The Republican and conservative call for states rights and federalism is a creature of the 1970s rooted in two issues. The first is a reaction to the expansionist federal government during the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson. Both were liberal enterprises that significantly expanded the role the federal government in ways that conservatives and Republicans did not like. The other call for federalism was in reaction to the liberal Supreme Court policies of the Warren Court which expanded constitutional protections to a host of issues, including criminal due process, civil rights, privacy, and eventually under Chief Justice Warren Burger, reproductive rights and abortion.
The call for states rights and federalism was an effort to limit the federal government’s power, at least its liberal bent. Let states do it, so the claim is, and they will do it better. They are the laboratories of democracy, capable of innovating and more in touch with their local needs and people. States’ right in theory is about local democracy, ostensibly at least. In reality, the belief among many Republicans back in the 1970s when the “New Federalism” was first championed, and even today, was that states rights would weaken the national government, undo the liberal agenda, and allow for conservative outcomes to prevail.
In many cases federalism did work. A weakened national government meant states could again pass anti-abortion, anti-gay, and just about any other anti-something legislation that they wanted. Yet it was an inconvenient and inconsistent federalism. When Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court and for the last 30 years when he and it became a reliable institution supporting conservative outcomes there was no complaint about the federal government. The same was the case when Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, or when George Bush increased federal powers to wage the war on terrorism.
But conversely, federalism also meant that states were freed up to act and do things they could not do before. The concept of New Judicial Federalism, launched by a famous 1986 law review article by Supreme Court Justice Brennan, meant that state courts could draw on their constitutions to innovate. And they have. It was state courts that launched the gay rights movement, eventually pressuring the US Supreme Court to constitutional a right to same-sex marriage last year. But states have also moved on marijuana legalization, health care reform, banning the death penalty, right to die legislation, minimum wage, and a host of other reforms that the federal government could not pass and which conservatives did not like. Change is more often than not bottom up and not top down, and the federal courts have taken their cues from state courts to make doctrinal changes under federal law.
But now there is yet another face to federalism that brings mixed blessing to conservatives and Republicans. Consider on the one hand decisions by the states or North Carolina and Mississippi to pass bathroom legislation restricting transgender individuals to use facilities that correspond to their gender birth. Or Indiana’s recent decision to place new restrictions on abortions. This is clearly what state righters had hoped for. But now consider the reaction to the bathroom bills. States, including Minnesota, have now imposed bans on non-essential travel to these states and are leading the way to encourage corporations and organizations to boycott these states. Unleashing federalism means that states have the power to pressure one another to tow the policy line. Doubtful this is what states’ rights advocates envisioned.
But there is something dangerous with this new federalism–it invites retaliation or use for less than noble reasons, and thus is not good news for Democrats. At what point will North Carolina or Mississippi retaliate against Minnesota and issue its own travel bans? Or what if other states decide they do not like legislation in Colorado or Washington legalizing marijuana? Or what if some states want to pressure another on tax, education, or other policies? So far the new federalism boycotts have been launched to support liberal causes, but why not for conservative ones too? Minnesota’s economic travel ban makes many Democrats feel politically smug but that tool can be used against them too.
This type of federalism runs very close to economic protectionism and parochialism that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause was meant to prevent. The Constitutional framers of 1787 had seen the states discriminating against one another and part of the entire constitutional project was to bring economic and political unity to the country. Federalism and states rights can easily be symbolized by a burning cross as it can be by a burning joint. One’s rights should not depend on which state one lives in. Freedom and equal opportunity means freedom equality of opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they live. This is what E Pluribus Unum is supposed to stand for.
The new federalism movement is both a failure when one thinks of nationalism and building a UNITED States of America, but is also showing how the states’ rights movement has not lived up to what many conservatives and Republicans envisioned.