Are states’ rights a tool for tyranny?

I’m states-rights

Originally designed as a hedge against centralized power, recent adventures in states’ rights make it seem like just the opposite.



I’ve been thinking sporadically about the old conservative article of faith – states’ rights – recently. Perhaps for obvious reasons.

I’m sure there’s an axiomatic principle in here somewhere, although I don’t know how to articulate it yet. But it seems that states’ rights are – or at least have become – an advantage to the would-be authoritarian who has nowhere near the power needed to take over. It’s a sort of a baby-steps mechanism built into the system. You can’t take over the country, but 50 firewalls make it easy enough to take over a piece of it, then another piece, and so on. At some point you hit critical mass – control over enough pieces mean you have control over the whole mess.

At that point, though, states’ rights become the enemy, because it makes it possible for someone else to do to you what you just did to them.

Hence the curiously phenomenon of Republicans opposing legitimate states’ rights claims on issues like marijuana legalization, automotive emissions, immigration, and so on.

All of which is remarkably ironic, init, given that the primacy of states’ rights was originally conceived as a defense against strong Federal power?


I think you’ve just expounded the GOP’s great strategic success of the last generation, and one that coincides with the Democratic party’s greatest strategic failure. The latter seems to have entirely ignored state politics which leaves it both without much power at the state level and with a dearth of younger candidates who’ve cut their teeth successfully. The former has massive control at the state level and it has transferred to the federal.

You’re almost certainly right that the conservative cry of “states rights” will disappear shortly … if they succeed at consolidating minority control of the federal government. They’ll have to in order to maintain minority control.


This was the ALEC strategy–start taking control from the ground up. School Boards, town councils, county planning commissions, that sort of thing. Train people to run not for president, but for local and state legislatures. The irony here is that Republicans were completely transparent about what they were doing–they flaunted it, in fact. Meanwhile, Democrats were off somewhere, apparently not noticing that they kept losing elections. The Republicans had a long term strategy, and they executed it flawlessly. They have even managed to incorporate what can only be regarded as a mutation–Trump–into the ongoing narrative, and adapt pretty successfully to date.

The only real questions are can Democrats some up with a similar strategy, and is there time to execute it. Evidence to date suggests that if they do manage to do the first, it will be forced on the leadership, who remain furiously resistant, by the voters themselves. Which makes the second issue moot, sadly. But it’s clear that designing your whole electoral strategy around who you’re going to run for President is a failed strategy–well, to many of us, at least.

The people who brought us ALEC–mainly a range of think tanks funded by the Koch brothers and similar thinkers–couldn’t give a hoot about states rights.

Cat White

Way pre-ALEC. Roots go back to early 1960s Goldwater-era conservatism. The movement spawned leaders that became the Moral Majority in the 1970s. They were early critics of teacher’s unions and non-rote teaching methods. Taking over school Boards was the ground game. In a contradiction to the “local control” mantra, Texas has statewide textbook adoption to prevent local control.

Ohio has homerule embedded in its Constitution. Except for residency for city employees, environmental regulations, and gun laws. And actually a lot of other stuff that’s been whittled away. A lot of it is to give virtuous rural areas control or at least parity with evil urban areas.

This dynamic was captured in the Ohio license plate featuring a colorful farm at sunrise on the right, a bridge in the center and an entire urban skyline, in black silhouette, less than farm-size on the left.


Absolutely. Wuf and Cat have really nailed it down. And I agree wholeheartedly with Bob on the painfully bad strategy of the Dems under Clinton leadership (including all the “new Dems” they brought along).

I’d argue that the focus on presidential politics by the Democrats is because since ’92 the party has functioned as a vehicle for Clinton ambitions more than anything else. Big donors and the like are fine at the presidential level but don’t translate to ground game and ideology at the local and state level. Granted the conservative movement is well funded, but that funding is towards ideology and politics rather than personality … the latter is mostly a big deal at Senate and Presidential levels.


Ah, the party of states’ rights would like to see the states have fewer rights. The story illustrates a deeper issue with environmental regulations that ties the administration’s hands to some degree. Some states have federal agency enforcement of environmental (and worker health and safety) regulations, but generally the states are directed to draft their own legislation that is at least as stringent as the federal. It may be more so. Then states enforce those laws through state level agencies.

Ignoring environmental regulations at the federal level doesn’t necessarily change much because of this legal setup. And ignore (not enforce) is about all that can be done due to the fact that all the environmental laws I know of have clauses that require replacement, not just abrogation. Then the replacement has to be adopted by each state (to be fair, they’re required to do so in a certain time frame so once there’s a federal reg, all the states have it in roughly six months).


Much of it is pre-ALEC, yes. The ranks of these people have been legion over the years. But different roots to some extent, in that ALEC (1) had a national organization with very specific goals (penetrate every level of government), (2) had Koch money, and (3) very importantly, had a whole raft or corporate sponsors and associates. Companies that wouldn’t have been caught dead embracing the Moral Majority were big ALEC supporters. This was huge–these were major corporations ranging from Dow Chemical and GloxoSmithKline to 3M and Genentech, sitting comfortably with organizations such as the Heartland Institute.

I would also argue that ALEC’s goals weren’t anything as, well, trashy as simply wanting to roll back civil rights legislation, for example. They wanted to roll back regulation even more than they wanted to roll back social movements. If you were a chemical company with some concern over some potential regulation in some state, ALEC was your go-to organization. ALEC was actually founded to oppose the EPA.

Obviously, there were multiple agendas behind it, and the historical antecedents of these were often long and varied. But the main goal was always political–control government at all relevant levels. I imagine the Presidency was an afterthought, if it was thought about at all. Did Clinton threaten anything ALEC was trying to to? Obama? No, frankly–the action was always much more granulated, at the county and state level.

I wonder if Democrats, chanting russiaarussiarussia 24/7 and furiously attempting to block progressives at every turn, have noticed yet.


They haven’t. They believe in trickle down politics the way the GOP believes and sees trickle down economics.


1 reply »

  1. A commenter on Facebook makes a valid point: states’ rights have always been about tyranny.

    He’s right, and I need to clarify. I was referring to centralized/federal power, not tyranny in general. Specifically, states’ right had a great deal to do with slavery, which I think we can all agree was pretty tyrannical.