I’ve heard it so many times my head hurts: the nuclear option. The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, as we all know, invoked it last week in order to get a vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has now been confirmed and sworn in as a new associate justice of the Supreme Court. And like many phrases you hear every 30 seconds or so if you’re listening to the news, it quickly becomes a word that you don’t think much about. Nuclear option: We know it can mean overriding, by a simple majority, the rule prescribing a 60-seat threshold for cloture, or the decision to cut off debate, on a Supreme Court justice; it means changing a rule of the Senate that goes back however many years, and breaking with tradition is terrible, etc.
But hold on. I grew up in the days of Duck ′n′ Cover. Nuclear would conceivably refer to nuclear power a couple of decades later, but in my childhood it meant nuclear war, a war in which the power to split the nucleus of the atom would bring about Armageddon, and so the whole point was that it was not an option. Hence the famous doctrine of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, that kept the United States and the Soviet Union in a stalemate during the Cold War.
How we went from the nucleus of the atom, to shorthand for splitting the atom and going kaboom, to the option of changing a rule deserves a few moments’ explication. We begin with nuclear physics, of course, a branch of science that heated up in the 1930s and found its first expression in the deadly weapons of the Second World War, which were known not as nuclear but as atomic bombs, though the term nuclear power did make its way into the lexicon with suggestions that it might one day be used, for instance, to power automobiles. Since then, the countries developing bigger and more deadly atomic and hydrogen bombs have become known as nuclear powers, an ironic term when seen through the lens of the original meaning of nucleus — “kernel,” or “core” — since possessing such capability pretty much means you’ll be at the center of any discussion about international relations.
But during the Cold War, MAD meant that the choice to use nuclear power to devastate the enemy was not really a choice, or at least not a sane choice. It was part of what William Safire called “the Option 3 trick.” You presented a decision maker with five options — “the top one amounts to Abject Surrender and the bottom one to Nuclear Strike” — with the goal being to engineer the centrist choice, Option 3. If you were left, as Nixon claimed the United States would be if George McGovern’s policy on armed forces were followed, “with only a nuclear option,” you needed to rethink your approach — or your candidate.
By 2005, Safire wrote, the term had come to mean “an action that invites a really bitter battle.” In fact, though, U.S. senators who first used the term in regard to changing the Senate rules regarding cloture did so accusatorily: It was only the other side that claimed this horrific, unthinkable “choice” was actually under consideration, not the side that might exercise the option. “I prefer calling it the constitutional option,” Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, said when Safire asked him about using this method to end the traditional 40-vote filibuster. “That other side is acting like we’re going to blow the place up.”
“Thus,” Safire wrote, “we have a clear lexical signal to show voters which side the speaker is on.” Not necessarily so any more. Take Urban Dictionary’s top definition for the phrase go nuclear, “taking things to the absolute extreme in order to avoid a series of small escalations.” Here, the agent behind the nuclear option openly admits to, say, responding to a friend’s public shaming of him by telling her that her husband is cheating on her: “There was nothing I could do. I had to go nuclear.”
That, as far as I can tell from this week’s news, is the stance of Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, on the so-called nuclear option, just taken, of removing the filibuster even for decisions on Supreme Court nominees. “If we continue on the path we’re on right now, the very next time there’s a legislative proposal that one side of the aisle feels is so important they cannot let their base down, the pressure builds, then we’re going to vote the nuclear option on the legislative piece,” he said last week. In other words, the nuclear option is no longer something normal that the other side is trying to scare folks about. Nor is it the unthinkable action that leads you back to a more reasonable position. It is the extreme step that someone or something else — your ill-mannered friend, your base, “pressure”—forces you to take. It is the freely elected but extreme choice of which, after you’ve made it, you say, “I had no choice.”
N.B. The title of this post also comes from Safire’s piece, where he recommends thinking of the word nuclear as two one-syllable words, to avoid the unfortunate pronunciation nukular. It is worth noting, however, that the Latin etymon, nucleus, could also be nuculeus. So George W. Bush wasn’t the first to insert that pesky u.
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