The Eternal Dodge of “States’ Rights”

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.