Like the often-used cry of “judicial activism,” the cry of “states’ rights” is an excuse to like or dislike a point of view while clothing it in a higher, “principled” calling.
The debate over “states rights” aka Federalism is not new. This debate is as old as the nation, probably older. More importantly, it doesn’t break down into convenient left/right, liberal/conservative divisions.
Federal power can be good if the law is good. States’ powers can be good if their laws are good or if they are resisting a bad federal law. Historically, neither left nor right has a monopoly on good policy. Left, right, and in-between have used the tactic of federalism when it suits them.
The Civil Rights Act is a good use of Federal power trumping the power of the individual states. The Patriot Act is a bad one.
Medical marijuana is a good use of states rights asserted against the federal government. Capping damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits is a bad one.
Whichever side wears the mantle of federalism is a tactical decision depending on the issue at hand. But, to hear right-wingers talk these days, you’d think they invented the idea of federalism and states’ rights. Well that just ain’t true.
The right has overreached and overruled state laws with federal powers plenty of times: no child left behind, tort reform (attempted), the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentences come to mind. The right has also stood up for states’ rights in the name of despicable causes like Jim Crow laws, resisting school integration, and blurring the lines between church and state. Heading into 2011, they can be expected to continue opposing health care reform under the guise of “states’ rights” as well. It’s clear that conservatives are for federalism only when it suits them as a political tactic.
Liberals also use federalism when appropriate. Gun control, stem cell research, medical marijuana, and environmental protection come to mind as liberal “states’ rights” issues. The difference is that liberals don’t wear federalism on their sleeves like the current crop of right wingers.
Ultimately, the issue of “states’ rights” depends on the issue at hand, and the positions of each side reflect their views of what is just and what is good policy. It comes down to values.