Strong States' Rights Not Likely Key to Left, Right Unity

Election 2004 gave Republicans, for the first time in a generation, unquestionable control of the White House and both chambers of Congress — the culmination of a trend that began a decade ago with the Gingrich revolution.

In those 10 years, as the Right has grown more powerful in American politics, it has also abandoned its traditional support for a restrained federal government — the principle of federalism upon which the U.S. was founded — in favor of an activist federal government that promotes conservatism.

Consider “virtues czar” William Bennett's post-election gloating in National Review. Voters had given President Bush a mandate to push conservative values on the rest of the country, “through both politics and law,” Bennett wrote. Bennett was joined by conservative talk radio, which also urged President Bush to stick it to the gay-rights groups and “cultural elite.”

The Bush administration has epitomized this new “big government conservatism.” Avowed states-righters like former Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked the supremacy of federal law to overrule the will of the states on issues such as drug prohibition, capital punishment, and physician-assisted suicide. President Bush and congressional Republicans championed more federal involvement in education. Republican committee chairmen secured loads of pork-barrel spending for their home states and districts, just as the Democrats did when they chaired those same appropriations committees.

Just a few weeks ago, on the National Review Web site, conservative author David Frum wrote that “nearly all conservatives” support Medicaid and Medicare, two of the three largest programs the federal government runs. Not only that, but Frum recommended a tax on high-calorie foods to encourage American consumers to make better decisions about what they eat — the very kind of social engineering conservatives have long opposed.

However, committed states-righters and libertarians can take heart. Apparently, federalism is not dead. The left, long proponents of big, activist federal government, finding itself unquestionably in the minority, is discovering the virtues of federalism. Facing what could be the lengthy reign of a conservative government, many blue-staters are thinking hard about the advantages of local rule.

Liberal Swarthmore historian Timothy Burke wrote on his blog shortly after the election:

[I]t is a shocking thing to wake up the next morning and feel that one is really the target of hatred, to recognize that one's country is now in the hands of people who hate you, disrespect you, and intend to leave little room for you to live the life you prefer on the terms you prefer to live it …

Burke then suggested that the left abandon the idea of an influential federal government that dictates top-down policy for the entire country in favor of allowing blue-state jurisdictions to live by blue-state policy and red-state jurisdictions to live by red-state policy.

He isn't alone. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole suggested on his Web site that the best way for Democrats to defuse hot-button cultural issues such as gay marriage is to privatize the institution, a position long held by libertarians.

Crooked Timber's Belle Waring went a step further, openly courting libertarians to join a coalition with the left. Salon and The Nation have also run pieces entertaining a left-side embrace of states' rights.

Principled federalists such as Tech Central Station's Nick Schulz (writing for, Reason magazine's Jesse Walker, the New York Post's Ryan Sager and George Mason University's Don Boudreaux have correctly welcomed such sentiment.

The left's newfound interest in local rule, while baldly self-interested, is heartening. Even the most oppressive of public policies are tolerable if the people subjected to them are free to move to cities or states whose laws are more in line with their beliefs. The idea, to borrow from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, is to have 50 “laboratories of democracy” at the state level, and hundreds more at the municipal level, each setting its own laws, each competing for citizens and taxpayers.

But while the left's flirtation with federalism is encouraging, there's also plenty of room for skepticism. The political right once professed allegiance to federalism — until they started winning elections. Now, after decades of wanting to be left alone, the right intends to use its power to impose its values on the rest of country. And now, after decades of trying to foist one-size-fits-all policy onto the rest of the country in nearly every facet of life — from gun control to labor and environmental policy to driving laws to education — the left, now out of power, simply want to be left alone.

Neither is all that surprising. Most people think everyone else should live they way they do. And at the same time, most people resent being told how to live.

Yet, the suggestion that the right and left could find common ground in federalism is problematic, to say the least. Any right-left federalist coalition would require the acceptance on both sides that life in Utah and Wyoming may be very different than life in Massachusetts and California — even if those states have different laws on gun ownership, stem cell research, minimum wage, or the influence of religious beliefs on public policy. Both left and right would also have to come together to make the kind of cuts and rollbacks in the federal government necessary for federalism to thrive, and would then need to avoid the temptation to use the federal government to subvert federalism during the periods thier "side" happens to be in power.

A state's only obligation would be to respect the basic rights of its citizens inscribed in the U.S Constitution.

Call me a pessimist. But much as I'd like to see it, recent history offers little evidence that any of these things will happen.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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