It is with no little irony that, in the years following the Party of Lincoln’s absorption of the followers and disciples of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and friends, the GOP has emerged as the sine qua non defender of “states’ rights.”
In some places and in some areas of human activity the concept has served us well: setting higher-than-national standards for civil rights, a clean environment, public education and social services that equaled, exceeded, and often pioneered progress, both economic and social.
In other states the exact opposite is, was, and always has been true.
All too often “States’ Rights,” like “God’s Will” has served, at best, as a shibboleth for those who oppose the extension of civil rights, social equality, public education, health care, and laws designed to protect us economically and environmentally. At worst it has become part of the covering mantra, the politically correct “spin,” of jingoists, racists, and the violently intolerant.
Why has the GOP become the Defender in Chief of a concept with such an ancient history of not only indecency but day-to-day economic and social failure?
Arguably the process of turning the Republican Party into the Party of States Rights began in earnest with the “corrupt bargain” of 1876, when the GOP allegedly traded the withdrawal of Union troop, the re-establishment of “home rule” in the unreconstructed states of the old Confederacy in exchange for the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President. The other result: Jim Crow.
In the modern era Barry Goldwater campaigned on the principle that it was best to leave civil rights questions “up to the states.” He suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of the GOP, but in the process sowed the dragon’s teeth that led to Nixon’s “southern strategy, the modern Tea Party, and Donald Trump.
Nixon’s own corrupt bargains and dog-whistle rhetoric facilitated the GOP’s absorption of the most virulent of the South’s segregationists, the aging “Dixiecrat” followers of Strom Thurmond and the voters who in the year Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy were assassinated gave George, (segregation-forever) Wallace and Curtis (bomb-em-back-to-the-stone-age) LeMay nearly 14% of the national vote for President and Vice President.
Indeed, Wallace and LeMay won in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, and came close to throwing the election into the House of Representatives.
The phrase “states’ rights” rolls trippingly off the tongue, but in practice has done little to improve either “states” or “rights.”
Before the Civil War the “rights” of states to accept or reject human slavery dominated political debate, and with it, the articulation of ethical, religious and social norms that still fester in the self-inflicted wounds of the racist right.
Slavery, defended by its proponents in terms of both God’s will and “states’ rights’ gave us the Civil War.
For a century after the Civil War, it gave Jim Crow a safe harbor.
In my own lifetime the Commonwealth of Virginia condoned, promoted, and helped implement “massive resistance” to not only the integration of schools, but libraries, pools and any other “public” facilities that could be, in some “legal” way “transformed” into a “private” institution.
In practice, all too often, the notion of “States’ rights” has served to promote virtually nothing of value and oppose even the most minimum standards of decency and excellence.
Should “states’ rights” ever prevail?
But ONLY when they serve to promote higher than minimum national standards and truly serve both states and human rights in the creation of an ever more perfect union, ensure a common and united defense of same, and truly ensure the blessings of liberty for us and those who will follow.