If at first you don't secede

Feeling they've lost any say in how the nation is run, liberals are turning to an unfamiliar philosophy: States' rights.

Published November 17, 2004 1:55AM (EST)

In the days after the election, fantasies of blue-state secession ricocheted around the Internet. Liberals indulged themselves in maps showing Canada gathering the blue states into its social democratic embrace, leaving the red states to form their own "Jesusland." They passed around the scathing rant from the Web site Fuck the South, which lacerated the chauvinism of the "heartland" and pointed out that the coasts, far from destroying marriage, actually have lower divorce rates than the interior.

These sentiments were so pronounced that they migrated into the mainstream. Speaking on "The McLaughlin Group" the weekend after George W. Bush's victory, panelist Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Democratic Senate staffer, noted that blue states subsidize the red ones with their tax dollars, and said, "The big problem the country now has, which is going to produce a serious discussion of secession over the next 20 years, is that the segment of the country that pays for the federal government is now being governed by the people who don't pay for the federal government."

A shocked Tony Blankley asked him, "Are you calling for civil war?" To which O'Donnell replied, "You can secede without firing a shot."

For now, of course, secession remains an escapist fantasy. But its resonance with liberals points to some modest potential for constructive political action. After all, as the South knows well, there are interim measures between splitting the nation and submitting to a culture pushed by a hostile federal government. Having lost any say in how the nation is run, liberals may be about to discover states' rights -- for better or worse.

While Democrats have rarely had less power on a national level, they will still be major players in cities and states. One of the resounding victories in the 2004 election was the California proposition allotting $3 billion in state dollars for embryonic stem-cell research. The proposition runs counter to Bush himself, who has limited federal funding to a small group of preexisting embryonic stem cells. The minimum wage has remained stagnant at $5.15 an hour since 1997 and the Bush administration is opposed to an increase. But in November, Florida and Nevada, both red states, passed initiatives to raise it to $6.15 an hour. Colorado, another state that voted for Bush, also passed a measure requiring state utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Meanwhile, even as gay rights are preempted or rolled back on the national level -- and in some states -- Connecticut looks set to join Vermont in legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples. As the Danbury News Times reported on Monday, "Rep. Robert Godfrey, D-Danbury, and other lawmakers say it is almost inevitable that a gay union measure will become law in the 2005 session of General Assembly." If that happens, Connecticut will become the first state where the Legislature passed such a law without a court order.

Potential abounds for other statewide progressive measures. Howard Dean famously expanded health insurance in Vermont to guarantee coverage for all the state's children. His followers hoped he could do the same thing nationwide. That's not going to happen, but there's nothing to stop people from agitating for Dean-style policies in their own states. Similarly, Margie Waller of the Brookings Institution points out, Wisconsin has a child-care entitlement for low-income working families. "If you meet the eligibility criteria, you're guaranteed to get child care," she says. Feminists aren't going to get much help with child care out of the Bush administration, but they could try to replicate Wisconsin's policy elsewhere.

Liberals have long opposed the growth of state power, and for good reason. The century's most significant clashes over federalism have been over civil rights, with the national government forcing the South to submit to desegregation. Since then, fights over everything from abortion to school prayer have pitted Northern liberals, who want to use the federal government to enforce individual rights, often in the face of hostile majorities, against Southern conservatives, who believe that communities should be free to set their own norms.

Now, though, it's liberal enclaves that feel threatened by the federal government, and who will likely need to muster states' rights arguments to protect themselves from Bush's domestic policies.

Most significantly, the states may be the last line of defense for abortion rights. If Bush is able to appoint Supreme Court judges who overturn Roe vs. Wade, the abortion question will likely revert back to the states. If that happens, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 30 states are poised to ban abortion. Almost undoubtedly, there would then be a push to make abortion illegal nationwide, which would leave pro-choice states relying on the doctrine of federalism, or states' rights, to defend themselves.

"If you are intent on making sure that women can get abortions, you're going to lobby your state legislature," says Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law who argued the landmark 1997 federalism case, Boerne vs. Flores, before the Supreme Court. (That case invalidated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that exempted religious groups from some state and local ordinances.) "The decision to go to the state rather than the federal government is federalism."

Such an embrace of federalism would be opportunistic and even hypocritical. But that's nothing new. "It's all about power," says Hamilton. "That's the only criterion."

As Hamilton points out, many conservatives stop advocating for states' rights as soon as they get their hands on the levers of federal power. The Bush administration is currently challenging California's medical marijuana law, which will go before the Supreme Court next year, and Oregon's assisted suicide law. The Federal Marriage Amendment, which in its current form would also ban civil unions, strips states of the power to regulate marriage, which previously was their exclusive domain.

"Once conservatives got in power they forgot federalism," Hamilton says. "They left that principle in the dust and rushed to control the states that were now engaging in social experiments."

"What's happening is that the liberals are getting the issue," she continues. "The issue is how do you get power in a circumstance where you don't control the federal government. If the answer is federalism, which I think is obviously the only answer, what's going to happen is that all those liberal law professors who were extremely critical of the Supreme Court decision in Boerne, those law professors will have to eat their words."

Of course, given the cynicism with which both sides deploy states' rights doctrines, it's not clear where right-wing judges will stand when it comes to battling the left wing. In the famous case of Bush vs. Gore in 2000, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suddenly abandoned his long-standing commitment to states' rights when he ruled that Florida had violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, which holds that no state can "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Still, Hamilton believes that many justices will remain true to their previous opinions even if they don't like the outcome. For example, she says, "The Supreme Court is highly likely to reverse the decision that marijuana cannot be used," upholding California's medical marijuana law.

Using state governments to protect rights locally, rather than nationally, makes many liberals uncomfortable because it means leaving their red state brethren to the tender mercies of the right. If those who believe in gay rights spend all their time shoring up protections in the blue states, they're leaving vulnerable gays and lesbians in less tolerant locales on their own. Similarly, to give up on nationwide abortion rights, in favor of local ones, would be a retreat from the ideas of sisterhood and solidarity that have been central to the feminist movement.

At this point, though, liberals may not have a choice. Besides, on an emotional level, some have already given up their dreams of reforming the country in order to protect their own backyards.

The Seattle alternative weekly the Stranger nails this defensive mood in a recent manifesto titled "The Urban Archipelago: It's the Cities, Stupid." "It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time," writes the paper's editors, "but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America."

"In cities all over America, distressed liberals are talking about fleeing to Canada or, better yet, seceding from the Union," the piece continues. "We can't literally secede and, let's admit it, we don't really want to live in Canada. It's too cold up there and in our heart-of-hearts we hate hockey. We can secede emotionally, however, by turning our backs on the heartland. We can focus on our issues, our urban issues, and promote our shared urban values."

According to the Stranger, this means abandoning a commitment to things like gun control and abortion rights on a national scale. "We won't concern ourselves if red states restrict choice," it says. "We'll just make sure that abortion remains safe and legal in the cities where we live, and the states we control, and when your daughter or sister or mother dies in a botched abortion, we'll try not to feel too awful about it."

Ironically, the Stranger suggests that this means adopting a right-wing attitude toward taxes and social welfare. "To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off. Your issues are no longer our issues. We're going to battle our bleeding-heart instincts and ignore pangs of misplaced empathy. We will no longer concern ourselves with a health-care crisis that disproportionately impacts rural areas. Instead we will work toward winning health care one blue state at a time."

Some liberals warn against giving in to this kind of thinking. "We're talking about tax dollars going to the very people who are in need," says Peter Cannavo, an assistant professor of government at Hamilton College who specializes in environmental politics. "You're talking about withdrawing tax dollars from the red states and punishing people, punishing people who do not deserve to be the target of this wrath. It's just a way of collectively venting and taking on a gated community mentality. One has to strive for more than that."

Besides, as the Stranger and others acknowledge, the divide in this country isn't so much between states as it is between urban and rural areas. Liberals can't write off Colorado without writing off the progressive, environmentalist citizens of Boulder and Denver. If they give up on reproductive rights for Texans, the pro-choice citizens of Austin will have to live with the consequences.

Still, Cannavo acknowledges the depth of the alienation that's driving such thinking. What we're seeing, he says, is the growth of blue-state nationalism, a new sort of identity politics forced into life in reaction to the relentless insults of red America. For years now, conservatives have excoriated liberals in almost exactly the same way that previous right-wing movements demonized Jews -- as unwholesomely cosmopolitan, traitorous, decadent, inclined to both socialism and economic elitism. Right-wing authors like Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter routinely try to write their opponents out of the nation.

The administration plays on this animosity. In his recent New York Times Magazine cover story about Bush's faith-based governing, Ron Suskind quotes Bush's media advisor Mark McKinnon. After accusing Suskind of thinking Bush is an idiot, McKinnon goes on to say that "all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!"

Democrats are starting to get this, which is partly why the results of this election felt so personal. "We are being attacked and really caricatured," says Cannavo. "There's been an attack on the blue states as out of touch with the country. You had 48 percent to 51 percent in the election, but the 48 percent is considered somehow illegitimate."

Many of the people in that 48 percent are not content to be ruled by people who, beyond disagreeing with them, seem to despise them. They'll seek other ways to exercise power. "Over the history of this country," says Cannavo, "we have had states taking the lead on certain issues and then even banding together to sue the federal government. The Northeastern states have taken action on air pollution. Can this be magnified in terms of issues like health insurance? Yes. The question, though, is how far can this go. Would you eventually reach a point of a kind of loose federation where you have two countries pursuing their own domestic policies?"

That's essentially the idea. Clearly, it marks an attenuation of progressive dreams for America. But at least it means there's something liberals can do to further their own ideals in the face of Republican domination. For the next four years, Democrats will be forced to watch as the New Deal is dismantled.

The states can give them a place to rebuild.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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