Tom Cotton's unpatriotic forefathers: Treasonous Iran letter not the first time GOP has crossed the line

The ideology of movement conservatives is not simply partisanship. It is an attack on American democracy itself

Published March 15, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The Republican senators who warned Iranian officials that any agreement they made with President Obama would not outlive the present administration appear to have been blindsided by the backlash against their letter. Republicans as well as Democrats have responded to the move with such fury that unnamed sources clumsily suggested the letter was only a “cheeky” reminder that Congress should have a voice in negotiations. Sen. John McCain downplayed the extraordinary letter as business as usual: “I sign lots of letters,” he told Politico.

But the firestorm continues to rage. Newspaper editorials slam the senators who signed the bill; more than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition calling for the senators to be tried for treason; #47Traitors has been trending on Twitter.  Why has this letter garnered such a visceral reaction when attacks on the president and his policies are the everyday currency of the modern Republican Party?

It has created a backlash because it shows, with crystal clarity, that the ideology of Movement Conservatives is not simply partisanship. It is an attack on American democracy itself.

The senators who signed the letter are trying to impose their will on a president they hate. This maneuvering is unusual but not novel. It has been central to most of the nation’s internal crises. Whenever adherents of an ideological faction recognize that they do not have the popular support to control the president, they try to game the system. This happens on a grand scale, as when Southern whites so hated the outcome of the 1860 election that made Abraham Lincoln president, they picked up guns to get their way. It happens on smaller scales, as when Republicans in Congress today threaten to shut down the government to make President Obama do what they want. It’s often hard to distinguish smaller-scale machinations from regular partisan politics.

But when a faction tries to gain the upper hand at home by interfering with our international relations, Americans are able to see their attack on our fundamental system for what it is. Crossing the water to find support for a domestic faction puts into stark relief that its adherents have no faith in voters’ choice of leaders; rather, they feel justified in doing whatever it takes to override an elected president, even undercutting the nation’s standing in the world.

On three dramatic occasions, factions have tried to use foreign affairs to wrest control from a president they hated. In the earliest days of the republic, when Americans were painfully aware the country might not survive, men split into two political camps. The Federalists supported President Washington and his efforts to show international powers that the American government was strong enough to last. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, insisted that the administration’s establishment of a national bank proved that Washington was turning the fledgling democracy into a European-style monarchy. But while the Republicans’ protests irritated the notoriously thin-skinned Washington, they gained little traction against the father of the country.

When French revolutionaries overthrew the French monarchy in 1793, the Republicans saw a wedge issue that might swing voters against the administration. France was an important American ally, but the Federalists looked askance at the country’s instability after the revolutionaries took power. When Washington’s foreign minister signed a treaty of “amity” with England in 1795, Republicans made common cause with the French revolutionaries to strengthen their own hand against the Federalists.

Republicans hoped their support for the democratic French Revolution would help them take power in America, but the French government seemed determined to undermine the cause. It seized American ships, refused to receive an American minister, and finally, in the notorious XYZ affair of 1798, demanded bribes before beginning negotiations to redress American grievances (a common practice in Europe at the time but anathema to cash-strapped Americans building a republic). Eager to promote his party’s fortunes in America, prominent Pennsylvania Republican politician George Logan set off for France in 1798 to urge French officials to court American public opinion. There, he hobnobbed with French diplomats and offered advice on how to swing popular favor their way.

Federalists in Congress were outraged that a private citizen was deliberately working to undercut the administration by negotiating with a foreign power. Free-for-all diplomacy had threatened to shatter the nation under the Articles of Confederation; it had been a driving force in the creation of a stronger government under the Constitution. With the infant country barely recognized by other nations, it was starkly obvious that trying to control internal politics by weakening the nation internationally was suicidal. When Logan came back home, he discovered that Congress had passed what we know as the Logan Act, making his actions a crime. Americans could argue among themselves, but disagreements must stop at the water’s edge. For a faction to use foreign negotiations to trump elected politicians attacked the very existence of American democracy.

The precedent established by the Logan Act held firm from 1799 until the 1950s, when members of a radical faction within the Republican Party tried to take control of foreign policy away from their own president in order to impose their ideology on the country. Movement Conservatives within the Republican Party were horrified by President Eisenhower’s domestic initiatives. These men hated the New Deal consensus, believing that regulation of business, protection of labor, and establishment of a social safety net had imported communism into America. It was bad enough when Democrats FDR and Harry Truman pushed New Deal activism, but when Eisenhower promoted his own version of the New Deal, Movement Conservatives set out to kill activist government once and for all. Still, voters loved Eisenhower and his Middle Way. So Movement Conservatives tried to get the upper hand on the president by attacking his foreign policy.

They launched a public brawl with Eisenhower, arguing that his support for the United Nations opened the way for communism to conquer America. It was only a question of time until the UN dictated all U.S. laws (it would start, they warned white Southerners, by ending racial segregation). To undercut the popular president, Ohio Sen. John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment that limited the president’s power to negotiate treaties, shifted treaty-making power to Congress, and guaranteed that no treaty could impose policy on America. Movement Conservatives whipped up support for the bill by barnstorming the country, filling meetings, radio shows and newsletters with the warning that a diabolical cabal in government was angling to drag America into a communist world order. Only the Bricker Amendment, and its Movement Conservative sponsors, could save America.

Eisenhower was shocked that his opponents were willing to weaken the nation internationally to score domestic points. He pointed out that Americans had let Congress control foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation, and the resulting disaster had inspired the authors of the Constitution to centralize international negotiations in the president. But Movement Conservatives ignored the historical record and continued to whip up opposition to Eisenhower’s foreign policy in order to weaken his support and kill his domestic Middle Way.

Their efforts backfired. Determined to prevent the passage of the measure, Eisenhower had to build a coalition with Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson. The Bricker Amendment failed in the Senate in late February 1954 by a single vote. Democrats took control of Congress that November, and for the rest of his presidency Eisenhower would work with Democrats, rather than Movement Conservatives, to make policy.

Sixty years after the Bricker Amendment failed, 47 senators have tried, once again, to undercut a president they abhor by attacking his foreign policy. The letter was addressed to Iranian officials, but it was aimed at strengthening Movement Conservatives at home. Radical senators signed the letter, and Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing pundits have rushed to support it, adding it to the wide-ranging anti-Obama campaign they have waged since 2008. But while they may have seen it as business-as-usual, most Americans did not. The letter put into stark relief that Movement Conservatives value their ideology more than the nation’s founding principles. If members of a faction can override the president so long as they are willing to sacrifice the country to their cause, elections don’t matter. Only ideology and commitment do.

In 1799 and 1954, this was not what most Americans understood to be American democracy. In 2015, while sending a letter to the leaders of Iran was probably not illegal, Americans across the political spectrum are echoing their predecessors when they condemn the senators who signed it as #47Traitors.

By Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

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