Progressives are Finally Getting Behind “States’ Rights”

For far too long, advocates of decentralized government have been trying to explain that ‘states’ rights’ is not code for ‘bringing back slavery.’ Discuss the issue with a progressive and, more often than not, you’ll encounter the indignant retort that “you just want to go back to a time when black people had no rights.” If you even get beyond that point, Jim Crow and Bull Connor are brought up next and things quickly deteriorate from here. The subject is virtually off limits to rational discussion, and the very notion that perhaps another angle to this might be worth looking at is ignored entirely, but that’s all beginning to change.

Writing for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has challenged the left to consider the issue with an open mind. He suggests that liberalism is “best served in most instances by respecting Madisonian federalism.” And then asks “[i]sn’t there evidence for that notion in current events?” Indeed there is loads of evidence to support this idea, and for over six years the Tenth Amendment Center has been trying to shed light on all of it. Two immediate examples are the disastrous war on drugs and the issue of marriage freedom.

Both should greatly concern progressives. The latter certainly does today, though unfortunately the former, like other unconstitutional wars currently waged by the feds, is not treated with nearly the same urgency that it should. Whether this has anything to do with the political persuasion of the current president, I’ll leave for the reader to judge.

Fortunately though, Friedersdorf does see the war on drugs for what it is. He correctly notes that it “has done more damage to black America than any other post-Civil Rights Act policy, and catastrophic harm besides, borne most heavily by the least well-off among us and our impoverished southern neighbors.” The poor and minorities – groups that progressives champion – make up a significant proportion of the overall U.S. prison population, which thanks to the drug war, is the highest per capita in the world.

Ending the drug war nationally would be one of the most humanitarian things that anyone could work for. The right to self-ownership would be restored. Millions of children could be reunited with their parents. And all of the productivity from hundreds of thousands of individuals incarcerated on drug charges could be realized. Fortunately, he recognizes that all it takes to begin reversing this usurpation is for states to assert their prerogative and decriminalize drugs.

Next, he rightly notes that democracy represents a fundamental threat to individuals, and how centralized authority is destructive to personal freedom, though he doesn’t use those terms. On the issue of gay marriage he remarks how “[t]hank goodness liberals let neither national opinion nor federal legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act discourage them from fighting toward gay marriage….” He goes on to point out their methods have been to “unapologetically [appeal] to state judiciaries, state legislators, and state electorates.” Like the question of drug freedom, marriage freedom is an issue that should be left entirely up to the states in a federal system.

It is unconscionable that three hundred million people ought to be forced to live under the same legislative dictates regarding these intimate choices. Only a decentralized legal system – preferably down to the individual – can allow for people with such diverse interests to live peacefully among one another. It is high time that both social conservatives and social liberals stop looking to the feds for a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, and it’s encouraging that folks at The Atlantic are becoming more open to such a method.

Friedersdorf ends with these two issues, though a myriad of others that are traditionally important to the Left can and should be part of the states’ rights discussion.

Environmentalism is an important cause for the Left, and rather than use the power of the federal government, they should follow the model that Vermont has used: state’s rights. The Green Mountain State is currently in a dispute with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the licensing of a nuclear power plant, something that should rightly fall under the 10th Amendment. California too, has asserted its prerogative to impose a carbon tax, which is supposed to help with air quality in that state. While I’d prefer they seek alternative methods of protecting the environment, such programs are permissible under a federal system, but would not be acceptable if done at the federal level.

No doubt, healthcare is a controversial subject, but it needn’t be so hotly debated at the national level, as the states ought to be where healthcare legislation is passed. There is no provision for the federal government to be making legislation regarding health insurance or medical care, but there is a place for such decisions. For those inclined to free-market or capitalism-based solutions, the states should lead the charge. If, on the other hand, people would like to see a centrally-planned system, one managed by the government, Mitt Romney (R) instituted just such a program in Massachusetts. Why not allow diversity of thought to pervade, and for individuals to choose among many options?

I mentioned war earlier, and assuming that fighting to end military intervention is ever en vogue for progressives again, the states can certainly have an impact here as well. As I’ve written before, there is a rich history of states resisting the feds’ attempts to seize their militias and national guardsmen, and use them in foreign conflicts. But this isn’t an antiquated phenomenon either, because:

The recent history concerning states attempting to reassert authority over their own guard forces is encouraging. In at least twelve states, from Massachusetts to Montana, and California to South Carolina, governors, state legislatures, and city councils have pushed to regain sovereignty over their guardsmen. Though largely symbolic, these events could signal the beginning of a movement toward more local control of National Guard troops. Along with reducing the U.S. overseas footprint, this would also provide states with their full complement of troops for disaster relief.

A point that Friedersdorf alludes to in the title, but sadly doesn’t expand upon later, is that “the past is gone.” Indeed it is, and restoring some autonomy with the states wouldn’t ipso facto strip women of the right to vote, return black Americans to bondage, or any other such hyperbolic claim proffered by many on the Left when states’ rights is mentioned. It should be quite obvious, but decriminalizing weed in Colorado isn’t going to lead to the segregation of schools in Arkansas. Likewise, New Hampshire recognizing same-sex marriage isn’t going to lead to North Carolinians being required to use separate drinking fountains.

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Skimming through the comments on that piece, it’s obvious that plenty of so-called liberals aren’t so liberal – in the traditional sense of the word – after all. Many expressed reservations and outright opposition to the Left tolerating such a decentralized approach, or including ‘states’ rights’ in their officially-approved lexicon. But this sentiment wasn’t unanimous; one commenter noted that: “…the author is cautioning a subcategory of progressives who reflexively oppose anything associated with federalism due to its connections to racial injustice, and fail to appreciate the other applications of the policy.”

So while not every liberal is ready to suppress their emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the words ‘states’ rights,’ at least some have concluded that centralized power structures aren’t in the best interests of minorities. Let’s hope that more and more will begin to see the central government for what it is: a power-hungry institution that recognizes no limits to its authority, and can only be reined in from the outside. For those on the Left who have begun to see this, and understand the role states can play in restoring some limits to Washington D.C., congratulations, you’re now Tenthers.

Joel Poindexter
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