Home Rule: When Your "Homies" Make the Rules and the Money
11 August 2001
Reactionary elements within our country have been using the doctrine of "States' Rights" or "Home Rule" to justify inequality and segregation for years. George W. Bush is fond of invoking the mantra of "States' Rights." In fact, Bush believes no more in "States' Rights" than he believes in the Easter Bunny. Bush uses the term to let reactionaries know he is one of them, not just a privileged rich boy. It is part of the package.
To understand what "States' Rights" is and is not, we need to understand its origins. The Constitution, ratified in 1788, grants the federal government its powers. From the beginning of our nation these powers have been open to interpretation. Alexander Hamilton, author of The Federalist No.10, believed in a strong central government that derived its authority from powers implied and expressed by the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Constitution to grant the federal government only those powers expressed by the Constitution. The position initially championed by Jefferson would come to be known as "States' Rights" or "Home Rule."
Not surprisingly, our Founding Fathers and their followers were willing to interpret the Constitution as granting them broad powers when they were in control of the federal government, but not when they were not in control. For example, the Federalists attacked Jefferson in the early 1800s when he and his party pushed through the Louisiana Purchase. Despite its constructionist interpretation of The Constitution, Jefferson's party did not shy away from instituting aggressive federal action. Common sense tells me that some key constituents of Jefferson did very well by the Louisiana Purchase.
The federal system of the United States government came under threat of dissolving in the 1860s when eleven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. The Confederacy fought to govern itself as an independent nation with the right to enact laws that would perpetuate the slavery of Blacks and cheap labor for Southern landowners. It was a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who led our country in the fight to preserve the Union. W. E. B. Dubois' writings in Black Reconstruction in America documents a period of Black emancipation and suffrage after the war. However, the Union victory in the Civil War did not kill the States' Rights doctrine. After 12 years of Reconstruction, the South was returned to Home Rule and many of the legal and financial gains Blacks realized during Reconstruction were lost.
The federal government's support of desegregation and civil rights met with strong resistance in the South. In 1948, Strom Thurmond, now the patriarch of the Republican Party but then a Democrat, ran for president under the States' Rights Democrat banner and carried four Southern states. Richard Nixon came back from the political grave in 1968 with the help of George Wallace, then the Governor of Alabama, who left the Democratic Party to pick up the States' Rights torch from Thurmond as a third-party candidate. Despite a Nixon first term that emphasized a strong federal role, Southern whites strongly supported his presidency and his reelection in a backlash against the civil rights programs of Kennedy and Johnson. In 1980, abandoning a sitting president from Plains, Georgia, many white Southerners supported Ronald Reagan, a Republican, who promised to respect States' Rights. Republican George H. Bush invoked race to win the presidency when he literally put a Black face on crime and tied that face to the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis. Black Americans paid Bush back, supporting Bill Clinton when Bush ran for reelection and voting against his son by a margin of 9 to 1.
To their credit, Democrats and Republicans have a history of working to end slavery and enact civil rights. To their discredit, the two major parties have courted the vote of reactionaries by giving lip service to the doctrine of States' Rights. Throughout history States' Rights grew to be more about keeping Blacks in their place and poking the federal government in the eye than a doctrine requiring a strict constructionist interpretation of The Constitution as championed by Jefferson.
Bush has hardly been a real champion of States' Rights. In 1998, Governor George Bush of Texas said that any effort by Washington to end the unlimited homestead exemption "would be a clear violation of states' rights." Homestead exemptions protect the equity individuals have in their home from foreclosure or liens. Texas has the most liberal homestead exemption in the country. Jeb Bush's Florida has the second most favorable homestead exemption in the country. As President, Bush went mum when his surrogates in the House and Senate moved to limit the homestead exemptions in order to protect the financial interest of credit card companies that made large contributions to Republicans.
Republican candidate George W. Bush said, "it should be up to each state legislature" to decide what limits to place on abortions. Does anyone believe that Bush wouldn't say the exact opposite if the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision made abortions illegal? As President, Bush did not throw stem cell research back to the states.
In January 2001, when President-elect George W. Bush pledged to make respect for States' Rights a priority in his administration I shook my head, knowing that respect for States' Rights would have denied him the office he now holds. The doctrine of States' Rights was never more perverted than when Bush attacked the rulings of the Florida Supreme Court just one month earlier.
Recently, President Bush has pushed an energy policy that called for the federal government to grant more "power" to the states. I laughed at the triple entendre. Yes, Bush has pledged to open federal land to help his friends in the oil industry. But, he has threatened governors with federal actions to make sure power distribution lines are made available to the utility industry. Asked whether the federal government should intervene to ease the California power crisis Bush shook his head no, knowing that his supporters like Enron were making a financial killing off the crisis. Heads big energy wins. Tails big energy wins. If the coin lands on its side big energy wins.
"States' Rights" was a good slogan for the election campaign, but once in office our new President is smart enough to follow the cash. Under Bush, "Home Rule" is when your "homies" make the rules and the money.
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