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

with 3 comments

By Peter Wirzbicki

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 Peter Wirzbicki

September 1, 2011 at 16:20

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. This also speaks to the “Lost Cause” revisionism that gets a lot of play down here. I will pointlessly send this link to the next person who argues “The Civil War was about States Rights” in a way that implicitly minimizes the role of slavery.

    Aaron Carlisle

    September 1, 2011 at 17:52

  2. It is an interesting question to what degree any defense of states’ rights today should be held accountable to the Civil War and Civil Rights era meaning of the term. There are of course lots of concrete continuities, as you point out.

    All in all, though, I find the first point (that to insist on states’ rights today is to capitulate in advance to the interests of big business), by far more convincing than the second–especially in reference to rick perry. Again, it’s true that states’ rights historically means defense of pre-existing elites. but I am not willing to say that all forms of localism are inherently pitched in favor of local elites. although i’m torn up about it, it seems to me that in many ways school boards (eminently local) really should retain a great deal of control (although perhaps not over the curriculum). so, most saliently, i think the role of violence and simply illegality in creating the jim crow south should be emphasized. it was not an assertion of states’ rights, but a profound failure (read, blatant violation of) basic law and order, that in fact allowed jim crow to be instituted in most of the south, especially in places like South Carolina that had black majorities, or near-majorities. it wasn’t states’ rights, that is, it was guns, fire, and money. states’ rights is then invoked in defense of privilege won in this way–but it’s a secondary thing. maybe all of this is just a way of saying that i think there is only one point here, your first, and to the extent that the second is true–which i do not believe it always is–it is as a function of the first.


    September 1, 2011 at 18:43

  3. “I think there are two deeper reasons why states’ rights are so appealing to conservatives. The first has to do with thwarting democracy.”

    The obvious flaw in this argument is that state officials are elected democratically. Any time the federal government passes a law that circumvents the will of the people of that state, it rejects this state democratic process. Remember that before the Civil War BOTH sides resorted the defense of the 10th Amendment to protect the will of the people expressed in their legislatures.
    Trying to bypass the legislative process in the state legislatures by resorting to the club of federal laws, is exactly what the 10th Amendment was designed to prevent. And as all good laws work, it prevents both liberals and conservative from resorting to that club when they are in power to enforce sweeping changes that would outrage minority (state) opinion.
    What you really are arguing is that your laws would be better that conservatives’ laws. Well, why not try to convince your opponent rather than resorting to federal law to club your opponents into submission?

    Jim Henderson

    September 28, 2011 at 14:24

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