The GOP, “States’ Rights” and Self-Governance

The Republican Party adopted the following plank concerning the American regime at its recent national convention:

The Republican Party ... stands for the rights of individuals, families, faith communities, institutions—and of the States, which are their instruments of self-government.

            Notably absent from this formulation is the nation’s only instrument of self-governance that represents the country’s entire population, its national government. That is no accident. As political journalist Charles Pierce has recently observed, the GOP has for some 40 years attacked the national government as somehow apart from the people it serves. That stance continues in the current campaign. The pretense is that citizens somehow are able to control their government at the state level, but not at the national scale. The question I explore briefly here is why the GOP might adopt this self-evidently contradictory perspective and how it is tied to the Party’s claims concerning the aims and character of the American regime.

            As the wording of the Party’s platform implies, the Republicans have indeed taken the view that the states, and not the People, created the Union. That view is historically inaccurate and analytically erroneous. The issue is why the Party would press such a myth and meanwhile simultaneously thereby undermine the legitimacy of the nation as a primary actor and the only instrument the people collectively can enjoin to represent them. Scholars and analysts have advanced at least four theses to explain this position.

            First, one may take the Platform’s authors at their word and imagine that they have adopted this false version of sources and events for ideological reasons, believing somehow that the principle of subsidiarity justifies their view. Given that the Civil War was fought in part to settle a long-running controversy concerning whether the people via their national government or the states were sovereign in our Union, and that the Constitution was created by our nation’s Founders to address the many weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, which was indeed a compact among states, this interpretation is extremely kind. In a word, these analysts suggest that GOP leaders believe what they argue, even if they are profoundly mistaken in doing so.

            A second explanation for the Republican Party plank arises from the GOP’s singular devotion to the market as a central response to the nation’s policy and political challenges. In recent decades, the Party has adopted the view that the market, not its governments, generally represents the nation’s most appropriate strategy to address its governance and political challenges. That is, these partisans favor not only smaller government, but also, and more importantly, a larger role for the market in American culture and society. Such can occur more readily if one presses public action to lower levels of the regime, as these are, by definition, more susceptible to business advocacy and expressed concerns than the national government. If one wishes to increase the role of business and the market in society, therefore, it may make political sense to argue for a larger role for the states in public life relative to the nation. Nonetheless, to do so does not in principle require delegitimating the national government, but the Party has chosen to take that tack, apparently in the view that it cannot otherwise gain continuing governance salience and permanence for its preferred position.

            A third rationale often advanced by interested analysts and journalists for GOP adoption of this so-called “States’ Rights” perspective is linked to that Party’s strong Southern base. The national government assumed responsibility in the late 1950s and early 1960s for securing the legal, political and civil rights of the nation’s African-Americans and other minorities. These actions were fought strongly by the various states affected by those efforts, especially in the South. Many GOP partisans in those states still employ symbols of the Confederacy and use rhetoric strongly suggesting to their supporters that those national actions supporting civil rights were inappropriate at best, and unjust and unnecessary at worst.

            Many analysts interpreting such actions contend that the GOP’s apparent devotion to the states, and their supposed rightful role in the federal system, has nothing to do with the Party’s views concerning our Constitution or our regime’s design, but instead represents a calculated appeal to likely Republican voters who remain aggrieved that their “way of life” was changed by national action. It should be self-evident what this stance implies about those partisan leaders’ ethical stance and willingness to ensure that all Americans enjoy their civil rights under our regime.

            Finally, and as a related proposition, some scholars and journalists have sought to explain the GOP position by linking it to the Party’s recent use of state legislatures it controls to create and impose much stronger voter registration and identification requirements that disproportionately negatively affect the poor, the elderly and minorities. These measures, the analysts contend, do not indicate the supposed fraud on which they are publicly justified and for which there is no empirical evidence, but instead reflect the Party’s interest in depressing turnout among these groups whose members, on average, do not vote for GOP candidates and initiatives. To the extent this proposition is accurate, it suggests that Republican Party leaders well understand how they can attain such legislation, which could not gain a majority nationally, even as it reveals a deeply cynical approach to citizen rights and the franchise.

            These propositions are not incommensurable and several may be accurate descriptions of the Party’s actions at once, but all are built on a historically inaccurate and mythological understanding of the national union. All of these rationales too, delegitimize the nation’s government, although perhaps for different reasons. Finally, none ensure the Framers’ vision that each level of governance could check the potential tyrannical excesses of the other while also ensuring that each remains subject, finally, to the nation’s entire citizenry.