Not having grown up in the South, secession was something of a dirty word. When my “History of the South” professor at the Naval Academy discussed the causes of the Civil War, they included the end of the predominance of the South in national politics due to the influx of immigrants to the North and the corresponding shift in political power. (And that was tied to the fear that that shift in power would lead quickly to the end of slavery.)
During one class, a first class midshipman (aka a “senior” at a normal college) declared that if Virginia seceeded again, he’d fight for her against the U.S. government. The prof was not particularly thrilled with this revelation, to put it mildly. The mid argued that states rights were not dead, that the Civil War didn’t kill that theory, and that “trial by combat” had gone out with the Middle Ages. After several minutes of back and forth, the prof, who at just over five foot had the presence to make up for her lack of height, coldly stated, “You are accepting a commission from the U.S. federal government in six weeks; you had d**n well better figure out where your loyalties are.” And the discussion was over.
From a distance of years, I’m realizing that I don’t just agree with the prof anymore.
The problem is, “states rights” has been severely tainted by the Civil War. My fellow student in that class felt that states rights was synonymous with the right to secede. The prof was arguing that it would be dishonest to accept a commission in the U.S. Navy if he felt that his loyalty was primarily to the state of Virginia. Many people have a vague impression that states rights are tied to secession and did die with the Civil War.
I still hold that secession is simply not an option. Maybe a temporary separation should be an option, but not the full-up divorce of secession. When the colonies joined together, they pledged themselves to each other. Decisions were made based on the confidence that the other states would be part of the country. In marriage, things suffer when both partners are jealously guarding their own money, power, and career, out of fear of sharing too much and then being abandonned. We can’t invite that second-guessing into our country; secession is not an option.
But is the idea of “states rights” dead? And is it necessarily tied to secession?
Particularly at issue lately is the Tenth Amendment. The Constitution enumerates powers to various branches of government. Having just gotten rid of an overreaching, overintrusive, overtaxing government, the Founders were critically interested in not creating another one. So, specific powers were granted to the federal government (because the Articles of Confederation had been unworkably weak), but they concluded the Bill of Rights with this:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Interpretation, of course, has varied. A dozen or so states are currently working on legislation declaring that the federal government should respect the Tenth Amendment and back off of interfering in what should be state responsibilities. But they aren’t “important” states, they’re mostly in flyover country, so it’s being treated as somewhat laughable.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has looked the other way as the federal government has bloated to an insane size, claiming that everything is legitimate because the Commerce Clause allows the federal government to do… well, pretty much anything.
Wait a minute, wasn’t that what we rebelled against in the first place?
In addition, most Congressmen barely represent their home states or districts. Mostly, they seem to fight for their own personal fiefdoms and positions on committees. I mean, seriously, does anybody believe that Hilary Clinton was elected Senator from New York because she knows what New Yorkers think? Or was it just because New Yorkers thought she’d be prestigious and politically successful? I won’t even get into the special interests and lobbyists.
So, the end result is that states have very little influence on the federal government. They can try… but it doesn’t usually change much, since the federal government has a tight leash on the money for roads, education, etc. The voters have very little influence, since, well, not nearly enough of us are upset. And what are we going to do? Refuse to pay our federal taxes?
Which leaves the states with no way to protest what the federal government does… except to make comments like Gov. Perry of Texas about the possibility of secession. What else do the states have? The federal government takes its money directly from the citizens, which it then uses to pressure the states into doing whatever the federal government wants.
If you have a partnership between one partner, who has all the money and power, and a weaker partner, who can’t choose to leave, needs the money, and has no power over the other partner… well, what do you think will happen?
Proper power, as set up by the Constitution, must be restored to the states. When the voters complain to their local reps, when the reps tell the state government, the state government needs to be able to do something. Without that group representation provided by the state, the voters don’t really have a voice that has to be listened to in Washington. Witness the complete dismissal of the Tea Parties, the annual March for Life, and the strong public opinion against all of the recent bailouts; none of these seem to have made the least bit of impression on the vast majority of our elected “representatives” in Washington.
I don’t know if we need to flip the tax code so that states get more tax revenue and the federal government gets less, or if we need to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment (which provided for popular elections of Senators; previously, they had been appointed by the state legislatures, making the Senators sort of representatives for the states).
Somehow, the states need to have the power to push back at the federal government in some arena besides public relations.