Confederate-style states’ rights tantrums rise again—and will fall again to enlightened federalism

Either federalism determines “self-evident” human rights, or the Constitutional republic model turns farce, with 50 different state law clusters.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

Can any constitutional federal republic long abide a confederation of contradictory rogue states?

Here we go again, as right-wing red states stage another round of stunts that dispute whether we are one country—or a confederation of 50 states with 50 law clusters. What functional country allows divisive, cultural sectarianism to undermine marginal unity? As with sex scandals, celebrity and faux patriotism, media-driven performances grab headlines and stir a short-term pot. But behind the partisan trumpery is a solid trend towards universalizing the same rights for all citizens. If America stands for anything, it’s about steady progress towards legitimizing many, many rights, not pandering to regional manias that undermine them. 

The latest, states’ rights provocations on abortion, voting rights, gender choices, guns and education are again testing to what degree we are “one nation,” under your deity of choice. With heavy-handed state intrusions, a myopic minority not only foments insurrection against federalism but incites a reaction that will codify, clarify, even expand rights for the many, just as the Founders (in theory) intended. As with Trump, the showier the scandalous fireworks, the greater the electoral backlash. This latest run of misplaced states rights merge bad law and bad morality with in the end bad politics. 

Highly unpopular, right-wing excesses, aided and abetted by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and judicial manipulation will, if past is prologue, incite a reaction that ends up shredding the unjust thresholds favored by anti-abortionists. If anything triggers strong liberal reactions, going over the line, then trampling further, is the best driver of reform. Thus, I project the chances for Congress to preserve full abortion rights (after 2024) is far greater than any total ban passing. Not even the deranged Trump would sign a bill that prohibits abortion after rape, incest, or ignores the health of the mother? Spurring Democratic prospects, Trumpism married to evangelical and gun sales fervor is the electoral gift that keeps on giving. The only question for me is when greater freedoms are codified.  

A story of relative progress

In a nutshell, the direction. if not the history of America presents an arc towards enlightenment: Enforced slavery and racial discrimination in hiring, housing and public access are forbidden. Racial lynch mobs are nearly obsolete (except by police brutality). Despite recent suppression, voting rights still validate more citizens now than fifty years ago. Civil rights laws are on the books, some actually enforced. Women and minorities vote, serve on juries, hold property, and win powerful positions—opposite to a century ago. Despite sporadic deviance, children are protected by labor laws. Health care coverage expands. Homosexuality is no longer illegal. Senators once appointed by partisan legislatures are now popularly elected. Abortion (medical and drug) is still widely available. In short, the elevator pitch of American history displays a one-way majoritarian highway, marked by progressive reforms over obsolete, racist, anti-democratic restrictions sanctified by the fallacy of states’ rights. 

Why should we then think that over time today’s right-wing tantrums, mimicking a Lost Cause mindset, have any better chance to survive, let alone expand beyond backward boonies? When do arrogant minority parties, especially in decline, not trigger PR stunts to imply vitality and relevance. But what are the chances for a total national abortion ban—or that gun access won’t tighten? Only a dictatorship enforces unpopular views to be universally obeyed. Except for the (interim?) court endorsement of micromanaging abortion rights by states, when else has an essential right over time been permanently reversed? I can’t think of one. 

Regionalism redux

Unless our democracy has been fatally torpedoed—and more evidence proves it’s the amateurish insurgency that’s failing, the majority across elections will insist on its sovereignty. If almost two-thirds endorse sensible abortion rights, evangelical mania will not endure. When enough schoolchildren are slaughtered (and the threshold is unspeakable), gun control, especially on semi-automatics, will happen. If farcical stupidity continues apace, calling all lost election outcomes “rigged,” then transparent fraudsters will be denied, even jailed if hatefully violent. 

We’ve all seen this play before, upwards of six times in American history. Ominously, as before the Civil War, today’s backward Supreme Court is bending over to reverse the two century trend that stopped willful state roguery. Either federalism determines “self-evident” human rights (like over one’s own body), or the Constitutional republic model turns farce, with 50 different state law clusters. That way lies dysfunctional chaos, as with the discredited Confederation of States. Even now, across red states the proportion of GOP state assembly members surpasses the more mixed, less than super majority of public opinion. 

When in doubt, blame federalism, the big dog. Too intrusive, wasteful, domineering, rife with regulations that interfere with illusory freedom of “real Americans”—and, horrors, dictated by demonic liberal forces or the deep state who both “hate America.” How ungentlemanly to punish real patriots, like that top secret document thief in Florida, screaming, “we’re the victims.” Trump’s schtick always came down to crudely impaling federalism, the inestimably corrupt people who run it (and hate him), or even the idea of central control. Or any control over Trump. Thus, the right refuses to govern, indeed wastes time throwing wrenches into the machinery—the pointless debt charade only the latest media theater. 

A permanent tension

From the get-go, slavery—the subjugation of kidnapped, future citizens—was so divisive that the Constitution would have failed without the ludicrous 3/5s person proviso by which non-voting black people were counted. What grew from Jeffersonian populism naively posited that any state could nullify the federal government (birthing instead a contentious, dispute-ridden Europe). The next battleground: national banking, when Andrew Jackson closed down the Second U.S. Bank for not favoring his rural, western constituents. Jackson the early Trumpist “populist” railed against federalism as an“enemy of the people.” 

Then came the Civil War, as much about economics and states rights as about slavery, whose resolution debunked the right of a state to secede or nullify whatever offended it. Sort of. Needing stability to fight a war, Lincoln revitalized a national banking system, though the Federal Reserve wasn’t born for 50 years. The next “federalist” war struck in the 1950s-’60s over civil rights and segregation, during which the recalcitrant South invoked states rights—and once again federal law eviscerated this creaky, old saw horse. But that doesn’t stop right-wingers from dragging states rights from the grave, with Florida making the most regressive headlines nowadays. Who doubts the worst (maybe most) of DeSantis’ mayhem will not stand.

So, yawn, another round of minority, rogue states rights vs. majoritarian federalism. Fascistic ideologues only have to corrupt elections enough so that partisans commandeer the state reigns of power. No early historic escapade cited was resolved easily, but no unpopular, backward minority since 1865 fully impacted its generation. Except for severe failures to reform unjust crony capitalism or foreign policy aggression, we cite undeniable rights progress for minorities, women, children, gay and gender-flexible people. 

If the right-wing was chockablock with geniuses, their reign of legal error would be far worse and less counterproductive. But if Trump, DeSantis, primitive senators and the Greene-Gaetz House gang are the best shot at bashing America, can such dimwits win the year, or the decade—or the generation? And still preying on aging, ignorant Trumpers: obesity, alcoholism, addictions, and the dire outcomes: diabetes, heart disease, addiction, cancer, etc. Overall, America still grinds upward in rights, even if as sluggish as Trump indictments. 


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.