Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institute pushes back against Sam Tanenhaus’s recent New Republic essay on the roots of modern conservatism. I’d add only that in almost 40 years of talking about politics and political philosophy with conservative journalists, writers, intellectuals, political practitioners, gadflies and activists, I have never heard anyone say “As Calhoun said . . .,” “As Calhoun demonstrated . . .,” or even “Calhoun.” The 19th-century South Carolina senator just doesn’t exist as an important figure on the conservative mental landscape. He’s referred to now and then in what can be called the conservative canon, but not nearly as prominently as others. So it’s odd to see a respected writer argue that modern conservatism is traceable to him.
I first knew of John C. Calhoun when I read, in 1973 or ’74, a biography of him by Margaret Coit. She was coming to my college, Fairleigh Dickinson, to give a lecture on 19th-century American political figures. It was exciting. We didn’t get Pulitzer Prize-winning historians every day. Anyway, I read Coit’s book before she came. It was scholarly and humane. What I remember: the gravity with which the men of Congress then spoke of great issues—by the 1970s that seriousness of thought was a lost world. I also remember Calhoun’s fearsome visage. Photographs were something new in his day, the first half of the 19th century, and people who sat for them did not then know how to arrange their faces, or even that they should comb their hair and straighten their tie. Calhoun in photographs looks furious and half mad. Many of the statesmen of the era leading up to the Civil War look that way, which had left me wondering, as a teenager, if the Civil War wasn’t a kind of national nervous breakdown.
Calhoun of course was one of the Great Triumvirate of the U.S. Senate, the others being Kentucky’s Henry Clay, the object of unknown admiration from a young wilderness lawyer named Abe Lincoln, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Calhoun and Webster each managed to sum up, in a single sentence, the stands of their part of the nation in the years in which the war approached. Calhoun for the South: “To the Union—next to our liberties most dear.” Webster for the North: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseperable.”
The Tanenhaus and Berkowitz essays reminded me of two recent conversations.
The first was with Vernon Jordan, the veteran civil rights activist and Democrat. We met up on the train to Washington in January and he asked me why people weren’t making more of the appointment a few weeks before of Tim Scott to South Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat. I said it was true that not enough had been made of it, the first black man to serve in the Senate in that state’s history, the first from the South since 1881. I asked Vernon why he was moved at the rise of a conservative Republican. He said, “I didn’t expect when we were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge that we’d all agree on everything when we got to the other side.”
That’s beautifully put, and a truly liberal thought.
The other recent conversation with was a small group of moderate Democrats and progressives. Tanenhaus had suggested in his piece that conservative support of stricter voter ID laws is rooted in racism. The moderate Democrats and progressives saw voter ID as a Republican attempt to suppress minority voters. I shook my head no and told them how I saw it.
First, voting is a unique privilege granted by democracy. As such it is not wrong to ask that voters have identification that shows they are who they are, live where they live, and are eligible to vote. I always bring ID when I vote in New York City, and it always seems friendly and yet makes me uneasy that no one ever asks for it. I just claim to be me, the poll worker looks at the rolls, and I sign below where I signed last time. I could claim to be anyone who’s registered; I could imitate the signature.
Second, it’s true that some people, especially those under economic or other stresses, don’t have a driver’s license or passport. And they should be helped to get that ID from the state and for free, no fee . Everyone’s got something—a birth certificate, a government services ID, an electric bill that can prove residence.
Third, there’s no reason an enhanced voter ID system should result in long lines on Election Day. Waiting hours to vote is a scandal, and particularly abusive to the old and unwell. States and localities should be competent enough to anticipate any problems and add more poll workers, more polling stations, more precincts. This is their job. And it is worth the cost.
Because of point four, the most important. America is in the middle of a revolution in how it votes, from computerized voting to early voting and absentee ballots. It is when you’re changing everything that messes, mischief and mistakes are most likely to occur. We don’t want scandals that shake confidence in the voting system—that, in this time of no trust for institutions, would be deadly. This is the time to do everything possible to ensure the integrity of those parts of the system we can control, voter ID being first and foremost.
We are told computerized voting is more reliable than the old voting machines and old ballot systems. I hope so, but we’re learning that pretty much anything can be hacked, and we have to assume that if it can be it will be. Which makes it all the more important that to the extent we can ensure the overall integrity of the system, we do.
It is crucial that people feel they can believe in and trust official election outcomes. If we lose that we lose everything.
One of my friends protested that there have been no recent big cases of vote fraud. Conservatives, she said, are using scare tactics to whip up anxiety about a problem that doesn’t exist. But then we all started talking about the past—about the first Mayor Daley’s Chicago, and “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson, and the old wards of Boston and Brooklyn. Vote rigging is part of our history. Vote fraud happens. Have we gotten more moral that we were in the 19th and 20th centuries? I haven’t noticed we have. Why not at least be more careful?