March 23, 2009

The national movement for state sovereignty

If there’s one thing worse than urban elites at the New York Times, LA Times or the Washington Post who sneer at the mere hint of grassroots conservatism or populism, it’s Midwestern and Southern “fly over country” journalists who strive to emulate them. In a column entitled “New states’ rights fight emerges,” Brian Hicks of Charleston, South Carolina’s the Post & Courier wrote:

For a bunch of guys obsessed with 19th century history, our esteemed state lawmakers sure haven’t learned much from it.

Because the last time they got all uppity and started mouthing off about states’ rights, we got our butts kicked.

Right now, the General Assembly is considering a resolution to warn the federal government not to overstep its bounds by imposing too many laws on the state. They quote the U.S. Constitution and their new favorite amendment, the 10th, to remind President Barack Obama that “€˜powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’

Here we go again. Next thing you know, they’ll be shooting at the Park Service guys out at Fort Sumter.

Ah yes. How silly.

Pace Hicks, after our most recent Republican president took unprecedented liberties with the executive branch, and after the current Democratic president has promised something close to central planning, some state lawmakers have decided to take their stand. And their critics bray, “How dare any silly second or third-tier bureaucrats champion the Constitution!”

The South Carolina sovereignty resolution is but one of 15 similar state resolutions, mostly the product of Republican legislators fearful of, or looking for creative ways to circumvent, Obama’s agenda. While everything from immigration enforcement to gun laws, healthcare mandates to abortion laws are mentioned in the various resolutions, the Democrats’ recent stimulus is unquestionably the primary inspiration for this renewed interest in states’ rights. Reports the Associated Press, “For small-government die-hards, the $787 billion economic stimulus bill recently passed by Congress isn’t a life saver. It’s the last straw.”

While these recent challenges to federal power are mostly symbolic, (only New Hampshire’s resolution had teeth”€”a “secession” provision”€”which was ultimately defeated, 216-150) there are two interesting aspects common in each state’s efforts.

1) The sovereignty resolution resistance is coming almost entirely from the Right.
2) They have virtually nothing to do with”€”and seems entirely divorced from”€”the national GOP establishment and mainstream conservative movement.

Consider the most ambitious challenge in New Hampshire, where resolution sponsor, Republican state representative Daniel Itse, took his cues from the libertarian Right. Reports the AP, “New Hampshire’s Itse has ties to the Free State Project, which urges small government activists to move to New Hampshire. Many project members also belong to the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, a states’ rights group listing Itse as its political director.” “The New Hampshire Liberty Forum” sponsored by the Free State Project, was held at the beginning of March just a few weeks shy of the resolution vote, included multiple libertarian, decentralist speakers – everyone from Itse himself, to’s Angela Keaton and even contributors William Norman Grigg and Glenn Jacobs (aka World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar “Kane”). The NHLF’s 2008 conference featured Sen. John E. Sununu as a keynote speaker”€”who was joined by Ron Paul. Not exactly the typical Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute gathering.

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Oklahoma State Rep. Charles Key, sponsor of the “Tenth Amendment Resolution” told colleagues of his legislation, “It’s a notice, like an eviction note from a landlord given to a tenant.” Keys made his case on popular, yet still under-the-radar, national radio programs like Coast to Coast AM with George Noory (broadcast from Oklahoma City) and The Alex Jones Show, as well as popular local program Radio Free Oklahoma (both The Alex Jones Show and Radio Free Oklahoma are broadcast on the same commercial FM station in Oklahoma). While such programs are often ridiculed for their focus on conspiracy theories, or in the case of Coast to Coast“€”the supernatural”€”their audiences are full of Right-leaning or libertarian-minded folks concerned about the loss of civil liberties, many of whom are especially fearful of George H.W. Bush’s now-famous phrase, the “New World Order.” “What amazes me is how so few people can bring a nation of over 300 million under submission” Keys told Jones. The Tenth Amendment Resolution passed in the Oklahoma state legislature in February, 83-13.

Social conservatives in Idaho, including organizations like the “Idaho Values Alliance” and “Idaho Chooses Life,” have been promoting 10th amendment legislation as a means of accomplishing what the Republican Party has been promising pro-lifers for the last three decades”€”to overturn Roe vs. Wade, leaving abortion laws up the states”€”or in this case, at least up to Idaho. Gun activists have played a major role in supporting sovereignty legislation, and Idaho representative Russ Matthews introduced legislation in February designed to protect firearms through states’ rights measures. Combine pro-life and pro-gun with Obama, and you get reactions like that of state representative Dick Harwood who wrote in The Idaho Statesman:

It might seem strange that the Legislature is considering action to declare Idaho’s sovereignty under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. State sovereignty should be a given.

That’s why I am sponsoring a joint memorial before the Legislature. Idaho must send a strong message to the president and Congress reminding our national leaders that the federal government was created by the states specifically to be an agent of the states. Unfortunately, over the years the states have become agents of the federal government.

Targeting Obama specifically Harwood writes:

As legislators, we need to keep fundamental states’ rights in mind as we consider the federal stimulus package that recently was approved by Congress and signed by the president. Here are two big problems I have:

· This package appears to be to be an outright assault on state sovereignty under the 10th Amendment.

· I cannot figure out how the nation can spend its way out of a recession. Part of the problem is extended credit, and the president wants to solve the problem by granting more credit. I don’t know of many people in District 2 who see that as a winning formula.

Not surprisingly, Harwood’s economic language is similar to that of a few Republican governors currently resisting Obama’s stimulus, particularly when it comes to excessive spending, “extended credit” and the strings attached to federal financial aid. In outright rejecting $700 million in stimulus, SC Gov. Mark Sanford has essentially made the same argument as the various states’ rights legislators”€”in dictating the terms of stimulus dollars, the federal government is violating the 10th amendment.

While even sympathetic observers will admit that the current 10th amendment revival is a reaction to the new Democratic president, resolution sponsors are making special efforts to point out the constitutional, not partisan, intention of their efforts. Says Republican Michigan state Rep. Paul Opsommer, “Some Democrats feel it is an attack on Obama until I explain I also introduced it last year… This is about the rights of the states and the people, not anything to do with Republicans or Democrats.” Primary sponsor of the pending Kentucky state sovereignty resolution, Rep. John Will Stacy, is a Democrat.

And they are making no-bones about their dissatisfaction with aspects of the Bush legacy. Reports the Charleston City Paper of SC bill author, Rep. Michael Pitts, “Pitts notes he first designed his bill in response to mandates that the state provide education and emergency medical treatment to illegal aliens. And it goes beyond that to other concerns, like the threat of stricter gun control laws under the new Democratic administration, Pitts says, as well as Bush-era policies, like No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act.” While a number of state resolutions mention the Patriot Act, virtually all of them include No Child Left Behind in their critique of overbearing federal power.

That the rise in state sovereignty challenges has been mostly ignored by the national news media isn’t surprising. That it has been ignored by the mainstream conservative movement isn’t surprising either, and speaks volumes about the “official” Right’s tolerance for populist uprisings not of their own making. Heritage and National Review equate red-meat conservatism with Sarah Palin, who has already shown her willingness to be whatever her Republican handlers wish. His own man, Sanford continues to make headlines in spite of”€”not because of”€”GOP officials, and when speculating about future Republican leadership, the SC governor’s name is always listed after that of Palin, Bobby Jindal or Mitt Romney for a reason.

And the states’ rights movement isn’t mentioned at all for the same reason. With the lone exception of Glenn Beck, conservative talk radio has ignored this new Obama-resistance”€”an opposition with a constitutional framework that could bear teeth if state legislators felt they had enough support”€”instead concentrating on opposing the president in the abstract. Talk radio bitches all day about Democrats Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, but offers no serious avenues of opposition outside of their hope that Palin, Jindal or Romney might save us by running for president in 2012. Nationally syndicated talk hosts, like their liberal, alleged enemies, concentrate on the Washington, DC, power structure, because they, too, view it as the place where all power resides. And states rights’ aren’t on the mainstream conservative movement’s map because individual state efforts are considered too weak, not worth the effort”€”and don’t include the mainstream conservative movement.

For now, states’ rights legislation promises to remain symbolic, unless actions by the Obama administration pushes state legislatures toward more radical methods of circumventing federal power”€”or high profile, mainstream conservatives finally rally the troops by promoting what could potentially be the most serious right-wing resistance against the state in recent memory. Given Conservatism Inc.‘s current track record, we’re likely to see much worse from Obama before we ever get anything useful out of them. And states’ rights-minded legislators, with no support from their national party or allegedly sympathetic “conservative” media, will be left to defend themselves and their constituents as little more than hyperbolic Confederate retreads, two steps from “shooting at the Park Service guys out at Fort Sumter” and one-step from the loony bin”€”for even daring to question the legitimacy of the omnipotent modern state.


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