When Republican congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina heckled President Obama during his address to a joint session of Congress this week, it was no surprise that the subject was immigration.
It's also no surprise that while the House Republican leadership demanded that Wilson apologize for his intemperance and breach of protocol, pro-GOP talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers have defended him and urged him to stand firm.
For the moment, at least, the most effective opposition to the Obama administration comes not from the Republican Party establishment but from the talk-show/tea-party right, which -- if it has its way -- will convert the GOP into an almost exclusively white, zealously religious, mostly Southern party. For these people (including Southern Republicans such as Wilson) immigration is a red-meat issue.
As a Republican from South Carolina, Wilson knows this movement well. His home state, the cradle of secession, has a history of sending viciously partisan lawmakers to Washington, beginning with slavery's great apologist, Sen. John C. Calhoun, and more recently with that redoubtable champion of white supremacy, Sen. Strom Thurmond, for whom Wilson once worked.
Throughout the early 19th century, congressional disputes occasionally turned violent -- and more than a few led to duels outside the Capitol -- but perhaps the most egregious incident occurred in 1856, when South Carolina congressman Preston S. Brooks attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. Outraged by a speech Sumner had given concerning the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Brooks entered the Senate chamber and, finding the Northern lawmaker working at his desk, began to beat him over the head with a walking stick. By the time two other congressmen intervened, Brooks had shattered his cane and left Sumner unconscious and with injuries so severe he was absent from the Senate for three years.
Historians generally agree that the assault marked an end to the mid-century period of compromise and ushered in the increasingly poisonous climate that climaxed in civil war four years later.
With this sort of history as background, it's a little easier to understand how South Carolina, which flew the Confederate battle flag over its statehouse until 2000, has emerged as the place where Republican blood comes closest to flowing the talk-show-approved hue of red. Recall that the state's scandal-plagued GOP governor, Mark Sanford, alleged that Obama's stimulus package would usher in Weimar-style hyperinflation and refused to accept Recovery Act funds until a court ordered him to -- this despite the nation's sixth-highest unemployment rate.
Before a single vote had been taken on the president's healthcare initiative, South Carolina's junior senator, Jim DeMint, demanded that the GOP "break" Obama by frustrating any reform. "If we're able to stop Obama on this," he said, "it will be his Waterloo." This, of course, is the Limbaugh/Sean Hannity school of thought that holds that good Americans want the president to fail.
Wilson has been not only a strident opponent of healthcare reform but -- and for much longer -- an unyielding hard-liner on immigration-related issues. This week, he told radio talk-show host and Republican activist Hugh Hewitt that even though there's no support in the House for it, he'd like to see illegal immigrants denied emergency room care.
Healthcare reform may be this month's battleground, but immigration, abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, and jingoism decked out as patriotism are the articles of faith from which the talk-show right's catechism derives. Immigration remains a particularly resonant issue because it touches so many of this tendency's sensitive nerves: racial anxiety, gnawing questions of national identity and a generalized sense of traditions under threat. Thus, even now -- in the midst of economic crisis, mass unemployment, war and the healthcare debate -- the talk-show right continues to beat the anti-immigrant drums.
What's odd about the obsession of GOP lawmakers like Wilson with this issue is that opposition to humane and realistic immigration laws is neither a traditionally conservative nor traditionally Republican position. In fact, former President George W. Bush and former presidential nominee John McCain have both been champions of equitable immigration reform.
If the GOP's cooler heads are wondering whether to draw back from where the talk-show right is leading them, they should consider the case of California. Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's strident advocacy for Proposition 187's sweeping anti-immigrant legislation not only permanently alienated most of the state's Latino voters from the GOP, but set in motion the forces that ultimately produced the country's most ideologically extreme state Republican and Democratic parties. That's one of the major reasons we have a state government in which the two parties no longer engage each other in any substantive way, and in which little that's genuinely important or constructive is accomplished.
The United States can ill afford to have California's dysfunctional present become its future.