On Being a States' Rights Liberal

Here’s about how I see it.

[li]During the Great Depression, it was appropriate to call upon the federal government to exercise (and expand) its powers because the problem was of a truly national nature, and could arguably only be addressed with a national solution. [/li][li]During the civil rights era, it was appropriate to call upon the federal government to exercise (and, again, expand) its powers because the states were not addressing the problem and were, in many cases, actively contributing to it.[/li][li]During the late 60s and early 70s (LBJ-era Great Society, for example), liberals saw what the New Deal and the civil rights era had accomplished, and accordingly viewed it as appropriate to use the federal government to combat general social ills – not only were these ills of a national scope (meaning, due to economy of scale, that the federal government might be better equipped to tackle them), but the states often seemed to want to do little.[/li][li]For much of this time, and up until the 90s, Democrats controlled Congress. Thus, it was natural for liberals to turn to Washington, D.C. to address and achieve their policy goals.[/li][/ul]

Taken together, these things have led to a disturbing and complacent reliance by liberals (and by the Democratic Party) on the federal government as the place where things can (and should) be done. Which is unfortunate, for at least three reasons: 1) it causes them to put less energy and focus on local and state politics, in many cases barely bothering to contest elections at these levels; 2) it hurts them on the national stage, as they’re easily typecast as being in favor of federal bureaucracy for every problem, come hell or high water, a charge that resonates with swing voters; and 3) it’s a false assumption that often leads to bad policy. There are many things that I believe are best done by the federal government. But there are many other things that it seems are best, or most appropriately, done by the states. And still others that are best left in the hands of private industry. While the Democratic Leadership Council, for all its blemishes, has made inroads toward repudiating the idea that Democrats are hostile to the market, it appears that they, and liberals generally, are still directing their policy initiatives toward the federal level and giving fairly short shrift to state and local government.

It’s my contention that the Democratic Party, liberal causes, and the country as a whole would be best served if the Democrats were to re-energize their efforts towards states and localities, even if it meant admitting that the federal government is not the solution to all of life’s problems. While I believe that the states-as-laboratories-of-democracy idea is at best unworkable and at worst dangerous, I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the concept of federalism that should cause it to hew to one political ideology over another…except that liberals assume that states, given the freedom to do so, will implement conservative policies. That may be true, at least in large part. If so, so what? Get on the ground and go change people’s minds. Yes, that means that you have to persuade fifty sets of citizens, rather than muster enough of a majority to pass legislation. Fine. The bulk of domestic policy issues are better handled closer to the ground, and if that means that you allow Montanans to choose lower taxes over social programs, so be it. It also means that Iowa or Minnesota or New Mexico might end up more progressive, on the whole, than they would otherwise.

My only concern in this respect is that which drove the civil rights movement, protection of the rights of minorities – which is why I’ve envisioned (and articulated elsewhere) a robust role for the state and federal courts in acting as a countermajoritarian foil to ensure a fair, open, and representative political process.

Anyway, I guess the debate is twofold: First, would it be a good idea for the Democrats to place less emphasis on federal policy? What would be the result if they did so? And second, is there something inherent in federalism – that is, to greater state and local autonomy – that makes it less conducive to the success of liberal policy positions?

Good questions. I agree that allowing states to be “incubators” for ideas that the country as a whole isn’t ready to accept should in theory benefit liberals at least as often as conservatives, if not more often (“new idea” and “conservative” being on some level opposing concepts). Then why do “liberal” “new ideas” like the New Deal generally get implemented at the federal level, while “conservative” “new ideas” that actually seek to restrict liberal ones, like banning gay marriage, are generally implemented at the state level? Perhaps because a liberal new idea, being truly new, tends to have to overcome majority opinion if it is to succeed, and so often must be pushed by the federal executive branch, while conservative ones need only ride the (initially anti-new-idea) majority opinion, and so can be passed within most states.

All this is a huge generalization. Despite the “state’s rights” rhetoric, for and against, both liberals and conservatives will switch sides on that issue when it’s convenient. That’s why I was impressed that two conservative Supreme Court judges recently stuck to their guns and voted in favor of upholding California’s medical marijuana law (see other thread which I’m too lazy to find and cite), and so remained consistently pro-state’s-rights even though they had problems with the medical marijuana law itself.

If there’s any truth to what I just posted, then it follows that Democrats should in general not try to get their policies implemented at the state level, but should stick with the federalist stance. In a way, it’s about the educated people in Washington telling the dummies in the hinterland to get with it. That sounds awful – Liberal and other libertarian dopers will find it especially distasteful – but let’s face it, it’s what many Democrats want deep in their hearts (I admit it’s essentially my first instinct as well). But few of us would say it wasn’t a morally necessary strategy during the Civil Rights struggles of the late '50’s and early '60’s. I’m not saying it’s a necessary strategy today, for every issue. Just that it makes sense that the Democrats would continue to follow that model.

I do agree for the three reasons you give that the federal-level strategies have not yielded positive results (or even, sometimes, worthy goals) for the Democrats in recent years – but I don’t see how they have many alternatives. One might be to really milk the concept of Democrats as a regional party (east, west, and north coasts), and then push their ideas at the state level just within that region, but wouldn’t that delay their return to national power even longer?

Great thoughts in general, JKellyMap, and I’ll respond in more depth tomorrow.

Why can’t the Democrats just make a greater effort to field worthy candidates at the state and local level nationwide? I don’t think that implementing a federalism (that is, state-and-local-level) strategy would necessarily make them a regional party, would it? I think there are a number of midwestern and even southern states in which the state and local races could be more competitive than they are now. The idea, I guess, would be to 1) advocate devolving some federal power to the states in a way that actually gives the states that power (some devolution strategies are thinly-veiled efforts to deregulate and minimize governmental effectiveness at every level), 2) use that devolution (and concomitantly increased autonomy) in more progressive states and localities to get out in front (normatively speaking, of course) of the rest of the country, policy-wise, and 3) field principled-but-not-hyperpartisan candidates in less progressive states and localities in order to try and gradually effect a sea change, or at least to provide each area with two legitimate political parties. Does that make sense?

I don’t quite buy the assumptions in the argument. First of all, the Democrats are not exactly shut out of control of state governments. Shocking as it may seem, Dems control both houses in 17 states, Republicans in 21, with 11 states split (Nebraska is in theory non-partisan).

Enacting liberal programs in the states is a great idea. The trouble is, the money isn’t there. Unlike the feds, states can’t print money. Proposing a revenue raise in many states is political suicide, as there are a great many voters that base their vote 100% on taxes and will vote against anyone that proposes any tax increase, no matter how small and no matter what good it does.

The other problem I have with the concept is that I would not want to see people in different states have more or less than others. Maybe one state doesn’t mind having substandard schools, but that doesn’t make it fair to the children. Maybe one state doesn’t mind having no safety net for the disadvantaged. I don’t believe your basic needs should or should not be met depending on what state you live in.

I’d prefer you don’t tell me what my basic needs are. If I’m in rural Idaho and plan to be a farmer, my needs are very different from those of the kid in South Central LA, who wants to be a computer scientist. You cannot possibly put schools everywhere that are all things to all people. Central planning is okay for a small village, but for a country this size, it is counterproductive.

I also don’t want you to tell me whether I’m disadvantaged. That’s frankly a stupid word. I have some advantages and some disadvantages. Just because I have less money than you doesn’t mean I’m disadvantaged. My goal might not be to have every material comfort, and if it is, just give me freedom and I can get the material things on my own, thank you very much. Who the heck is going to collect and carry off your garbage if you engineer a society full of scientists and artists?

Finally, if one state doesn’t mind having what you deem to be substandard schools, that is hardly the calamity that it would be if a whole federal government felt the same way. No child left behind, you know. That’s the thing about central plans. They’re always designed to satisfy the planners and not the people they affect. Stop trying to do something for my own good. Isn’t your own life complex enough to warrant the whole of your attention? I honestly don’t believe that you have the wherewithall to live both your life and mine.

Go away. And take your plans with you.

You want to address the OP, Lib, or did you just pop in to give the boilerplate response to a mention of basic needs? :slight_smile:

What? The feds certainly can’t just print money when they need it. They need to raise money via taxes to pay for programs, just like the states do.

You make it sounds like such people are mis-guided. I had to pay $6700 a few months ago just to get a building permit for my new house. Now that I’m moved in I got a first tax bill of $1700 on it, and that’s just for the first half of the year and my house hasn’t even been appraised yet! If I’m paying over $3000 per year just for land, I’m sure my tax bill will be approaching $10,000 when my home is appraised.

Many people are paying punishing, tryannical tax amounts such as these. There’s nothing at all wrong with us voting based on decreasing these rates.

“fair to the children” :rolleyes:

Things are generally better run at the local level than at higher levels. There’s less waste and pork when the dollars are kept close to home. More importantly there’s that pesky constitution which is big on giving powers to states and limiting powers to the federal government.

Lib’s post is directly relevent to the OP in addition to being 100% correct.

Eh? They certainly do print money. They can run huge deficits, states cannot.

Sounds like you have quite the house. Congratulations. But taxing property is a time-honored method of raising funds in proportion to ability to pay. You may want to reduce these taxes, but can you also point to reductions in the services that you want the government to provide?

In theory, I agree that having control at the local level is a good idea. However, I don’t think anybody today would want to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964, yet at the time it was viewed as an intrusion on states’ rights. There are things that the feds do better and things that the states do better. The trick is in knowing which are which.


How? And how?

The question of States Rights vs. Federal Rights is a Straw Man.

When tyrants controlled the State governments, they insisted on States Rights. Now that they are in control of the Federal government, they insist on Federal Rights.

This is not about States Rights or Federal Rights. This is about Human Rights.

The United States was conceived on the proposition that all are created equal; that all have unalienable rights.

Our current government does not recognize that. They prohibit our personal liberty in the name of interstate commerce.

It would be best if we would all understood that the Constitution is simply a mechanism to secure these rights, and not an end unto itself.

Only through Liberty

To answer the second question first, yes, the notion of limited government, especially limited federal government, and double especially a federal government limited to the roles described by the Constitution, is a conservative idea. Welcome to the dark side. :smiley:

So the answer to the first question is yes, it would be a good idea. However, the result would be;
[ul][li]You are going to run into opposition from the proponents of the nanny state. This attitude is often parodied on these boards as “won’t someone think of the children?” The idea is that state and local governments might not have the resources (often undoubtedly true, especially in poor states like Mississippi) to address problems.[]The other objection is that state and local governments might not do as they are told. Take a contentious set of issues like gay marriage or abortion. How likely is federalism to get support from liberal Democrats, if Utah outlaws abortion or Texas amends its constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman? []There are a number of people, on both sides of the aisle, who are genuinely concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens. There are a number of others, again on both sides of the aisle, who can’t sleep at night knowing that somewhere, someone disagrees with them. The temptation is always there for those folks to use the blunt instrument of the government to try to force their ideas on everyone else. And that is a lot easier to do with the federal government than it is with fifty state legislatures. [/ul][/li]
But I suspect the biggest practical objection to the national Democratic party doing the kind of focus on localism you mention is that the Democratic party seems to have nailed its colors to the mast on things like a national health care system, or fighting to the death to keep Roe v. Wade in place to prevent states from regulating abortion.

Relocating decision-making to the lowest practicable level is a great idea, and one I fully support.

But be warned - local decision-making is a messy business of herding cats, and folks outside the Beltway and in the fly over states don’t necessarily leap to the same conclusions as the enlightened folks on Capital Hill.

Strikes me as a good idea, though - good luck with it.



Wow, that sounds like…exactly what I wrote in the OP. :slight_smile: All I’m asking is that Democrats/liberals acknowledge that the federal government doesn’t have to be, and often shouldn’t be, a panacea for life’s problems. The Republicans and libertarians tend too much toward a “the federal government can’t do anything right” mindset (gearing instead towards the states and localities – at least theoretically – and the private market, respectively). The Democrats tend too much toward a “the federal government can do no wrong” mindset. It hurts the party, it’s silly (as silly as the opposite mindset), and it often makes bad policy.

Then let me ask, how will you decide which are the issues to be decided by local governments, and which are up to the feds?


I’ll tackle this before I address your longer post (which was, as many of these responses have been, quite thoughtful).

It’s a tough question. I think some issues are national in nature. I’m generally in favor of the administrative state, so don’t count me on the dark side just yet. :wink: As I mentioned earlier, economies of scale really do allow the federal government to address some things far more efficiently and optimally. Scaling back the notion what constitutes interstate commerce would be a good start, although Raich is a step in the wrong direction. Please bear in mind, also, that as I said in the OP I do put great store in the protection of minority rights. That means I’m extremely skeptical of legislation (on any level) that treats a class of people differently for reasons that are founded in the majority’s view of religion or morality.

That doesn’t necessarily mean I think issues like gay marriage should be in the hands of Congress – I don’t – but I do think that state and federal courts have a role to play in enforcing constitutional protection for minorities…and I suspect my idea of what constitutes constitutional protection is quite a bit broader than yours. :slight_smile:

More in a bit.

You sold me. I fully agree that every single thing is NOT best decided by the federal government. But complete local control is not ideal either. School funding is a tough nut. You want local control, but is it fair that New York spends over $11,000 per pupil and Utah less than $5,000? Not that there is a linear relationship between spending and academic performance, but it seems to me that this local disparity puts some kids at a disadvantage in life depending on where they live.

Shodan had excellent examples about abortion and gay marriage. But what about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act? Would we be better off with these in local control?

In order for the states to truely be laboratories, they have to be allowed to fail. Now, I certainly agree that no state government should be allowed to use its authority to discriminate against racial minorities, but can you describe in which areas a “states rights liberal” would allow the states to fail? That’s the basic problem that I see, and it’s not necessarily confined to liberals. Conservatives are just as eager to jump in with federal authority when their ox is getting gored.

Take the idea of universal healthcare. How about letting the states decide whether or not they want it? And if several states decide to voluntarily team up and for a super-cooperative that’s fine. But if some states decide to keep healthcare a private matter, will a “states rights liberal” be wiling to let that state go its own way?

I’ll even point to two areas where the feds can and should back away.

Highway oversight. The feds collect a gas tax and dole it out to the states and tell them how to spend it. Some states get a windfall from this and others are “donor states”. In any event, the state DOTs are fully able to handle their own road networks without federal oversight.

Agriculture. Do we need the USDA? Do we need farm subsidies and paying people not to produce certain commodities?