Whatever their differences, the leading Republican candidates all swear that they love states’ rights. If elected president, Rick Perry vows to “try to make Washington as inconsequential as I can.” Mitt Romney declares his faith in the Constitution, which, he says, declares that the government “that would deal primarily with citizens at the local level would be local and state government, not the federal government.” Michele Bachmann “respect[s] the rights of states to come up with their own answers and their own solutions to compete with one another.” With lots of help from the Tea Party, the Tenth Amendment which, not so long ago was familiar mainly to constitutional lawyers and scholars, may now be as popular as the First or the Second. But, what this resurgence of federalism overlooks is not just the historical consolidation of federal power but also the inanity of attempts to reverse it.
For most of U.S. history, the primacy of federalism was taken for granted. Except during major wars, states exerted far more power over the daily lives of their residents than did any of the three branches of a national government located in a swampy river city on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard that most Americans had never visited. In the nineteenth century, as the historian Gary Gerstle explains, states funded canals, highways, and railroads. They decided which groups could vote and which could not. Some tried to regulate working hours. Others outlawed a variety of private acts—interracial marriage, drinking, and theater-going. In 1837, Illinois even forbade “playing at ball or flying of kites” as public nuisances.
All these policies fell under the legal sanction of “the police power,” which one influential Massachusetts judge in 1851 defined broadly as insuring the “good and welfare of the Commonwealth.” For its part, the Supreme Court, until after World War I, rather consistently ruled that the celebrated protections of the Bill of Rights—from the freedom of speech and the press to the right to a speedy trial—applied only to acts by the federal government and not to those of the states.
But, by the middle of the twentieth century, this arrangement no longer served the needs or desires of most Americans. During the Great Depression, state revenues, based mainly on property taxes, plummeted. The federal government stepped in to provide relief, and citizens everywhere began to count on Washington to keep the economy afloat and their Social Security checks arriving promptly. Then World War II and the cold war bound Americans to a national-security state that financed education for veterans and interstate highways as well as aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. In the 1960s and ’70s, Congress passed laws to safeguard the civil and voting rights of every citizen, regardless of where he or she might live. Policies to protect the environment and regulate hazards at the workplace further diminished the sway of state governments. The Supreme Court, even with a conservative majority, has done little to reverse these changes.
Yet, states’ rights never lost its appeal to that minority of Americans who are ideologically committed to lambasting the federal state as both overweening and ineffective. (It should come as no surprise that these conservatives were so alarmed at the emergency measures taken by the Bush and Obama administrations to address the financial meltdown of 2008: the formation and rapid growth of the Tea Party was the predictable result.) However, any Republican elected to the White House in 2012 will find it impossible to lead a headlong charge back to the past, and not just because of the difficulty of undoing a half-century of tradition and Supreme Court precedent.
Voters unhappy with the inability of the federal government to restore prosperity may like the sound of “states’ rights.” But how many would trust their governors and state legislators to pay their Medicare and Social Security checks on time and at current or higher levels? How many really want 50 separate immigration policies or 50 different standards for what constitutes clean air and clean water? Or the possibility that state, seeking to lure business away from its neighbors, could cut the minimum wage in half and not requiring employers to pay for overtime?
When you look more broadly at their promises, the GOP hopefuls reveal the emptiness of their own rhetoric. Bachmann, never a paragon of consistency, supports a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well as the right of individual states to legalize it. In 2007, before Romney got in trouble for his Massachusetts health care law, he predicted, “that all these states … who follow the path that we pursued will find it’s the best path, and we’ll end up with a nation that’s taken a mandate approach.” Rick Perry favors federal action to stop gay marriage and restrict abortion—and, last month, asked President Obama to speed up aid to stop wildfires from burning up whole sections of his vast state. Like a lot of other Americans, these ambitious conservatives like to rail against Washington in the abstract but cannot imagine how the nation would operate without a strong central government. And the specifics of their smaller hypocrisies are underscored by one giant irony: They’re all running for president.
The U.S. has long ceased to be a country in which most people look to their state instead of to the national government to address and solve their most vital problems. State pride is pretty rare these days, except for residents and alumni who dress in the old-school colors and root hard for a college football or basketball team from a major public university.
Of course, state governments still perform a vital role in education and economic development and can still be “laboratories of democracy,” sites for testing out new policies that aren’t yet ready for national consumption. Progressives who cheered when New York legalized gay marriage and look forward to the day when Vermont begins operating the single-payer health care system it passed this spring can hardly object, at least in principle, when red states pass laws they abhor. But, as an alternative philosophy of governance in a modern nation, states’ rights is very wrong. In fact, it’s ridiculous.
By: Michael Kazin, The New Republic, September 20, 2011
In both of this month’s Republican presidential debates, Rep. Michele Bachmann hailed what she evidently believes was the golden age of American immigration — the period before the mid-1960s when, she said, “immigration law worked beautifully.”
Ms. Bachmann’s nostalgia is touching but misplaced, unless she really pines for a return to laws that explicitly favored white immigrants from a handful of Northern European countries while excluding or disadvantaging Jews, Asians, Africans and practically everyone else.
Ms. Bachmann didn’t frame it that way, of course. She blamed “liberal members of Congress” for upsetting a system that she characterized as requiring immigrants to have money, sponsors, and clean health and criminal records. In Ms. Bachmann’s world, those immigrants would learn American history and to speak English.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 fundamentally changed the system of immigration in this country but not in the way Ms. Bachmann evidently imagines. That law, pushed by Democrats including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), threw out four decades of immigration quotas whose explicit goal was to emulate America’s ethnic balance as it stood in the year 1890, when the country remained overwhelmingly white.
Specifically, the 1965 measure ended a legal regime dating from the early 1920s that generally shut out Asians (especially Japanese) and capped immigration from Latin America, Eastern and Southern Europe, and other areas at very low levels. The effect was to overhaul that hidebound, exclusive quota system. The new system, whose cornerstone gave preference to family reunification and job skills, broadened what had been a narrow pool of immigrants to include soaring numbers of newcomers from Asia and Latin America.
The shift has contributed to the nation’s diversity, dynamism and rich cultural kaleidoscope even as it challenged society, especially schools, to accommodate waves of new Americans whose looks, language and customs were unfamiliar to their neighbors.
By talking about sponsorship, English-language competency and the like, Ms. Bachmann is either confused or deliberately misleading. Most legal immigrants are still required to have family or employer sponsors, as they did in the gauzy past she idealizes. As for learning English, American history and the like, those were, and remain, requirements for citizenship, not immigration.
Ms. Bachmann, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, may not care for the changes and effects wrought by the 1965 bill; many other critics on the right do not. Patrick Buchanan, for example, has blamed the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech on the immigration overhaul, noting that the gunman “was among the 864,000 Koreans here as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, which threw the nation’s doors open to the greatest invasion in history, an invasion opposed by a majority of our people.” If Ms. Bachmann shares such views, let her address the issue honestly and head on, not in code.
By: Editorial Board, The Washington Post, September 15, 2011
We heard plenty of contradictions, distortions and untruths at the Republican candidates’ Tea Party debate, but we heard shockingly little compassion — and almost no acknowledgement that political and economic policy choices have a moral dimension.
The lowest point of the evening — and perhaps of the political season — came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. “Who pays?” Blitzer asked.
“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul answered. “This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody. . . .”
Blitzer interrupted: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”
There were enthusiastic shouts of “Yeah!” from the crowd. You’d think one of the other candidates might jump in with a word about Christian kindness. Not a peep.
Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. But in Paul’s vision of America, “our neighbors, our friends, our churches” would choose to assume the man’s care — with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.
Blitzer turned to Michele Bachmann, whose popularity with evangelical Christian voters stems, at least in part, from her own professed born-again faith. Asked what she would do about the man in the coma, Bachmann ignored the question and launched into a canned explanation of why she wants to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the Pharisees that God commands us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” There is no asterisk making this obligation null and void if circumstances require its fulfillment via government.
Bachmann knows a lot about compassion. She makes much of the fact that she and her husband took in 23 foster children over the years. But what of the orphaned or troubled children who are not lucky enough to find a wealthy family to take them in? What of the boys and girls who have stable homes but do not regularly see a doctor because their parents lack health insurance?
Government can reach them. But according to today’s Republican dogma, it must not.
Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Bachmann, Paul and the others onstage in Tampa all had the same prescription for the economy: Cut spending, cut taxes and let the wealth that results trickle down to the less fortunate.
They betrayed no empathy for, or even curiosity about, the Americans who depend on the spending that would be cut. They had no kind words — in fact, no words at all — for teachers, firefighters and police officers who will lose their jobs unless cash-strapped state and local government receive federal aid. Public servants, the GOP candidates imply, don’t hold “real” jobs. I wonder: Do Republicans even consider them “real” people?
Government is more than a machine for collecting and spending money, more than an instrument of war, a book of laws or a shield to guarantee and protect individual rights. Government is also an expression of our collective values and aspirations. There’s a reason the Constitution begins “We the people . . .” rather than “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another . . . .”
I believe the Republican candidates’ pinched, crabby view of government’s nature and role is immoral. I believe the fact that poverty has risen sharply over the past decade — as shown by new census data — while the richest Americans have seen their incomes soar is unacceptable. I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens — the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools — is unconscionable.
Perry, who is leading in the polls, wants to make the federal government “inconsequential.” He thinks Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie.” He doesn’t much like Medicare, either.
But there was a fascinating moment in the debate when Perry defended Texas legislation that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you,” Perry said.
The other candidates bashed him with anti-immigrant rhetoric until the evening’s only glimmer of moral responsibility was snuffed out.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 15, 2011