Saturday, December 31, 2011

From States’ Rights to a Smaller Government, an End to a Noble Idea


America was a noble idea with an ignoble beginning.   By this, I’m not referring to those who came here fleeing perceived or real religious persecution in England, to Plymouth.  Nor, am I referring to the even earlier colonizing attempt in North Carolina.  No real noble ideas here, just Calvinist separatist from The Church of England, by way of Amsterdam, whom they found of lax morals, and those hoping to find their riches in Roanoke.  In fact, by the time of the noble idea, the ignobility of what was to be the United States was clearly present, in the form of killing and displacing the indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans.

I'm not even talking about the Declaration of Independence.  This was essentually a declaration of independence of white people from other white people, only.  And, while the declaration didn’t really pertain to African Americans or Native Americans, with these words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, the seeds of the noble idea was sown.  I say this despite of the fact my ancestors were slaves, but more importantly, despite that the legacy of slavery, racism, is alive and flourishing in America.  It is written that some of our most prominent founding fathers agonized over slavery, but not so much so that they advocated its end while writing the Constitution, or even so much as freeing the slaves they held.
 
America wasn’t the noble idea, but with those immortal words, the United States of America was.  Born out of the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of the United States was indeed noble, at least in theory, and on paper, in the form of the Constitution.  But unfortunately, due almost entirely racism and greed, this idea of a noble nation remains, even today, just theory.  Between the first colonies in America and the creation of the United States, greed became firmly entrenched, fanning the flames of states’ rights, leading years later to civil war.  But the theory, the Constitution, and those exalted words from the Declaration of Independence still existed and, thus, so did the noble idea.
The predecessor to the U.S. Constitution, called The Articles of Confederation, was formally the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.  On the face of it, this distinction seems insignificant.  But, it hints at the difficulties the creation of the Constitution would face.  The term “confederation” suggests voluntary membership.  However, there must have been some concern about how voluntary the membership really was, with the inclusion of the phrase “and Perpetual Union”.  The “articles” coupled with the former title, essentially were the Articles of Federation, which suggests involuntary membership.  Clearly, for the Anti-Federalist, those who feared the diminution of states’ rights, the “and Perpetual Union” part of the title had to go.

The Constitution, as drafted, made the United States a federation, with membership to, and compliance with, the Federal government, involuntary.  It was approved by the Continental Congress on September 28, 1787, a week after the final draft was signed at the Constitutional Convention.  It went into effect almost year and a half later, after the 11th of the 13 states ratified it.  It wasn’t until May 1790 that the 13th of the original 13 states ratified the Constitution.

Why so long before all 13 states bought into the Constitution?  What was the kicker?  After the Constitution went into effect, after ratification by 11 of the 13 states on March 4, 1789, the anti-federalist went to work on codifying the Bill of Rights, or 10 amendments to the Constitution.  About 5 months later, on September 25, 1789, Congress proposed the Bill of Rights, paving the road to “a more perfect union”.  There were three formidable obstacles along the route, racism, religion, and greed.

Looking at the first 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights, one can see that it was intended, by its anti-federalist authors, to provide them with protections from a strong federal government, and to provide some wiggle-room for states compliance with the constitution. So it is ironic that an instrument meant to weaken the federal government, by providing constitutional loopholes for the states, ended up being a vehicle for insuring the constitutional rights for the citizens of states who would be denied those rights.

Here we are, 222 years and 27 amendments later, and those obstacles are as formidable today as they were then.  We must pave over or around these obstacles.  That noble America must be secular, without any religious impositions.  That noble America must be one of respect (and not just tolerance) for all its citizens, regardless of race.  That noble America must not countenance the making of wealth for a few at the expense of the many. That America is still possible because the noble idea, stated in the preambles of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is hot wired into it.

I asked earlier, “What was the kicker?”  What bought all of the 13 states into the fold?  The real kicker was the inclusion of the 10th Amendment, which states; “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.”  This amendment was to limit the power of the Federal government over the states.  The United States weren’t so united.  The ambiguity of the amendment has been tested over the years leading to, among other events, the Civil War, and to dispatching federalized troops to protect children exercising their 14th Amendment right to an education.  It is tested, even today.

“States rights” is a tool only used to sidestep the Constitution of the United States, when the Constitution stands in the way of the state’s desire to infringe on the Constitutional rights of that state’s citizens.  As a child of the civil rights era, the term “states rights” has special meaning to me.  However, while no one was looking, a major, and for more insidious, shift in terms happened.  The battle cry “ States’ Rights” became less heard, supplanted by a new battle cry “Smaller Government”.  But the battle being waged by the right wing tells me they are one and the same.

States, finding a strong Federal government, assertive in squashing the states attempt to infringe on the rights of its citizens, found a new strategy, “small government”.  The deployment of this strategy has been with the emphasis on “small federal government".  Under such a weakened federal government, the Constitution becomes almost inconsequential in the individual states, with a federal government lacking the resources to adequately respond.

2012 is not to be taken lightly.  This is a turning point.  We know it and, more importantly, the conservative movement knows it.  November 2012 isn’t an end battle between the progressive movement and the movement of the status quo, but the losers of this battle will only be able to wage a weak insurgency against the winner.  

2012 will answer the question; what will the 28th Amendment be?  Will it be an amendment for a balanced budget, mandated by the forces for a "smaller" federal government, or will it be Bernie Sander’s amendment to the Constitution to exclude corporations from First Amendment rights to spend money on political campaigns?

How resolute are we, as progressives, in winning in 2012? We must be represented at ALL elections, from school board elections to presidential elections.  We must be willing to set aside our desire get it all in a given election and vote for, dare I say it, the lesser of two evils, because the operative word here is “lesser”.  When we forsake the lesser, the greater evil wins.  This propensity of ours to sit out elections because the choices aren’t progressive enough, is what, over decades (even generation) has gotten us to this point where we are merely fighting an insurgency against a formidably entrenched conservative government.  We can change this in 2012.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent analysis and commentary. My first thought was, would the current crop of conservative candidates have changed the preamble of the Declaration and Constitution to leave out "All men are created equal..."

    The sentiment of equality has undermined many of their positions with respect to states rights and smaller government. In short, it has become the role of the federal government to ensure those inalienable rights are not trampled upon.

    I was also struck with a recurring theme of mine that we don't have one nation, but 50 different little unions. I am convinced that our slow progress on issues such as civil rights, health care reform and pollution has been because we must always build what amounts to an international treaty among the 50 states to get cooperation. And even then, those states that don't like the law keep throwing rocks into the gears.

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