E.J. Dionne of the Washington

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post thinks that, even as Trent Lott “is hustled off the stage,” the Republican party remains “haunted” by the states’ rights views he and Strom Thurmond share. Dionne challenges “Lott’s Republican critics who share his states’ rights views on many contemporary matters to explain why states’ rights doctrines that were so wrong as a general proposition in 1948 are right today.” Although I don’t really fit the description of those Dionne challenges, I think I can handle this one. The answer, I suppose, is that states’ rights doctrines were not necessarily “so wrong as a general proposition in 1948.” That the doctrines were wrong as applied to an issue concerning basic freedoms guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution, does not mean that they were (or are) wrong when it comes to a host of other issues, such as those pertaining to economic regulation, education, etc.
At the root of Dionne’s argument is his view that the federal government is today (as at the time of the 1960s civil rights acts) the “bulwark for individual rights.” In support of this view, Dionne notes that “federal law protects the rights of women, the disabled, and members of religious minorities.” Of course, these groups, along with racial and ethnic minorities, are protected by the laws of virtually every state, as well. Some states go further than the federal government, some go less far. But, unlike in 1965, there is no great divide between federal civil rights policy and the policy of any cluster of states. Moreover, to the extent that federal law may now go further than the law of a particular state, it is far from clear that, in doing so, the feds are acting as a “bulwark for individual rights.” Racial quota programs, for example, do not promote individual rights. Thus, while Republicans will continue to debate the extent to which we should be a states’ rights party, I hardly believe that we will be “haunted” by this issue, or by the legacy of Strom Thurmond, Dixiecrat.

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