The GOP Only Selectively Cares About States’ Rights

The Trump presidency has shown how easily Republicans will abandon their commitment to federalism when they don’t find it politically advantageous.

You may have noticed something peculiar going on since Donald Trump’s election. The party of federalism and states’ rights has changed. In important ways, the GOP is now the party of big government.

“Has changed” isn’t quite right. “Is changing” is more accurate. We have not yet arrived at a moment when the party’s leadership is saying what Trump surrogate Gina Loudon said on Fox News last week: “States rights don’t override federal rights.” But we are getting there. Loudon was referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to cancel an Obama-era policy of a more hands-off approach to drug enforcement, which allowed states to decriminalize pot before legalizing it. His decision has states like Colorado and California, where it is legal to buy and sell, waiting with bated breath. Others, like Connecticut, are unsure whether they should move forward with ending prohibition.

Sessions’s decision is only one of a handful of serious policy shifts indicating the Republican Party is no longer squeamish about flexing federal muscle to advance its agenda. ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan said on Fox News: “We’ve got to take [sanctuary cities] to court, and we’ve got to start charging some of these politicians with crimes.” He added Sessions should “file charges.”

I’m not willing to call this authoritarianism, at least not yet, but I am willing to call it big government, because that’s what the Republicans have been calling it since the New Deal and Great Society. I’m interested in holding those in power to their own standards, and this standard of railing against big government was partially the reason the Republican Party is now in power. For conservative voters, Obamacare was big government par excellence.

Sessions has a snowball’s chance of success in prosecuting sanctuary cities, but that’s not my point. GOP’s other big government objectives include opening up virtually all coastal waters to drilling, despite vehement objections by states; pushing for so-called “reciprocity laws,” overriding local bans on the open carry of firearms; and, perhaps most importantly, extracting hundreds of millions from red and blue states to pay for tax cuts for the rich with the elimination of deductions for state and local taxes.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last week called this “economic civil war,” and he’s close to being right.

Sure, the Republicans still favor privatizing Social Security and Medicare, as well as nixing business regulations from here to Alaska. But does this mean Republicans stand for federalism and states’ rights? I don’t think so, not when you consider efforts to challenge or undermine the gist of the Tenth Amendment. It’s more accurate to say the Republican Party stands for states’ rights when the states in question voted for President Donald Trump.

Some will say, yeah, duh. The Republicans are hypocrites. They’ve been playing both side of the states’ rights principle for years. I don’t disagree, but I suspect something deeper is going on. It feels like we are approaching a tipping point impacting both parties. Republicans may have won the White House in the past in spite of favoring big government policies, but never in my lifetime has a Republican won because he favored them. And just as the Republicans are becoming the party of big government, the Democrats—and I’m serious—are becoming the party of federalism and states’ rights.

I say I’m serious, because the Republicans have been so successful in branding the Democrats as the party of big government that to suggest they are becoming the party of federalism and states’ right sounds crazy. But how else can explain the success of gay marriage, battles over the minimum wage, pot legalization, and gun control? They didn’t win in Washington. They won in the states.

And it’s not just me saying the Democrats are becoming the party of states’ rights. According to a new book by a couple of political scientists, the era in which progressives used the federal government to advance progressive goals was, from the 1930s to the 1970s, something extraordinary. Here’s what I would add: short of an international calamity, like the Great Depression and World War II, we may never return.

What’s ordinary, historically speaking, is progressive politics taking place at the state and local level, write William W. Franko and Christopher Witko in The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality. The reason, they say, is states are responsive to reform efforts, and they are more responsive, because they are not captive to conservative moneyed interests, as is the case in Washington, D.C. This is not to say that conservatives did not do the same. They did. But they exerted influence in conservative states while progressives exerted influence in moderate and liberal states.

That changed with the Great Depression, opening a long period in which progressive politics was mostly a top-down effort. But with Trump, conservative politics is taking a turn, inspiring progressive politics to return to its historical roots as a truly bottom-up enterprise.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.