Why Democrats should embrace states’ rights
The term “states’ rights” has historically been rather divisive across the political spectrum. Conservatives and libertarians tend to see it as a core part of their philosophy of small government, whereas liberals often see it as a dog-whistle racist term alluding back to the era of Jim Crow laws. The right sees states’ rights as the proper vehicle to fight the overreach of federal government, while the left tends to see a strong federal government as more effective at bringing about social change.
However, with the news of Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 election, we may begin seeing a change to this paradigm. Over the next four years, the Democratic Party may start paying lip service to the idea of states’ rights, in the same way that the way the Republican Party has been doing for the past eight years.
This doesn’t represent any core shift in ideology. In fact, Republican appeal to states’ rights has been mainly ideological, whereas any Democratic interest has been chiefly out of pragmatism rather than any overarching belief that smaller, more local government is better. Instead, liberals tend to support local initiatives when they know the federal government cannot provide what they want. In 2013, for instance, the idea of legalizing recreational cannabis and gay marriage had decent support from liberals who believed that there was not enough momentum to advance these at the federal level.
Now that the presidency, House, Senate and (presumably) Supreme Court are going to be under Republican rule for the next few years, Democrats may find themselves courting the states’ rights strategy to advance their agendas. This is already an uphill battle: as of November 2016, the GOP also has a clear overall advantage in terms of state representatives. However, states like California and Massachusetts, which tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic at the state level, may find themselves pushing new Democratic agendas that would otherwise be reserved for the federal level.
This might actually turn out to be beneficial for Democrats. At the national level, the left is forced to make their message more moderate to appeal to general election voters. This was painfully obvious during the presidential primaries, during which the Democratic Party struggled to balance the hard-left message of Bernie Sanders with the centrist approach of Hillary Clinton. However, when it comes to states’ rights, states like Massachusetts and California can afford to push laws that would be palatable to liberals but which would not be quite as popular at a national level. Romneycare is perhaps the most striking example to Massachusetts residents, but the idea still holds for other issues as well.
Of course, this swings both ways. Democratic states can choose to focus on pushing more states’ rights agendas that would be unfavorable to general Republicans, but Republican states will also be doing the same, passing laws that most Democrats would not favor. While this means that both parties have the chance to get some of what they want, it’s also a bit worrying that this might further polarize our country, in a time when radical polarization has already rocked our politics on a national level.
Regardless, both Democrats and Republicans ought to focus on restoring power to the states and away from the federal government. While few in the media questioned the massive expansion of federal power under the Obama administration, perhaps they will be more critical now that someone like Trump will be in the White House. This may be just the impetus that America needs to realize the danger of consolidating too much power in a central authority, and the power of giving more control towards local government.
Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.