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The Confederacy Still Lingers Within The Progressivism That Birthed It


What if the South had won the Civil War? That’s the premise of a new HBO series from “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, called “Confederate.” The series will be set in a present-day America in which slavery is legal, the secession of 1861 was successful, and another civil war is brewing.

Although still in its infancy, the project has already drawn backlash from progressives who are offended at the idea of two white men producing a show about modern-day slavery. A grassroots effort to quash the series spring up on Twitter under the hashtag #NoConfederate, and some have called it “slavery fanfic” despite assurances to the contrary from Benioff and Weiss that the show won’t be some kind of weird alt-right fantasy.

But progressives shouldn’t be so quick to denounce dramatic depictions of a sci-fi Confederacy. After all, modern-day progressivism is one of the Confederacy’s most enduring legacies in America today. Whether they realize it or not, progressives themselves are among the inheritors of the political ideology that led to the Civil War.

Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote this week that the real-life Confederacy wasn’t the caricature of a rural backwater so often in popular depictions of the Civil War but an economically vibrant, industrializing region that had more in common with the modern-day administrative state than most Americans realize. But Guelzo only hints at the deeper links between Confederate governance and present-day progressivism:

The Confederate government centralized political authority in ways that made a hash of states’ rights, nationalized industries in ways historians have compared to ‘state socialism,’ and imposed the first compulsory national draft in American history. If Benioff and Weiss are successful in creating an alternative world in Confederate, it will shock us fully as much as Game of Thrones has — not for how much of the Confederate future we avoided, but how little.

If that sounds crazy to you, it’s because the dominant narratives about the Civil War and the South are by now so familiar, even if they’re largely wrong. Adding to the confusion is the mainstream media’s penchant for portraying Republican voters in the South as a bunch of Confederate flag-waving racists, while casting progressive Democrats as defenders of equality and sincere advocates for social justice.

John C. Calhoun Sowed Modern Progressivism

The truth is more complicated — and more uncomfortable for progressives, should they choose to face it. And no, I’m not talking about the facile argument that the Civil War was “really about states’ rights.” The war was most certainly about slavery. So much so, in fact, that decades before the war came, southern leaders were thinking about how best to preserve it in a country that was expanding westward.

Chief among them was John C. Calhoun, who could see as early as 1846 that unless more slave states were added to the nation, a growing number of new free states would eventually make it impossible for southern states to veto antislavery legislation in the Senate, as they repeatedly had done to the Wilmot Proviso in the late 1840s. Eventually, free states would have a three-fourths majority to abolish slavery by amending the Constitution without the consent of any southern states.

Calhoun considered this a “tyranny of the majority,” and developed a novel political theory that would preserve the “minority” rights of the slave states: the doctrine of the concurrent majority. Stated simply, the doctrine maintained that within the framework of American constitutionalism, certain minority groups (like slave states) had the right to veto decisions of the majority, which could only act with the acquiescence of the minority. Hence, these minorities also had the right to secede from the union — secession was merely a form of veto.

The late political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa wrote that Calhoun’s theory was the antithesis of the Founders’ and Abraham Lincoln’s understanding of the Constitution, which held that states could only secede for just causes — they could “alter or abolish” a tyrannical government, essentially by making the same case the Declaration of Independence made. Secession on any other basis could only lead to anarchy.

The entire purpose of Calhoun’s doctrine was to undermine the philosophical foundations of the Constitution and replace them with a theory supposedly derived from science, albeit the junk pseudoscience of racial inequality and Darwinism. Calhoun believed he was correcting a fundamental error of the Founding Fathers. He rejected not just the principle that “all men are created equal,” but also the idea that political communities are rational and voluntary. Calhoun had a Darwinian view of human nature and society; he believed, in Jaffa’s words, that “Constitutions are the result of mindless struggles in which chance adaptation to the constitutional forms results in the benefits which causes the form to be perpetuated.”

Rather than base government on the tenets of natural law — liberty, equality, consent of the governed—as the Founders did, Calhoun thought government should be based on scientific principles. His aim was nothing less than to redefine the basis of the American constitutional order. Unlike Lincoln and the Founders, he didn’t think it was possible for a majority to respect and preserve the rights of a minority because he rejected the idea that political justice arises from human reason informing human will. He believed politics was sheer will.

“Calhoun’s political theory anticipates in nearly every important respect the science of twentieth century behavioralism,” writes Jaffa, who notes that in many ways, Calhoun’s “scientific” political thought was a precursor to Marxism, which also rejects the philosophical foundations of American constitutionalism.

Progressives Have Updated Calhoun’s Political Doctrine

Calhoun’s political philosophy and his doctrine of the concurrent majority didn’t die with the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865. It lives on — not among southern racists but among progressive academics like Lani Guinier, a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. Guinier is a proponent of racially proportional representation, and has argued that no legislation should pass without a majority of minority representatives—essentially an updated version of Calhoun’s “minority veto.” More recently, legal scholars like Eric Posner and Nicholas Stephanopoulos have advanced “modified quadratic voting” theories that would replace our democratic system of one man, one vote with a scheme designed to concentrate voters interested in certain issues.

More broadly, Calhoun’s general philosophy of government has been adopted nearly wholesale by today’s progressives. Instead of a limited government that protects our natural rights, progressives want an active, pervasive government that doles out benefits, imposes vast regulations, and dictates our affairs based on “scientific” principles. What’s more, progressives today reject outright the idea that the laws of nature and of nature’s God shaped our Constitution, which is why they seem to have such little regard for free speech and the free exercise of religion, especially when these rights are seen to impinge upon the interests of a favored minority group, whether Muslims or gay couples or transgender people.

And no wonder. The purpose of a progressive scheme of governance is to circumvent the forms and restrictions of the Constitution so the government can do things they think need to be done. Such a framework does not recognize any natural limits on the government’s authority because it denies that its authority arises from the consent of equal human beings. Its authority arises from the will to power. Calhoun’s ideas have such currency today, writes Jaffa, because “they fit within the framework of the historicism and positivism that have dominated the intellectual world of the West in the intervening years.”

Not that the creators of “Confederate” are likely to acknowledge or represent any of this in their show. But an honest depiction of a modern-day Confederacy would hit close to home — not because slavery is rampant today, but because Calhoun’s progressive vision of government has endured.