Right On: Democrats rediscover states’ rights

Photo by clhoman/iStock/Getty Images Plus; St. George News

OPINION — The party of big government is returning to its roots and discovering that states’ rights are not such bad things after all.

Following the Civil War, Democrats were the party of states’ rights – and segregation. Finally jettisoning its segregationist Southern wing in the 1960s, the party spearheaded the civil rights movement. It abandoned states’ rights as well, championing instead one-size-fits-all federal fixes for all society’s ills.

Democrats controlled Congress for all but 10 years from 1933 through 1995 and became the party of big government. Republicans, supposedly the party of limited government, did little when in power to change the balance. Even Ronald Reagan talked a much better limited-government game than he played.

Despite today’s bitter partisanship, a surprising number of Democrats are beginning to see the virtues of our federal system in accommodating differences and encouraging experimentation.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Five areas come to mind in which states are not marching to the national drummer: policing, education, immigration, environment and medical marijuana.

Policing has always been primarily a state rather than federal responsibility. Federal encroachment began with enforcing 1960s civil rights laws in the South and has increased steadily since.

Recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that federal prosecutors would begin seeking the toughest possible sentences for even low-level drug crimes. While this policy applies only to federal crimes, it creates a glaring disparity with state and local experiments, often supported by both the right and left, in dealing with these crimes.

Sessions also announced that the federal government will back away from monitoring troubled local police forces. He pointed out that intervention has “undermined respect for the police” and resulted in increases in violence and murders.

Innovations like body cameras and video recording of citizen encounters are coming from local jurisdictions. States and cities are experimenting with the right balance between privacy and safety. One size may not fit all.

Education is another traditional state responsibility. Ham-handed federal mandates have been decried by local school districts for years. Even California’s liberal Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown sees national testing standards as “just a form of national control.”

The Trump administration plans to modify or rescind Obama-era Department of Education rules and regulations that are deemed federal overreach. A prime candidate is Obama’s transgender bathroom policy. While I hope that federal policy is rescinded, I can live with local discretion across the country. One size may not fit all.

My column last week dealt with illegal immigration, constitutionally a federal responsibility. I berated Democrats for flouting the rule of law by harboring millions of illegal immigrants. Nonetheless, some 300 state and local jurisdictions are running an unlawful experiment on the effect that millions of immigrants have on their social fabric. Their results may influence a badly-needed federal immigration law overhaul.

Liberal California continues to tilt at environmental windmills. Among other measures, the state has instituted a “cap and trade” mechanism for carbon dioxide emissions as well as renewable power mandates, stringent vehicle gasoline mileage regulations and a proposed $70 billion bullet train from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

Each of these measures increases California’s cost of living. While I’m glad I don’t live there, each of these experiments will provide useful data for the rest of the country.

Medical marijuana is currently approved in over half of our states and will be on the ballot in Utah next year. This has happened despite the fact that the federal government calls it a Schedule 1 drug. I wrote about Colorado’s bad trip with marijuana earlier this year. Colorado’s experimental results are coming in: Auto thefts, rape, murder and robbery are on the rise while they’ve dropped elsewhere around the country.

As a side note, this spring the California Legislature considered statewide “single payer” medical coverage for all. While the results would have been a massive experiment, cooler heads decided that California could not afford its $400 billion per year cost.

I have strong opinions about a number of these state and city experiments. So do you and they likely don’t match mine in all cases. And that’s the point. In today’s polarized political environment, increased local autonomy may be the best way to coexist.

Libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett of Georgetown University says, “A rich diversity of preferred lifestyles can only be achieved at the local level.” He believes elevating such issues to the national level is a recipe for “more contentiousness, bitterness, and ‘gridlock.’ ”

One size doesn’t fit all. I can live with that.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • commonsense August 4, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Republicans hold 33 governorships and a majority of state legislatures so why don’t they dominate the things states can control.
    By constitutional convention of the states, such things like term limits, benefits to congress and health care could be changed but there is such inertia.

    Most red states are doing well with fiscal responsibility. Utah has no debt and a surplus for rainy days. On the other hand blue states are really in trouble. Illinois is probably the worst. They can’t pay retirement funds to state employees or even lottery winners. Taxes were just raised and people are fleeing the state. California is $300 billion in debt and Connecticut has a $5 billion shortfall this year alone. Companies like GE have left and even Hartford Insurance may leave. These states have been ruled by Dems for decades.

    I agree with Libertarians who feel the federal government should defend our borders and print currency. All other functions should belong to the states.

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