- Republican front runner Mitt Romney, GOP New Hampshire Debate, June 13, 2011
If the recent Republican debate in New Hampshire was any indicator, we suspect that you're going to hear the phrase "States' Rights" quite often between now and next year's election. During the debate, all 7 of the candidates on stage echoed similar statements like the one from Romney quoted above. And this probably comes at no surprise since conservative candidates have been advocating for "States' Rights" for quite some time. There is a common belief among conservatives/Republicans that Federal government is inherently bad, but that State government is somehow inherently good. But why is that? Where did this notion come from? Is it a valid argument? What does this "States' Rights" phrase really mean and how has it affected our day to day lives over the years? We take a more in depth look at these questions after the jump:
In the United States of America, our government is split between two sovereigns: one at the Federal level and one at the State level. The Federal government represents the unified interest of the entire country, whereas each State government, of course, represents only itself. The Constitution dictates that our Federal government is a government of limited powers, meaning that each action that it takes or law that it writes must be tied to a specific provision in the Constitution; if it's not spelled out in the Constitution, then it cannot act. The States, on the other hand, are governments of almost unlimited powers, meaning that they can take whatever actions they want and write whatever laws they want, so long as those actions or laws are not specifically reserved for the Federal government in the Constitution or prohibited by the Constitution itself. This concept is embodied in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution and forms the basis for the common phrase "States' Rights." As a final point on the law, the Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, foresaw that there may come a time when the two governments may bump heads. In such an event, the 2 governments need to know which of them has the last word. Thanks to the Founding Fathers, we have an answer to that question: The Supremacy Clause. It is a clause in the Constitution that basically says that whenever there's a conflict between the two governments, Federal law trumps State law every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Knowing the basic legal framework of our 2 governments is all fine and dandy, but this doesn't tell us how the issue of States' Rights has played out in real life. What many Republican Presidential Candidates conveniently gloss over is that the States' Rights issue first became controversial during slavery. Many school kids are taught every year that the United States fought the Civil War because some people in our great nation recognized (and rightfully so) that slavery was immoral. While there were some White citizens who did feel that way back in the 1800's, the majority of them actually did not care about Black people having equal rights. Even Abraham Lincoln, who is celebrated as the man who "freed the slaves," drew a fine line in the sand between (A) freeing slaves and (B) actually accepting Black people as equals.
The true reason that we fought the civil war was far less noble than what many of our middle-school history books commonly report. The full story is that we fought the civil war in part because (1) the U.S. acknowledged the tremendous loss of revenue that would be realized if the Southern States seceded from the U.S., but (2) the main issue that pushed everything over the edge and into war was the Rights of the States to do whatever they wanted to do (in this case - allow slavery) within their own borders WITHOUT the pesky Federal government telling them that they couldn't do it. In other words, it was a battle over States' Rights.
Some States, primarily in the South, felt that their citizens should be able to own slaves. The Federal government disagreed. As a result, a war ensued and, after the Southern States were defeated, the Federal government crafted the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution (known as the Reconstruction Amendments) in order to force the States to shape up and fly right from that day forward. This sentiment is plainly evidenced in the language of the Amendments themselves, which are framed in the negative against the States (eg. "No State Shall..."). And this worked...for a while.
Shortly after the Civil War, however, the Southern States began to enact what would later become known as "Jim Crow" laws. These were laws which basically separated the White citizens from the Non-White citizens in all public aspects of life: separate restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate entrances to public establishments, etc. These were STATE laws (not to be confused with Federal laws) that basically made Blacks and other minorities second-class citizens.
At some point during the 1950's and 60's (aka, the "Civil Rights Era") America, as a nation, came to the general consensus that racial segregation was no longer acceptable within a society that claimed to be civilized. This consensus was sparked by the Federal Supreme Court decisions against segregation (Brown v. Board of Education) that were handed down by the Warren Court in the 1950's, and it culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite this national consensus at the Federal level, some of the Southern States argued that it would be a violation of States' Rights to force racial integration in their schools and public establishments. George Wallace, the Governor of the State of Alabama, famously delivered the message "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" during his inaugural address in 1963. Governor Wallace and other State governors and elected State officials consistently framed the issue of segregation as a "States' Rights" issue, arguing that the Federal government had no right to force its policy of racial equality onto the States even though the 14th Amendment clearly stated then, as it does today, that:
"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall...deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
States' Rights Today
Returning full circle to Romney's quote above, we can see that the Republicans continue to embrace the notion that more powers should be stripped from the Federal government and given to the States. This may sound like a great idea for conservatives because most conservatives tend to be in the majority (aka White) and would likely stand to benefit from such measures. However, for those people who happen to be minorities in this country, history has shown us time and time again that minority interests are not served by allowing elected officials at the State level of government to rule as they see fit without regard for the Constitutional rights of all people and not just those in the majority. The Constitutional rights of the people must be enforced and protected by the Federal government, despite State interests to the contrary.
By way of example, abortion is legal in this country because the Supreme Court (aka the Federal government) has ruled that the States are not allowed to infringe upon a woman's 14th Amendment right to privacy; no State is allowed to make a law that would bring back Jim Crow lunch counters because the Federal government has declared such an act would be illegal under the Civil Rights Act of '64; and States are not allowed to refuse the right to vote to certain minorities because the 15th Amendment strictly prohibits the States from taking such action. These are but a few examples of how States' Rights must yield to Federal interests.
When people like Mitt Romney talk about increasing States' Rights, they are pandering to a crowd that would like to see less Federal government regulation. In theory, limited Federal government is a good idea because it allows the States to govern themselves at the local level and solve their own problems. In practice, limited Federal government allows the States to get away with whatever it is their respective leaders feel like getting away with, which blindly assumes that State officials will do what is in the best interest of all people, and not just those who look as they do or agree with their particular ideology. As history has taught us, such assumptions are often misplaced.