Political Animal


December 14, 2012 11:16 AM The Eternal Dodge of “States’ Rights”

By Ed Kilgore

It’s probably a mistake to treat a post by Jonah Goldberg as reflecting deep philosophical trends within conservatism. But there’s something about his “Here’s an idea: federalism!” (not the actual headline, but very much the tone) piece at NRO that nicely reflects why conservatives so often retreat to “states’ rights” as a political strategy masquerading as a matter of deep principle.

Goldberg suggests that conservatives are doomed to lose national policy debates because they are rigged to favor some sort of action rather than some sort of inaction. So deferring issues to the states, it seems, is a prescription for losing on a more piecemeal basis, or something (Goldberg isn’t real clear about it). He does score his fellow-conservatives for being for federalism only when it’s convenient, by way of urging them to relax about states legalizing pot. More indirectly, his line of argument leads in the direction of resistance to the various corporate lobbies who are eternally for federal preemption of regulations or tax rates on businesses that are tougher than what Washington imposes.

But if you look at history, American conservatives have almost always been hypocritical about “states’ rights,” treating it as fallback position when their national policy goals were thwarted. It was evident in the movement towards Prohibition. It’s evident today in the thinly-veiled intentions of anti-choicers to pursue a national ban on abortions if their interim goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and turning the issue back to the states succeeds. And it was even apparent in what is usually described as the great historic high-point of states’ rights sentiment that led to the Civil War, but that actually revolved around the southern demand that the federal government protect the “property rights” of slaveholders in new territories.

Goldberg says conservatives should be happy to let California become “Sweden with better weather” if its citizens so wish, if it’s part of an overall scheme whereby Texas gets to become “Singapore on the Rio Grande.” Any way you slice it, federal policies and programs will vitally affect either aspiration, which is why letting Texas execute some sort of de facto secession is only possible if the national government abandons its responsibilities towards the Texans conservatives would like to abandon.

Sure, there are many policy decisions best made at the state and local levels of government, and many arguments that can be made about how different levels of government can best cooperate. But pretending “federalism” is some sort of comprehensive governing philosophy instead of a dimension of governing regardless of ideology is a chimera. If that’s the best strategy conservatives can devise, they are in for a long season of incoherence and insincerity, and probably minority status.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Karen on December 14, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Texas won't be Singapore; we'll be Somalia on the Rio Grande, but with more white people and less effective plumbing.

  • T2 on December 14, 2012 11:29 AM:

    it seems to me that Conservatives, seeing the demographic writing on the wall, have decided to erect their ideological firewall at the State level. Having taken over quite a few state governments already, and using redistricting to ensure a majority Right-WIng legislature, they can and will, on a state by state basis, thwart the overall will of the nation as a whole. Wisconsin and Texas being two prime examples.....although Wisconsinites recalled enough GOPers to even things out in their state to a degree. If States Rights means anything, it signals the final battle ground of the fading GOP.

  • Robert Waldmann on December 14, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Debating Jonah Goldberg is stealing candy from a baby, but I note that in Singapore not on the Rio Grande 85% of people live in public housing and the state took 30% of payroll for a fully funded pension scheme which means that Singapore has huge gigantic public ownership of the means of production.

    The fact that a conservative thinks that Texas would have to be liberated to move further right in order to emulate the Socialist Path Party of Lee Kwan Yew is positive proof of the utter sterility of Goldberg's thought. He lives in a world of illusions in which development based on massive public control of practically everything is considered to the right of Texas (or for that matter Sweden where firms are privately owned).

    As I said, stealing candy from a baby.

    No the model for a right wing development strategy is Alabama not Singapore. The problem is that the right wing approach has utterly failed.

  • rdale on December 14, 2012 11:46 AM:

    "But if you look at history, American conservatives have almost always been hypocritical..." You could have stopped right there.

  • Ken D. on December 14, 2012 11:48 AM:

    Hat tip to Karen, my thoughts precisely. "Somalia on the Rio Grande" is indeed the more likely outcome of Goldbergism; while it would be a helpful object lesson, we can't to that to the good people of Texas.

  • c u n d gulag on December 14, 2012 11:53 AM:

    "Goldberg suggests that conservatives are doomed to lose national policy debates because they are rigged to favor some sort of action rather than some sort of inaction."

    Yes. Especially if any action is destructive to anyone and everyone except Conservatives.

    Since today's Republicans and Conservatives are natural guerilla's and terrorists, taking vulnerable states hostage, is the only viable action they can see at the moment.

    It looks like they'll hold the House of Representatives hostage for a while longer, as well as Southern states.

    And they will continue to wither as a national power, until they can drown themselves in their own bathtubs.

  • Gene O'Grady on December 14, 2012 11:54 AM:

    It's not historically accurate to call prohibition a conservative cause; it was in fact part of the 19th century reform agenda espoused by some of the most impressive names in American history from Oswald West to Abraham Lincoln.

  • pete on December 14, 2012 11:57 AM:

    Thanks, Robert Waldmann: I actually gave Goldberg a page view because I couldn't believe even he could be so obtuse as to suggest that Texas might become Singapore, arguably the least libertarian capitalist state in the known universe. (Sorry, Ed, I promise to believe you in future.) Your rebuttal is excellent. Also, there's pretty good skiing in California.

  • Mimikatz on December 14, 2012 11:58 AM:

    I do think Goldberg, idiot that he is, is right about the direction of the GOP and their business allies. They are bent on taking over states and converting them to Chinese-style "worker's paradises" of low-wage work and no environmental regulation. Their allies in the Congress will cripple the EPA and stymie federal regulations even though they can no longer elect presidents. We will have many little Kochistans along with Sweden on the Pacific and in the Northeast. Except that we will have much greater inequality than Sweden.

  • Grumpy on December 14, 2012 11:58 AM:

    Because I'm too lazy to look it up: when did "federalism" change from meaning "states united under a strong central government" (as the original Federalists understood it) to mean "states divided under a weak central government"?

  • paul on December 14, 2012 12:59 PM:

    How about Haiti on the Rio Grande? Not even the current one, the old version under Papa Doc.

    Grumpy: I think it was when constitutional lawyers and right-wing supreme court justices needed a fancier way to say "The bill of rights doesn't apply to the states, because shut up."

  • KH on December 14, 2012 4:48 PM:

    Another relevant difference between Singapore & Sweden (& the US): on standard measures of democratic governance. Taking the WGI Voice & Accountability indicator for 2011, Sweden ranks 4th out of 215, the US 31st, and Singapore 123rd (below Turkey, Mozambique, Lesotho, Tanzania, Paraguay, Ukraine, etc). Singapore is just a less democratic place. It's appeal as a model is, as often as not, bound up with a certain coolness toward democracy.

  • emma on December 14, 2012 8:09 PM:

    My home state of NC will be Goldberged starting in Jan.
    Just watch it unfold as an ALEC wetdream, the flat-earthers and bitter-clingers will be having their way with us.

    Thanks, Ed, for being here. Enjoy your vacation.