Contention over the power of the states versus the federal government predates the United States. At the time of the revolution, America had been successfully operating as 13 independent economies loosely bound in a “firm league of friendship” under the impotent Articles of Confederation. It would be difficult to understate the radicalism of the argument for unification, and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 represented an irrevocable shift that forever enshrined the argument over the rights of the states in American political discourse.
Over time, the argument’s finer points fell away as the concept of states’ rights became synonymous with the argument over slavery. Slavery’s intentional absence from the Constitution left it open to interpretation, and the issue came to the fore when proponents of states’ rights argued for expansion of slavery into newly acquired Western territories. In 1861, the issue led to the most devastating war in U.S. history.
Confederate apologists still pretend the Civil War was fought for the hazy conception of “states’ rights.” In the same vein, former slave owners and their descendants touted states’ rights to systematically oppress the slaves they’d been forced to free. Federal intervention in the form of constitutional amendments and voting rights legislation lent some support to the oppressed, moves that were fervently opposed by conservatives citing states’ rights.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, racist Southerners fled the Democratic party, and the modern political system finally crystallized. The Republican Party’s official 2016 platform cites their commitment to “(return) to the people and the states the control that belongs to them.” The argument for states’ rights as a bulwark against the infringement of individual liberty is appealing, especially to conservatives unwilling to acknowledge the argument’s ties to racism and bigotry.
The relationship between the modern-day Republican Party and the original proponents of states’ rights is complex. According to government professor Bartholomew Sparrow, neither modern parties truly resemble the original Antifederalists, as both fundamentally support a strong centralized state. Sparrow posits the states’ rights argument may in fact be a kind of “code” for fewer regulations by the federal government. However, states’ rights as they are called for by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demand in the most overt terms the reworking of the U.S. Constitution in favor of the states.
Any innocent argument for states’ rights dissolved this year when the Republican Party abandoned that aspect of their platform. Earlier this month, the Texas Legislature — a longtime advocate for states’ rights — approved a bill eliminating the ability of Texas cities to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Former Texas governor and soon-to-be Secretary of Energy Rick Perry responded to widespread opposition of the law. He criticized “a culture of contempt for federal law in this area,” apparently ignorant to the deep irony of this statement.
On Nov. 8, 2016, the bigotry the Republican Party had been masquerading as states’ rights became mainstream. With the support of the White House behind them, Republicans began to shed the euphemistic mask of states’ rights and initiated an active crusade against the values they purported for centuries. Evidently, the 10th Amendment, obsessively cited by Republicans claiming the power of the states, only applies when the power in question is that of oppression.
Anderson is a Plan II and history freshman from Houston.