By Josh Sager
The ideal of “states’ rights” often, if not always boils down to the ideology that power should be centralized in the states and that the federal government should not interfere with laws passed by the states. By concentrating power at the state level, proponents of “states’ rights” believe that policy can be more accurately tailored towards the needs of the citizens. Unfortunately, the reality of power concentrated in the state level is that it is far easier for corporations to buy politicians and for politicians to oppress social minorities.
For economic policy, the right wing believes in massive deregulation and reduction of taxes, creating a situation where government is little more than a vehicle for national defense. The ideal of a virtually non-interventionist federal government on economic issues is based around the argument that government should give the economy over to the market and should let capitalism decide economic results. This ideology is fundamentally small government and is incompatible with a strong federal or state government.
Conservatives use “states’ rights” arguments to support their economic ideology because, put plainly, it is far easier for corporations and wealthy interests to buy state governments than it is for them to buy a federal government. As many corporate interests are aligned with the conservative position on “small government” economic policy, conservatives have simply joined corporate interests in an alliance to bring about their ideology. It requires far less money in order to buy state elected officials than federal officials, and efforts can be micro-targeted to specific locales (coal companies just buying the Virginia state government rather than the federal government). In areas where corporations buy the government, regulations and taxes fall (Ex. Texas). The alignment between conservative and corporate economic views means that the most effective way for conservatives to bring about their economic ideal is to simply concentrate power in the states (by weakening the federal government) until corporate interests bring about change for them.
In terms of social policy, the right wing supports allowing right wing Christianity to infiltrate the government and decide upon social policy; the primary issues created by this are the rejection of science, the “war on women” and the persecution of gays. The right wing social ideology requires a relatively powerful government, which is capable of regulating compliance with social policy created by the religious right.
Socially conservative activists use “states’ rights” arguments to localize civil rights/religious debates, thus making it easier to pass controversial social legislation. It is far harder to pass controversial social or religious legislation (Ex. restricting abortion) through the federal legislative process than to simply focus on a few states; this is simply due to the fact that some states are very socially conservative and, without the moderating counterbalance of liberal state, very likely to pass conservative legislation. By passing legislation on the state level, one state at a time, conservatives are able to gradually impose their social views on the USA as a whole.
Without a strong federal government to restrict the discriminatory social policy of the conservative movement, many states would gradually descent into a type of theocracy; vast portions of the south and southwest (bible-belt states) would be overtaken with social policy based upon “Christian values”.
The conservative movement has recognized the moderating influence of the federal government on state level social policy and has attempted to restrict the powers of the federal government through the courts and by creating gridlock on the federal level. A perfect example of this obstructive tactic was demonstrated during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, where the House of Representatives held up all debt talks unless the Democrats agreed to discuss new abortion restrictions.
While the two major ideological positions of conservatives are fundamentally incongruous – due to the support of small government economic policy and big government social policy – both benefit from the promotion of the same “states’ rights”. With the weakening of the federal government and the strengthening of the state governments, it is possible for right wing agenda to take control of entire states (Ex. Mississippi). Religious and civil rights issues rarely affect business, so as long as the state governments which are bought by the corporations only regulate social issues, they are unlikely to face corporate pushbacks. By increasing the power of the state to regulate social issues, while decreasing its power to regulate economic issues, the conservative movement is able to take control over wide swathes of the USA and implement both segments of their policy agenda without internal conflict.
Liberals and progressives must recognize the true intents of the conservative “states’ rights” strategy and respond. Progressives must keep federal regulatory agencies and civil rights protections as strong as possible on the federal level, so as to prevent conservative states from repealing the basic protections in our society.
On a purely economic level, due to the fact that the conservative movement is supported by corporate interests (and their money), they have an advantage over the progressive movement in many states. While liberal states, such as Vermont or Massachusetts, are unlikely to enact conservative economic policies, the regulatory race to the bottom will eventually drain business way from these states towards those which are more “business friendly” (similar to why we outsource to China). By strengthening the federal government, it is possible for progressives to create a floor level of regulation, under which no state can deregulate past; this will mitigate the effects of very conservative states’ attempts to race to the bottom.
In the argument over social policy issues in the USA, the conservative use of the “states’ rights” argument is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the conservatives wish to use the “states’ rights” argument to support their social policy, yet they fear the progressives utilizing the same strategy in states which they control. Just as conservative states may ban gay marriage or restrict abortion rights, progressive states may allow gay marriage or restrict gun rights. Progressives should strengthen rights in the states which they control, while focusing upon transitioning these rights into legislation on the federal level.
In terms of social issues, there is little for progressives to do for conservative states other than to retain strong federal guarantees for civil right and restrictions on overtly religious legislation. A majority of voters in some states may support repealing civil rights legislation and replacing them with biblical laws, but the majority of the country clearly does not. By keeping a high standard for progressive social issues legislation (Ex. protecting abortion and voting rights) and utilizing the supremacy clause of the constitution, it is possible for progressive activists to affect policy in otherwise unreachable states.