There was a time when the term “states’ rights” was simply code for racial discrimination. In the early 1960s, Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama adhered to the policy of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” They felt that as governors each state had the right to set policies regarding segregation and integration.
States’ rights are still an essential tenet of the Republican Party. Many Democrats who are scared of the so-called conservative movement in the country also embrace the rhetoric and policies of states’ rights.
There are a few courageous politicians who acknowledge the reality of “we’re all in this together” and the federal government is the entity that addresses the challenges that face all of us. One who supports strong federal involvement in domestic policies is former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Her views come from conviction and experience. She was governor of Michigan as its economy began to tank in the early 2000s, well before the rest of the country fell into a recession. The early 2000s was a terrible time for American auto manufacturers and Michigan bore the brunt of the distress more than any other state in the nation.
In her book, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future, Granholm states:
After three decades of conservative ascendancy, global competition is confronting us with the hard fact that pure laissez-faire, free-market theory no longer works. Recent experience shows that tax cuts, deregulation, and a hands-off approach to government don’t amount to a magical formula for jobs, profits, and prosperity.
Throughout the book, she explains the limitations of what Michigan, as a single state, could do to address the serious economic problems that it faced. She was as energetic and creative as any governor could have been, but Michigan was caught between the vice of corporate greed and federal indifference during the George W. Bush years until the waning months of his term.
Finally, with the stimulus package fashioned by the Obama Administration with a Democratic Congress, necessary aid came. Granholm describes the good news that came in the form of a phone call from an aide to Vice-President Joe Biden. Here’s part of what Michigan was getting from the stimulus package:
“KD Advanced Battery Group—$161 million, factory to be built in Midland, Michigan. Johnson Controls—$299.2 million, factory to be built in Holland, Michigan. A123 Systems to get $249.1 million—factories to be built in Romulus and Brownstown. Compact Power, also known as LG Chem—$151.4 million for battery cells for the GM Volt, facilities to be built in Holland, Pontiac, and St. Clair. General Motors and Ford—two awards each for four different projects. Chrysler’s getting one. Magna E-Car Systems of America is getting $40 million for a plant in Holly. Eaton in partnership with the Coast Air Quality Management District is getting $45.4 million for a plant in Galesburg.
In order to appreciate the full significance of the Obama Administration’s commitment to the stimulus package as well as Governor Granholm’s clear understanding of its need, it is helpful to reflect on the vital engagement of the federal government in domestic issues in the 1960s and then see how Republicans have continuously tried to undermine it.
During the 1960s the federal government passed a series of civil rights laws based on the premise that human rights enforced by the federal government trumped states’ rights. Had the Civil Rights bills of 1964, 1965, and 1968 not been passed, it’s quite possible that in the South and other isolated locales, African-Americans could not eat at the same restaurants as whites. They could not stay in the same hotels. They could not live in communities where whites did not want them to be their neighbors. They would not have equal access to employment opportunities. There would be no enforcement procedures to ensure that African-Americans had equal rights to vote.
At the same time that the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations were advancing human rights, they were also addressing the economic needs of the poor and some in the middle class. These programs, known as the Great Society, included Medicare, Medicaid, the War on Poverty, increased federal aid to education, and increased federal assistance for mass transit. Additionally, consumer protection laws were enacted to provide protection for citizens against deceptive practices by some corporations.
The human rights and economic advances of the 1960s were of enormous benefit to the disenfranchised. But that’s not the entirety of the equation. In some ways, the advances for the “have nots” was a loss for the “haves.” Business owners could not refuse to serve African-Americans if they chose not to do so. Few African-Americans could vote in the South which ensured that candidates would continue to try to “out-segregate” one another. Politicians did not need to concern themselves about appealing to at least a modicum of moderate and progressive voters.
States’ rights has become the mantra for virtually all the Republicans running for president as well as a number of other candidates running for offices at the federal and state levels. In many ways the reason is residue from the advances of the 1960s. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “laws cannot change the hearts of others, but they can change their habits.” The progressive laws of the 1960s have provided vital new opportunities for minorities and others who are disenfranchised. However, the laws appear to have not done much with regard to changing the hearts of others.
In many ways, the support of states’ rights by the Republican party is the residue of or a reincarnation of the Southern bigotry that has existed through most of the country’s history. The planks of their platform are largely based on trying to undo the civil and economic rights that became the law of the land of the 1960s.
1. Republican views opposed to human rights:
c. Anti-gay rights
2. Republican view opposed to economic rights for the poor and middle class
a. Opposing ending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy
b. Initial opposition to payroll tax cuts (only applying to lower and middle class)
c. Opposing additional stimulus to provide more jobs for the unemployed
d. Opposing retaining maximum length of unemployment insurance at 99 weeks (or increasing that number if necessary)
e. Opposing the Affordable Health Care Act which extends health care coverage to an additional 35 – 40 million citizens
f. Opposing federal aid to education
g. Favoring reducing spending on virtually all domestic programs.
h. Anti-environmental protection
i. De-regulation which increases corporate profits at the expense of consumer and worker interests.
While Barack Obama has been criticized by some progressives for not pushing a sufficiently strong liberal agenda, over the past year he has been fashioning more policy around the strength of the federal government. He has the strongest bully pulpit of any public figure. With help from other Democrats who can sense the absurdity of many Republican positions, President Obama can help us restore the perspectives of the 1960s when it was clear that major answers to public issues rested with the federal government. The Republicans have given Democrats a wonderful opportunity to bring common sense back to governance. Jennifer Granholm clearly understands the importance of a strong federal government. Barack Obama is moving more in that direction. Now we need other Democrats to seize the moment.