Why “states’ rights” only seem to matter to the party not in charge

Illustration: Gui Federighi

Last year, during a campaign-style address aimed at comforting a city about to encounter the discombobulating wrath of incoming President Donald Trump, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to fight the federal government.

“What’s important to remember is our own power in this moment here in New York City,” the Democratic mayor said at Cooper Union in November. “There is not a national police force. You don’t go to federal schools to get your children an education. No. We in the city of New York, we protect our people with the NYPD. We provide education to our children with our New York City public schools. We provide health care with our public hospitals.”

“Our Constitution says it,” de Blasio continued, “that so much of what is decided in the governance of our people is decided at the local level, according to the values of the people who are governed.”

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De Blasio’s rhetoric was understandable. The Trump administration wants to slash and burn the regulatory state, threatening to cut off funds to the city’s housing stock, schools, transportation and police. The only hope of resistance is strong local and state government, as threatened Democratic leaders everywhere are learning.

Yet this turn toward states’ rights in the age of Trump is ironic, considering the fraught legacy of localities fighting the federal government. As local Democrats wage war against Trump, they should prepare themselves for a future when their arguments will be used against them.

Southern states justified a bloody Civil War with the same logic now employed by the likes of de Blasio. A century later, racist governors and senators battled federal desegregation efforts by invoking the righteousness of local control. Republican politicians repeatedly thwarted former President Barack Obama by linking arms with the ghosts of the men who decried Earl Warren and Lyndon Johnson, celebrating the supposedly moral triumph of the states over centralized authority. As de Blasio said, there are no national beat cops or schools – and there never will be.

Democrats should be cognizant, once more, of the dangers of an imperial presidency. Under Obama, Democrats were happy to empower the executive branch, ostensibly ignoring Obama’s calcifying of the George W. Bush-era surveillance state. Now that Trump has his chance to toy with the same vast infrastructure, Democrats are crying foul.

Should Democratic mayors and governors not invoke states’ rights as a justification for defying Trump’s federal government? That depends. Trump is not a normal president and extraordinary times can lead to extraordinary tactics. Civil disobedience is necessary. But elected officials must take more care with how they wield their words. “You don’t go to federal schools to get your children an education” is the kind of sentence that would belong in the mouth of a congressman from Mississippi.

Republicans are hypocrites too. When one of their own storms into the White House, they’re all too happy to embrace an all-powerful executive, like Trump or George W. Bush, at the expense of whatever limited government principles they purport to defend. Yet when a Democratic mayor creates a sanctuary city to shield undocumented immigrants from the feds, Republicans whine – how dare liberals defy the law of the land laid down by the federal government?

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If Democrats want to overlook the wretched legacy of states’ rights movements flouting racial progress, they can at least take refuge in the 18th century. When former President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, repressing domestic protests and attacking immigrants, a couple of future presidents in Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to nullify the laws in Kentucky and Virginia, setting a precedent for the actions liberal mayors and governors across America are now vowing to take.

What Trump has done, once again, is expose the ideological hollowness of both parties. Given how easily Trump commandeered the GOP, there’s a good argument to be made the party was always a shell waiting for a strongman to inhabit it and make it thoroughly his own. But the core of today’s Democratic Party isn’t well defined, either. Are they the party for centralized, federal power at the expense of the states, a Hamiltonian vision that animated Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama? Are they a party that, under Obama, promoted something akin to a détente with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, only to salivate for confrontation when a vile Republican offered a similar solution to avoiding a second Cold War?

De Blasio’s speech that November day demonstrated that the struggle between a strong federal government and states’ rights, endemic to our country’s founding, was always more about power than ideology, ultimately rendering it unresolvable. If Democrats, taking the long view, want to move the U.S. in a more progressive direction, they will need an affirmative argument for why federal power can be a good thing. Republicans, too, are happy to recall that there are no federal schools. States and cities are free to chart their own destinies, for good and for ill.

Ross Barkan writes a monthly column on the Trump administration for City & State. His work has appeared in the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon and Harvard Review.