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Rick Perry Sounds like a Confederate: Or why States’ Rights and Slavery are “Joined at the Hip.”

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BTW… Sorry for the slow posting from everyone here. Its vacation time and the various tentacles have dispersed for rest and relaxation.

Jesse Jackson Jr. has caused headlines by linking Rick Perry’s support of the 10th Amendment, and his related states’ rights extremism, to the Confederate defense of slavery.

“After all, it was the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights that protected the institution of slavery. The words ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ did not appear in the Constitution. The institution of slavery, the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights are joined at the hip.”

I think Jackson is onto something here, and I want to explore a little bit more the idea that slavery and states’ rights are “joined at the hip.” Now, obviously it is theoretically possible to support states’ rights while being completely egalitarian and anti-slavery. I’m sure that Perry thinks that is his position. And there have been isolated incidents of certain movements or states which appeal to states’ rights because they want to do something more egalitarian than the Federal Government allows. Some abolitionists fought the Fugitive Slave Act on states’ rights grounds, as do some gay rights activists who attack DOMA.

But by and large Jackson is certainly correct that states’ rights has been almost always associated with those opposed to egalitarian movements. Defenders of slavery, of Jim Crow, of “right to work” laws, and other movements have almost always turned to states’ rights as their favored argument. Why?

One obvious answer is that states’ rights, for one reason or another, seems to be part of the Southern political tradition, and the South has generally been conservative on racial and economic justice issues. This is true, but isn’t enough.

I think there are two deeper reasons why states’ rights are so appealing to conservatives. The first has to do with thwarting democracy. When conservatives say we can’t, for instance, pass universal health care at the federal level, or we should allow each state to craft its own labor laws, they are essentially saying that the American people, through their elected officials, cannot deal with this issue. Conservatives would probably say that local elected officials should deal with them. But we have a national economy (really an international economy). Individual states do not have the economy of scales, resources, ability to debt-finance, or expertise to actually respond to most economic issues. Moreover, letting each state set its own labor and environmental laws creates a race to the bottom, effectively setting the laws at the level of that state most willing to crush unions and pollute rivers. Thus we have the Mississippification of America. In other words, denying the Federal Government the right to intervene in the economy is about neutering the only institution with enough power to effectively regulate that economy. Sure Vermont can pass whatever laws it wants, but big economic problems require collective action, something that Perry et al, what to deny us the ability to do.

Second, and most important, states’ rights is about protecting the rights of local elites at the expense of various minority or subaltern groups. This is where the legacy of slavery is clearest. Slaveowners preferred keeping as much power as possible at the local level because they knew that they could trust the legislature of South Carolina to protect slavery and abide by racial codes. They couldn’t trust a Federal Government that included people from Massachusetts and Ohio to protect slavery in the same manner. Shrinking the relevant space of decision as small as possible protected their racial and gendered prerogatives, most of which didn’t require any state activity anyway. During Jim Crow a similar process held, where local and state governments were given the rights to treat African-Americans as they wished, without dealing with meddlesome Northerners. The analogous situation today is with immigration, where racists in Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia want local officials to deal with what is, and always has been, a federal issue, exactly because local officials are more likely to treat Mexicans in dehumanizing ways. (Not that Barack Obama actually believes in treating immigrants in humane ways either, but that’s another story…).

The relevant intellectual source for these two strands of thought is John Calhoun, who hated democracy, equality, and the Federal Government, as much as he loved slavery and elite rule.

One consequence of this, if I’m right that states’ rights ideology has been tied to hatred of democracy and elite rule since at least the days of slavery, is that it becomes meaningless for anyone to defend the actions of the South during the Civil War as being just about states’ rights. Even if true (and its not true) that Southerners were only motivated by concerns about federalism, that concern cannot be disentangled from their own slave economy and the hatred of democracy that slavery taught them.

The point of all of this is that Rick Perry’s love of (and perverse mis-reading of) the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights is not neutral. It connects him to a disgusting and dangerous set of ideologies that have historically been used to oppress black people, crush unions, and, now, viciously discipline immigrants.

Written by Jenny Carlson

September 1st, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Main