State’s Rights and Wrongs

“States’ Rights” are back.

The last time a significant number of states resisted federal edicts was during the 50’s and 60’s, when they were fighting desegregation and insisting  that the big, bad federal government couldn’t tell them that “equal protection of the laws” meant giving actual equal rights to black people.

This time around, “states’ rights” has a new name: nullification. But it’s really the same old song; indeed, both the words and the music are all too familiar.

Nullification is the theory that states have the right to reject federal law. It is a discredited theory that ignores pesky constitutional details like the supremacy clause, not to mention the last hundred years or so of constitutional jurisprudence.

Ostensibly, what set off the current political tantrum was the Affordable Care Act, aka health care reform. Like a two-year-old screaming “you can’t make me!” to his mother, legislatures in several states are in the process of declaring that the federal government can’t force them to comply. (Those legislative shrieks of defiance are likely to have precisely the same effect as the shrieks of the two-year-old—which is to say, none. Mothers and the federal government will always have the last word.)

The real question raised by current efforts at nullification is: why? What is so terrifying, or awful, about reforming the health-care system so that 50 million uninsured Americans will have access to at least a minimum level of care? What is so totalitarian/Socialist/Nazi-ish about telling health insurers that they can’t deny you coverage you paid for simply because you got sick? I understand differences of opinion about the particulars of the reform—I would have preferred a different approach myself—but policy disputes don’t spawn the sort of hysteria we are seeing.

It becomes a little clearer when you see what other elements of federal law the more reactionary states are rejecting. Arizona was the first state to enact a draconian measure targeting immigrants, even though immigration is a matter reserved to the federal government, and other states—including Indiana—are scrambling to do the same.  Listen to the rhetoric about immigrants, then listen to the fury over health care, and you will hear an ugly common theme: everything that’s going wrong in this country is “their” fault. And who are “they”? Poor people, brown people, gay people…anyone who is different, anyone who is “other.”  Unlike “us,” “they” are all undeserving.

History teaches us that inter-group tensions increase during bad economic times. People are anxious and fearful and looking for someone to blame.

I just hope the recovery picks up steam before we “nullify” America.