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Nov 29 2012

The Convenient Federalism of Conservatives

I am always amused when conservatives wax eloquent about the wonders of federalism. They talk grandly of the states as the laboratories of democracy and the evils of federal control of whatever they’re against in the first place. But only when the outcomes match their preferences. When an issue comes up that they feel strongly about, they’re all about federal control. Marriage equality is a perfect example, as wingnut Star Parker demonstrates at the Worldnutdaily:

One significant development in the recent election was votes in four states approving same-sex marriage initiatives. Until now, all previous state referenda to approve same-sex marriage – 32 of them – failed.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page – a place where conservatives usually turn for intellectual capital – saw this as cause for celebration.

According to the Journal, marriage definition should come from voters, not from court orders. Americans, they argue, have “shown themselves more than capable of changing their views on gay marriage the democratic way.”

In other words, our definition of marriage should follow process, not principle. Let voters decide.

Funny, but “let the people decide” was the battle cry of the religious right when they put all those referendums on the ballot in 2004 and 2008 and they were winning them. Now suddenly, it’s a terrible idea.

I’d guess if I asked the Wall Street Journal editors if the American Constitution should be viewed as a “living document” – if our understanding of its words and what they mean should be open to change to reflect attitudes of the moment – they would say “no.”

What the hell does that have to do with the subject at hand? There is nothing in the constitution that forbids marriage equality (indeed, I would argue that the 14th amendment requires it, just as it required the end of laws against interracial marriage).

In the 1850s, Stephen Douglas proposed solving the dilemma of whether slavery should be permitted in new states by suggesting that they should just vote. What could be more American than submitting the question of slavery to the democratic process of each state?

To this Abraham Lincoln observed: “God did not place good and evil before man telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, He did tell him there was one tree, of the fruit of which he should not eat, upon pain of certain death. … I should scarcely wish so strong a prohibition against slavery in Nebraska.”

Lincoln’s rejoinder to the idea of “popular sovereignty” – that states should vote to determine if slavery would be legal – was that there are core truths – truths that define right and wrong, good and evil – that precede the democratic process.

To reject this premise is to buy into moral chaos, which is what we are approaching today.

This would make a good entry in the wingnut to English dictionary. By “moral chaos,” they of course mean “people doing things we don’t think they should do even if it has nothing to do with us.”

13 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    Sigh.

    Anyway, I give the WSJ some kudos for their ideological integrity. While I don’t think that the rights of a minority should be put to a popular vote, the WSJ has endorsed that position in the past and they are sticking to it. That is FAR superior to “Let the people decide… unless they decide what I don’t want, in which case it’s a constitutional issue!”

  2. 2
    brucegee1962

    I suspect we can also expect to see a bunch of conservative federalists on the marijuana issue in Colorado speaking up in 3…2…

  3. 3
    steve84

    Also note their support for DOMA, which is nothing but an Evil Big Government intrusion into Sacred State’s Rights.

    I do think that it’s a mistake to leave this up to states and that it’s absurd and anachronistic that the US has such widely different relationship laws in the 21st century, but it’s a historical mess that’s not going to change. With the law as it is, conservatives should be against DOMA.

  4. 4
    democommie

    It would be interesting to see how long the New KKKonfederacy would hold together. One of the snags might come up when Mexico decides that having an independent Texas on it’s northern border is intolerable. Well, yes, of course th USAF, USA, USMC and USN could make hash of the Mexican army–and would do so as soon as they indicated a desire to attack…wait for it—The UNITED States.

  5. 5
    eric

    “Let the people decide” is perfectly compatible with “Constitution not a living document.” The trick is to remember that the original intent of the founders was that it be an amendable document. They even provided ten examples of that intent.

  6. 6
    naturalcynic

    One of the first recent examples of this mindset was the attempt by Bush 43 to overturn the Oregon Death With Dignity Act [physician-assisted suicide]. Didn’t work then and I doubt that it will work now.
    Too bad that Sherry doesn’t understand right and wrong.

  7. 7
    Bronze Dog

    I’ve seen so many fundies argue that majority rule should be able to uproot the firm foundation of individual and minority rights and liberties, thus making those things and the morality of the government a matter of popular fashion, changing whenever the wind does.

    Yeah, kind of ruined their chances of me taking their claims of having core values seriously.

  8. 8
    fifthdentist

    @ democommie
    After the Libertarian paradise of Jesusland’s economy went into the crapper and gringos started flowing SOUTH in search of work, the Mexicans would be forced to do something.

  9. 9
    DaveL

    You see, this all has to do with the Conservative Principle of Subsidiarity: Every matter should be handled by the highest level of government willing to let them have their way.

  10. 10
    epiblast

    It’s always been my experience that NO ONE in the American political discourse actually cares about the balance of power between federal and state governments beyond favoring whichever of the two is currently advantageous for a given issue. I’ve never encountered anyone who I was convinced had actual principles concerning (anti-)federalism that they might still believe in even when their favored government wasn’t on their side on some other political matter.

  11. 11
    dan4

    @6: Who is “Sherry?”

  12. 12
    Ichthyic

    It’s always been my experience that NO ONE in the American political discourse actually cares about the balance of power between federal and state governments beyond favoring whichever of the two is currently advantageous for a given issue.

    ditto.

    well, excepting the fact that we are involved in political discourse and both of us recognize that there are procedural issues beyond the immediate temporal ones.

  13. 13
    epiblast

    well, excepting the fact that we are involved in political discourse and both of us recognize that there are procedural issues beyond the immediate temporal ones.

    Do we? I’m not sure I, at least, have an actual useful opinion concerning (anti-)federalism in general beyond that certain extreme points at the ends of the power balance spectrum are not good.

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