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States’ Rights Redux

Conservatives Want to Re-Fight National Debates in Statehouses

On February 9, 1861, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer from Kentucky who went on to become a U.S. senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, garnered every vote cast at a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama, becoming the president of the Confederacy.

Davis’s election, a provocative development that ultimately brought on the bloody Civil War, didn’t happen spontaneously. A series of lesser events in southern state legislatures led up to it. One by one, lawmakers in the soon-to-be-breakaway states expressed outrage over what they perceived as an overreaching, liberal federal government in Washington. They feared an end to their way of life (read: slavery) and, for the most part, acted in concert with the popular will of their states’ electorates.

This month, a century and a half later, conservative statehouse lawmakers are on a similar march, reflecting a dubious perception that state officials—not the federal government—ought to have the ultimate say in politically charged social and budget matters of national consequence. And, as it was long ago, race is the unspoken and largely denied point of contention.

The most out front in this debate today are Civil War revisionists, who argue that slavery had little to do with the War Between the States because the conflict was about allowing Southerners the right to determine their own affairs without meddling from unsympathetic and hostile liberals in the North. They and other modern-day states’ rights activists are making the same argument today in state legislatures—and not just in the former Confederacy—not about slavery but rather new conservative causes.

As The New York Times’s Charles Blow made clear in a recent op-ed, statehouse conservatives are declaring war on minorities, women, immigrants, and the poor by proposing harsh legislation targeted specifically at them. “In the first month of the new legislative season, they have introduced a dizzying number of measures on hot-button issues in statehouses around the country as part of what amounts to a full-throttle mission to repeal, restrict and repress,” he notes in his column.

And these states’ rights champions believe they have a new mandate to do so. On the heels of their sweeping victories in last year’s midterm elections, Republicans swelled their ranks by some 700 seats in statehouses across the country, a figure that Reuters News Service tallied as the “largest numbers since the Great Depression.” As this fresh crop of conservative lawmakers takes power, many of them express feelings of oppression by lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration. They are taking out their frustrations on the powerless and underrepresented people of their respective states.

A key flash point is immigration, where some 15 states are debating copycat anti-immigrant bills, following in the spurious shoes of lawmakers in Arizona. Immigrants, it seems, are the political straw men for conservative legislators to beat their breasts and appear to be all-powerful defenders of their community’s way of life. The fact of the matter is that such an argument is shortsighted and potentially suicidal politically, especially in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, where the Latino population is the single-largest ethnic group.

Meanwhile, conservative legislators in Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon think it’s a good idea to defy common sense and court edicts to propose bills that would require drug testing of all public assistance recipients. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act authorizes—but expressly didn’t require—states to impose mandatory drug testing as a prerequisite to receiving state welfare assistance. But the one state that tried to test welfare recipients, Michigan, saw its effort struck down as unconstitutional in 2003—a decision upheld by the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Still, lawmakers in a few rogue states see political opportunity in asserting arguments that smack of states’ rights in trying to make the drug tests a precondition for welfare assistance. Immigration and drug testing are just two top-line issues. Blow makes a compelling case that conservatives have their sights on rolling back recent gains by gay-rights activists, antideath-penalty advocates, abortion-rights defenders, and other socially progressive causes.

Of course, the spate of statehouse activism isn’t quite on par with the parade of states withdrawing from the Union in the days and months leading up to the Civil War. So please don’t accuse me of conjuring up the specter of a 21st century Civil War. I’m only asking the obvious questions: Why fight old, lost causes? And haven’t these conservative statehouse lawmakers learned anything about U.S. history over the past 150 years?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.