Tag Archives: Missouri Compromise

Why Third Parties Just Don’t Work in America

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of "People's Party," also know as the "Populists." They didn't last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of the “People’s Party,” also know as the “Populists.” They didn’t last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

Why can’t the United States muster the will to create a viable third-party to challenge the calcified, shame-immune, institutional bureaucrat incubation pits known respectively as the Democrats and the Republicans? Throughout American history many idealistic souls have longed for a third-party alternative to the ensconced two-party system, and, despite a few fleeting exceptions, they have been sorely disappointed. The American tradition of mass democratic politics has historically combined with structural limitations within the country’s governing institutions to make third-party movements akin to knocking on Mordor’s gates and hoping to be let in with a wink and a smile. Yes, one does not simply start a third-party in America.

These facts, however, have never stopped Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions from advocating for a third-party. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein is merely the most recent Prospero calling into the political tempest for a third-party to wreck onto American shores and shake up the system for the better, and he seems to think such a party is possible in 2014. Citing the candidacy of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who is running to unseat California’s long time incumbant Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, Klein sees a third-party image on the horizon that may prove to be more than a mirage:

Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? “We’re seeing this all over our polling,” says Peter Hart, who does surveys for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “People are sick of the status quo: 60% believe that the entire Congress should be replaced. They’re looking for alternatives.”

Klein is right to point out that Americans really seem to want a third-party. The Gallup poll he cites led the Washington Times to recently declare the rise of “third-party fever,” claiming that more than ever, Americans want more political options. I have no doubt that they do. Heck, I’m one of them who wants to move beyond the bifurcated nest of incumbant morlocks currently clogging up the political pipes. But ideals do not a reality make. Americans have always wanted more party representation, but, in general, they never get it. Klein himself recognizes this fact, admitting that “I’ve been skeptical about 3rd parties in the past. The best of them–the Populists, Ross Perot (at least when it came to budgetary matters)–tend to have their hot ideas co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans.” As he notes, the idea of “co-option” explains America’s historical dearth of third parties, and why that dearth will likely continue.

America’s small “r” republican tradition of mass politics — especially since the early nineteenth century — created an environment through which various political platforms, ideas, and concepts could be introduced freely into public discourse and, therefore, be easily co-opted and absorbed by different political players. When taken in tandem with the basic mechanics of how the American political system is structured, you get a recipe for two-party blandness. As Sociologist G. William Domhoff meticulously explains, America’s  political system is based on districts and pluralities, rather than on mere proportional representation. This limits the ability of multiple parties to compete for representation and discourages the type of party coalitions common in parliamentary democracies. The election of American presidents via a direct national vote, as opposed to the parliamentary system of a victorious party choosing its leader, further dilutes third-party options.

Americans wishing to change the system to reflect proportional representation, Domhoff writes, will run smack into Article V of the Constitution, which states emphatically that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Americans’ need to ensure that less populous states receive equal — often greater — representational clout means that a parliamentary system and, by extension, greater party variety, isn’t going to happen.

But, as I already noted, it isn’t just the American system’s design that has constantly thwarted third parties; it’s also its culture of mass democratic politics that has allowed third parties ideas to be absorbed, co-opted, and reclaimed in a system that already favors big-tent style political organizations, not fractured micro-movements. The fate of two famous American parties, the Whigs and the Populists, demonstrate why third-party movements just don’t gain much traction in a political culture as incestuous and consolidation-prone as that of the United States.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor whon the presidency.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor Whon the presidency.

The Whigs were not a proper third-party; in fact, they were, for a while, one of the two dominant American political parties, but their demise shows the power of American party consolidation. The Whigs’ political lineage dated back to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and reached its zenith under the stewardship of compromise-prone Kentucky politico Henry Clay. Under   Clay’s “American System,” the Whigs touted a nationalistic platform via federally subsidized infrastructure development, a national bank, and economic protectionism. For their troubles, they elected four presidents and popularized a political theory that remains a vital part of contemporary American discourse. But two primary developments: the debate over slavery and increased immigration, eventually killed off the Whigs by the mid-1850s and made way for the Republican Party’s rise to national prominence.

Originally a national party with strength in the North and the South, the Whigs began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the territories. Since the passing of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Whigs had gradually been splintering along pro and anti-slavery lines. This divide came to a head following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line and opened up the western territories for possible pro-slavery settlement under the banner of popular sovereignty. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed Kansas-Nebraska, while southern pro-slavery Whigs, incensed at their northern party brethren’s stance on slavery, migrated to the Democratic Party.

Immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics who, by the 1840s, were arriving in waves to the northeast’s major population centers, also contributed to the Whigs’ demise. Fears of a devious “Papist” invasion in the still largely Protestant U.S. gave rise to the Nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings threatened to attract disgruntled Whigs infected with the fever of nativism until another incipient party, the Republicans, used fears of the southern “Slave Power” to create a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, Nativists, and Democrats that finally locked the door on the Whig mausoleum. As historian William Gienapp writes in his classic book The Origins of the Republican Party, “like the Slave Power, the Catholic Church seemed a threat to liberty, and Republican rhetoric often linked the two by warning of the dangers they posed to cherished American ideals.”* Thus, the Republican Party was able to co-opt multiple, fractured political movements into an effective big-tent party that exists to this day.

In contrast to the Whigs, the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were a true third-party. The Populist movement grew out of late nineteenth century discontent among southern and western farmers who complained of the high cost of agricultural equipment, the practices of corrupt railroad companies that overcharged small farmers while coddling big businesses, and monetary policies that encouraged endless debt. In order to lobby the state to address their grievances, an alliance of farmers formed the Populist Party in 1892. Their “Omaha Plan” called for inflationary currency, government backed subtreasuries, a graduated income tax, and state ownership of the railroads.

The Populists filled a vacuum that challenged the entrenched power of the Republicans and Democrats, but eventually fell prey to co-option by those very same parties. The white supremacist Democratic Party played on southern white farmers’ fears of racial integration to discourage any Populist alliance between blacks and whites. This racial demagoguery drew many farmers out of the Populist fold and into the Democrats’ bigoted arms. One of the most famous Populists, for example, Georgia’s Tom Watson, advocated racial cooperation before succumbing to a delusional fit of bile-soaked race-baiting, leaving a legacy so rotten that a statue of him currently residing outside the Georgia state capital is now being removed.

In addition, the Populists were internally divided over whether or not they should fuse with the two powerful major parties, who held the political clout to pass laws. The issue of “fusionism” eventually killed the Populist Party. In 1896, Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of their platform before losing to Republican William McKinley. While the Populist movement was dead by the turn-of-the-century, their legacy survived in the form of the federal income tax, a national bank, federal regulation of railroads and farm credit, and the direct election of senators — all former Populist positions that the two major parties eventually co-opted and made law. The Populists, like other American third-party movements, couldn’t survive being absorbed by the major party sponges.

Ross Perot, independent candidate for president in 1992.

Ross Perot: The independent candidate for president in 1992 who just couldn’t finish.

The co-option legacy that killed the Whigs and the Populists has resurfaced whenever third parties threaten to challenge the two-party system in America. Diminutive Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 18.9 percent of the national popular vote in 1992 by offering up voters a country-fried mish-mash of liberal and conservative positions, eventually watched Democrats and Republicans co-opt his anti-debt, balanced budget platform. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned just enough votes away from human flag pole Al Gore to help put George W. Bush in the White House. This scared the hell out of Nader’s Liberal supporters, thereby pushing them back into the corporate Democratic Party fold.

U.S. history shows that while there’s always potential for third-party movements to gain varying levels of steam among an electorate fed up with only two political options, the mass marketplace of American political discourse has consistently drawn third-party ideas into the major parties’ gaping maws. As the Whigs, Populists, and Ross Perot discovered, when combined with a political system that is structurally hostile to multiple party growth, American mass democracy creates a perfect storm that assures the continued dominance of the very thing that most Americans say they just can’t stand. So dream all you want folks; in the end, if you’re a Tea Partyier, you’ll vote Republican, and if you’re a bleeding heart Hippie, you’ll vote Democratic. It’s the American way, unfortunately.

* William Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 372.


Ted Cruz, “Bourbon Dave,” and the Legacy of Border Ruffianism

Ted Cruz, the junior Reublican senator from Texas, likes to smite his political foes by angrily faux-filibustering. Because freedom.

Ted Cruz, the junior Republican senator from Texas, likes to smite his political foes by angrily faux-filibustering. Because freedom.

The two-week long, Tea Party Republican-engineered shutdown of the federal government is finally over. This week the Senate reached a deal that a politically battered House GOP reluctantly endorsed because it kicked the can of U.S. fiscal and political dysfunction down the road until December and February, when they can again wage scorched earth politics against all-things Obama.

Meanwhile, the horse-race junkie American political media has been focusing on the “winners” and “losers” of the shutdown. Most media outlets, save the hand-wringing experts at the Center for American Progress, have declared the Tea Party Republicans the tail between their knees losers: the victims of ideological rot and political miscalculation. Except for Ted Cruz. Indeed, the junior Republican senator from Texas — his term in the Senate barely a year old — was near universally dubbed a political winner even though his party was left with egg on their reactionary white faces.

Cruz was essentially the guy who engineered the shutdown, but he’s seen as a “winner” because he knows how to play politics: his antics of late have been 1 part ideology, 3 parts right-wing populist grifterism, and the political press has lapped it up like a wino at a brewery by declaring Cruz a 2016 presidential contender. Cruz has achieved a relatively short rise to prominence among conservative activists because he consistently tosses meaty political turkey legs to the slobbering ogres of the Tea Party base, who return the favor with generous campaign donations. In September, for example, Cruz’s near 12-hour filibuster-that-wasn’t really-a-filibuster against Obamacare tingled the Tea Party’s collective inner thighs, despite the fact that it was mere political grandstanding that couldn’t stop the implementation of the health care law.

But Cruz’s apparent disdain for the traditional machinations of party governance (how to get stuff done, in layman’s terms) has earned him the ire of senior party colleagues like Tennessee’s Bob Corker and senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by turning what should have been a tactical Republican fight against Obamacare into a purity test for right-wing ideology. By convincing the bloc of Tea Party Oompa Loompas within the GOP House caucus to reject a plan to keep funding the government — a plan initially backed by Speaker John Boehner and the Senate Republican leadership — Cruz stoked party infighting at a time when the GOP needed unity. While his “more conservative than thou art” shenanigans hasn’t played well with the party big wigs, it has nonetheless given the Texas senator plenty of press coverage, and even earned him the title of de-facto “leader of the Republican Party.”

Cruz’s constant pandering to the hard-line conservative Tea Party wing of the Republican base in the name of self-promotion and hard right ideology is hardly unprecedented in U.S. history. In the 1850s, another conservative southern senator, Democrat David “Bourbon Dave” Atchison of Missouri, embraced Cruz-style, play-to-the-base tactics in the name of keeping the Kansas-Nebraska territory open to slavery. Like Cruz, Atchison became the de-facto political leader and spokesman of a hard-right faction within his party: extreme pro-southern, pro-slavery settlers from Missouri known as “Border Ruffians.” Atchison, nick-named “Bourbon-Dave” due to his preference for booze that was as a strong as his temper, rallied his Border Ruffian followers via his shrewd maneuvering in the Senate and his use of swaggering, right-wing populist rhetoric that would make even Ted Cruz blush.

David "Bourbon Dave" Atchison, a staunch, pro-slavery, booze-whiskey-soaked Missouri senator who pioneered a Ted Cruz style, non-traditional, hard line right-wing approach to politics.

David “Bourbon Dave” Atchison, a staunch, pro-slavery, booze-soaked Missouri senator who pioneered a Ted Cruz style, non-traditional, hard-line right-wing approach to politics.

By the mid-1850s a storm was gathering on the western border of slaveholding Missouri that separated U.S. states from unorganized territory. By 1853, land-hungry settlers were pushing well beyond Missouri’s western border into this swath of land, spurring congress to organize it into the Nebraska territory. This raised the issue of whether that territory would be free soil or slave-holding.

“Bourbon Dave” Atchison represented the conservative, southern rights (read: pro-slavery) faction of the Democratic Party, a position that made him the enemy of his one-time fellow Missouri senator, and fellow Democrat, the anti-slavery Thomas Hart Benton. But Atchison, like Ted Cruz today, wasn’t afraid to alienate fellow party-members to serve conservative interests. The bawdy and profane “Bourbon Dave” vowed to see Nebraska “sink in Hell” before having it become free soil. Using his position as president pro tem of the Senate, Atchison demanded major political concessions in exchange for southern support of a free-soil Nebraska.

“Bourbon Dave” wrestled with fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas, the squat, hard-drinking, pugnacious Illinois senator. To please his caustic southern colleague, Douglas agreed to repeal the old Missouri Compromise of 1820, which barred slavery from the territory above the 36′ 30 line and split the territory into two sections, resulting in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Atchison was Hell-bent on making at least one of those territories into a new slave-state, so he supported Douglas’ concept of “Popular Sovereignty,” in which settlers of the territories would decide for themselves whether slavery would be permitted in their lands. “Bourbon Dave,” representing slave-holding Missouri, hoped that pro-slavery settlers would flood into Kansas, making it a new southern slave state.

He was severely disappointed in that regard: by mid-1854, rifle-armed Free-Soil advocates known as “Jayhawkers” began pouring into Kansas to claim it for freedom. An outraged Atchison responded by calling on all pro-slavery Missourians — the “Border Ruffians” — to invade Kansas and claim it for slavery instead. The resulting outbreak of violence between Border Ruffians and Jayhawks became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” and “Bourbon Dave” helped open its political arteries.

In an apocalyptic 1856 speech to a group of Border Ruffians, Atchison, possibly aided by booze, rebuffed traditional political resolution to the Kansas problem, and instead called on his Ruffian army to wage war against the Free Soil settlers:

Yess, ruffians, draw your revolvers & bowie knives, & cool them in the heart’s blood of all those damned dogs, that dare defend that damned breathing hole of hell. Tear down their boasted Free State Hotel, and if those Hellish lying free-soilers have left no port holes in it, with your unerring cannon make some, Yes, riddle it till it shall fall to the ground.

Yes, I know you will, the South has always proved itself ready for honorable fight, & you, who are noble sons of noble sires, I know you will never fail, but will burn, sack & destroy, until every vistage of these Norther Abolishionists is wiped out.

Rough and ready pro-slavery Border Ruffians invading Kansas at "Bourbon Dave's" urging.

Rough and ready pro-slavery Border Ruffians invading Kansas at “Bourbon Dave’s” urging.

In this speech, “Bourbon Dave” encapsulated the essence of Border Ruffianism: when conservative, southern, pro-slavery forces failed to achieve their goals in Congress or at the ballot box, they resorted to non-traditional, even extra-legal methods in the name of a reactionary right-wing political ideology. These methods included violence, and the resulting violence of Bleeding Kansas raged on for eight years before the bloodshed between pro and anti-slavery forces finally exploded nationally into the Civil War. Atchison’s heir-apparent, fellow modern-day conservative southern senator, Ted Cruz, is not advocating violence. But he is taking up “Bourbon Dave’s” mantle of extreme political obstruction by pandering to a small, but ideologically fanatical right-wing base, and he’s willing to smite his own party in the name of a reactionary stance against Obamacare.

In 1856 “Bourbon Dave” proudly proclaimed, “This is the day I am a border ruffian!” to assume the leadership of slaveholders who felt ignored by a federal government that refused to recognize their human property in the territories. In a similar tone, Cruz claimed in his “filibuster” to be the populist voice of an ignored segment of America whose rights Obamacare violated:

A great many Texans, a great many Americans feel they don’t have a voice. I hope to play some very small part in helping provide that voice for them. I intend to speak in opposition to ObamaCare, I intend to speak in support of defunding ObamaCare, until I am no longer able to stand.

An analogy I have used before is, if your home is on fire, you put out the fire first before building an addition to the house. Likewise, with ObamaCare, I think ObamaCare is such a train wreck, is such a disaster that the first imperative is to stop the damage from ObamaCare.

Just as anti-slavery forces posed a liberal threat to conservative southerners’ right to dominate slaves and, by extension, the federal government, so too does Obamacare threaten modern conservatives and their corporate allies’ right to dictate policy in Washington and dominate low-income and middle class Americans by denying them health insurance. Ted Cruz has brought Ruffianism back to the forefront of American politics by demonstrating a willingness to take his reactionary ideology to the rougher edges of political discourse and maneuvering. Like Atchison and his Border Ruffians, who waged a bloody war for slavery when their cause failed at the federal level, Cruz and his Tea Party followers have waged verbal and procedural war against a federal government that no longer tows their political line. 

It’s perhaps fitting, if not symbolic, that Ted Cruz recently spoke to a Tea Party crowd, among whom was a guy waving the Confederate flag, outside of the World War II memorial in Washington. “Bourbon Dave’s” pro-slavery Border Ruffians eventually became the Confederate soldiers who fought for slavery and southern independence. Old Dave Atchison likely wasn’t on Cruz’s mind that day, but the symbolism was powerful, as a new southern Ruffian stood by the Rebel flag while denouncing the federal government and the Obama presidency. Like Dave Atchison rallying his future Confederate Border Ruffians to wage war against all things Abolitionist, Cruz was rallying the Tea Party faithful, stoking their war against all things liberal. No doubt that “Bourbon Dave” was looking up from his bar stool in Hell, and nodding approvingly. 

The Cult of Bipartisanship and Henry Clay’s Long Shadow

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews depicting Clay's American System. Clay hoped compromise would solve the slavery issue and make the U.S. a world power. He was wrong about one of those things.

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews. Clay hoped compromise would resolve the slavery issue. It did, until 1860.

In the storied annuals of the history of the great American republic, the U.S. in 2013 finds itself at a distinctively low point. Like a stumbling barfly who breaks his neck after tripping over so many discarded Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the United States federal government has ground to a halt because the United States federal government decided that it should grind to a halt.

Who is to blame for this epic display of stupidity-laced chutzpah? Look no further than the “people’s chamber” (pot). Its been over a week now since the pit of witless, but highly agitated Rancors known as the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress decided to throw one of the biggest collective tantrums in American history and shut down the federal government over the president’s shockingly anticipated refusal to defund his signature health care reform law.

Initially, the Republicans expected (not unreasonably, given the Democratic Party’s propensity for mimicking invertebrates) that by holding the government hostage, President Obama and Senate Democrats would cave and cut a deal to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling in exchange for defunding Obamacare. Surprisingly, however, the Democrats decided that the resounding reelection of their candidate in the 2012 White House race might actually justify their party’s right to implement its policies. Republicans, blind-sided by Democrats’ newfound ability to justify their political existence, have thus been left flailing in the legislative wind, unable to articulate what they hope to get out of the shutdown…or even how to end the shutdown.

So whose to blame for all this? If you believe the always profound wisdom of the American public, there’s plenty of blame to go around, with both parties at fault. This idea, that “both sides do it,” is a false equivalence that ignores the radicalization of the Republican Party. But its nonetheless touted by the esteemed lap-dog academy that compromises the Beltway media, which has spent years bowing before the golden calf of “bipartisanship” to the point where compromise in the service of the political center has been lionized by journalistic toadstools like the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman as the catch-all solution to political gridlock.

Those who promote the cult of compromised bipartisanship invoke, however unconsciously, the legacy of one of America’s towering political figures, the 19th century Kentucky politician known as the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay.

Clay dedicated his political career to turning the United States into a great world power, and when it came to slavery, the issue that nearly tore the country apart, Clay viewed compromise between pro and anti-slavery factions as the key to moving the U.S. forward in its inevitable path towards national glory. Yet by devoting himself to bipartisan compromise, Clay only managed to stave off an uncompromisable issue, pushed by conservative slave-holding radicals, that finally blew apart in the form of the American Civil War. Contemporary compromise fetishists would do well to consider Clay’s career before attending their next bipartisan worship session.

Henry Clay was born in Virginia in 1777, but eventually relocated to Kentucky where he played out his long career in law and politics. One of the most influential political visionaries in U.S. history, Clay promoted the Whig Party “American System,” in which the federal government would promote economic development through protective tariffs and the creation of a national bank to fund commerce and subsidize internal improvements like canals and roads. Clay’s system won him plenty of enemies among those who favored limited government and federalism, particularly Andrew Jackson. Clay also ran afoul of powerful southern slaveholders wary that empowering the federal government would spur it to mess with the “peculiar institution.”

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Though a devoted political leader of the Whig Party, Clay was, above all, an ardent American nationalist who often touted compromise in the name of national development, especially regarding the slavery debate. In 1819, for example, the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, spurring anti-slavery New York congressman James Tallmage to propose an amendment that made ending slavery a perquisite for Missouri’s statehood.

Outraged southern slaveholders claimed that a slaveless Missouri would tilt the congressional balance of power in the free states’ favor. One irate Georgia representative blew a gasket, claiming that the Tallmage Amendment would ensure a dissolution of the Union “which seas of  blood can only extinguish.”

In 1820, then-Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a slaveholder himself (albeit of the Charlie Brownish variety that, like Thomas Jefferson, disliked slavery but wanted to hold onto it nonetheless) supported a compromise that admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and banned new slave states in the portion of the old Louisiana Purchase above the 36 30′ north latitude line. Clay squeezed the so-called Missouri Compromise through the congressional sausage factory by stacking its committees with supporters and breaking the bill up into its component parts so that separate majorities could approve individual provisions of a bill that most found odious as a whole. When the House successfully passed the Missouri Compromise in March of 1820, Clay emerged triumphant as the “Great Compromiser.”

Three decades later, when the debate over slavery once again threatened to rip the country in two, Henry Clay engineered another uneasy compromise. Pro-slavery southerners, led by Democratic Party chieftains like John C. Calhoun, demanded that the vast southwestern land cessions won during the Mexican War be open to slavery’s extension. If northerners did not bend to these demands, southern Fire-Eaters threatened the slave South’s secession from the Union.

Now a Kentucky senator, Clay proposed maintaining the slave and free state balance of power by admitting California as a slave state while organizing the rest of the Mexican cession without restrictions on slavery. An additional measure, the Fugitive Slave Act, permitted southern slave catchers to enter northern free states – irrespective of those state’s laws forbidding slave-catching – and bring them back south. Once again breaking an unappetizing whole bill into slightly more palatable individual parts, Clay and fellow compromisers Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Stephen Douglas of Illinois helped pass the Compromise of 1850. The “Great Compromiser” had again averted secession and Civil War, at least for another decade.

Though Henry Clay’s famous bipartisan compromising over the slavery issue helped stave off bloodshed for decades, it also had the effect of empowering the radical conservative slaveholding elements in southern society by appeasing to their increasingly totalistic demands. In the name of the greater national good, Clay willingly put the moral issues regarding slavery on the historical back burner to be dealt with when sectional passions cooled. But they never did cool. Emboldened by decades of appeasement by the likes of Clay, radical pro-slavery Fire-Eaters’ demands for total recognition of the South’s right to maintain slavery heated up further until, following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, they took the South out of the Union and initiated a bloody Civil War.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn't negotiate with these folks.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn’t negotiate with these folks.

Contemporary political pundits who urge President Obama to compromise with radical conservative Republicans over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, such as the dunder-headed Ron Fournier of the National Journal, are oblivious to the fact that you cannot compromise with zealots who do not respect the traditional operations of the political system. Like the pro-slavery fanatics of the 19th century, today’s conservatives view compromise as a weakness. Like Henry Clay before them, in 2011 President Obama and the Democrats already compromised with the raging Tea Party menace over long-term governmental budgeting, and again like Clay, they only emboldened the conservative radicals to demand further concessions.

Now, I’m not arguing against the idea of compromise. Heck, the American political system was built for compromise, and to eschew the idea of bipartisan compromise altogether won’t cut it. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy, and will thus need to rely on the tradition of tried and true backroom deal making. But valuing compromise as inherently superior by virtue of its bipartisanship alone misses the forest for the big, slobbering troll that’s tearing trees out by the roots.

Obama cannot compromise with the GOP because the GOP doesn’t want compromise; they want total submission, and like their secessionist forebears, they’re willing to take the government hostage to achieve their goals. Pundits stricken by what columnist David Sirota termed “Obsessive Compulsive Bipartisanship Disease” are leaning far too heavily on the old Henry Clay model by complaining that if only the U.S. could compromise to resolve its own internal dysfunctions, it could sail off into the horizon of greatness.

To this day, Henry Clay is revered as a great American statesman, and, in many ways, he was just that. But his great weakness was mistaking fanaticism for a principled political stance, and that mistake ultimately plunged the nation into Civil War. President Obama can’t afford to follow Clay’s lead with the government shutdown, and pundits would do a great service to the nation by supporting the Democrats’ stance against Republican hostage-taking, even if doing so means becoming apostates from the Cult of Bipartisanship.