. Obamacare, to say nothing of the election of Barack Obama himself, achieves this very same thing. Lack of access to health care and the financial shackles of health-care expenses profoundly limit the ability of Americans to live the lives they choose. They entrench inequalities by keeping the poor and working classes sicker than the rest of us, more financially precarious than the rest of us, more trapped in their jobs than the rest of us.
It is no accident that Obamacare is a national action, designed ultimately to enhance the democratic solidarity of the American people—bringing the country closer to realizing equal standing, in the intertwined realms of political and economic life, for all its citizens. And it is no accident that such an effort has inspired a backlash brimming with the rhetoric of nullification and secession. We’ve seen this play before. The Tea Party revolters, like their predecessors, are a lot of things—but populists they aren’t.