A common and fundamental disagreement at the heart of a good part of American political discourse revolves around the nominal balance of power between the individual states and the federal government they constitute. Of course, the disagreements are not always expressed explicitly in these terms, but it is nonetheless integral to even the most base discourse. Should the greatest power be held by federal government, or spread among the states? I'd like to explore and confer my thoughts on this.
It's most common for modern conservatives to fall on the side of "states' rights" (at least nominally); that being that the balance of power should fall away from the federal government and into the arms of the individual states. The reasoning for this, as far as reasoning for something as bad as governments go, is a generally good one. It relies on the liberal insight that giving governing bodies power is dangerous, and that, if we must have them, their power should be divided as to pit government(s) against itself. It's not all that different than the rationale for divided powers among, say, the federal government itself.
And even beyond that (the self-juxtaposition of government power), there are also geo-political implications for power being spread out across multiple geographic entities. It leaves us with something that is more (albeit still only partially) analogous to market-competition. It's, at least in theory, easier to escape the despotism of one state by fleeing nearby to another. The prospect of escaping from underneath the thumb of an oppressive federal government seems a little less rosy.
So, this is the general idea. And I happen to think it's correct for the most part, but there is a good deal of opposition to it as well. Detractors will (and often do) claim that giving the individual states too much power will result in bad outcomes. It will allow the states, they say, to run roughshod over peoples' rights, and without a strong central government to provide correction, there will be terrible consequences. Well, do our detractors have a point?
If you think that their concerns are unfounded, they will be glad to point you to America's own history. There are certainly terrible things that states have done in the past to which the federal government justifiably put a stop to. Our history of slavery and the lingering oppression of racism seem to speak to that, do they not? After all, without the federal government, for how much longer would slavery have continued - particularly in the deep south? How much longer would have been acceptable?
I think those are serious questions and reservations; ones that honestly are not always responded to in the best way. So while I'm not going to offer any rhetorical support of individual state governance in itself (secession should end at the individual), let me at least offer my thoughts on why diffusion of power is still very important.
The criticism I want to make is that many of us have a very thin view of history. We have a view that is often, at best, cursory - a jumble of names and dates garnered from textbooks we didn't particularly enjoy reading in our youth. I think what we really get is a kind of contextless goop...and I mean this even in a post New-Left world. It's very easy to segment history in a way that we tend to pick and choose what we get out of it. And given the common progressive historical refrain regarding the justification for centralized power, a more complete understanding of historical implication is important.
Let's take the example of slavery, which is a pretty common example brought up in the course of justifying federal power. Now, it's true enough that, at certain points, the federal government stepped in and stopped certain states from upholding governing practices which were clearly wrong. But that is just a small slice of a more robust historical progression - a snapshot in time. The truth, of course, is that for the federal government to have had the democratic weight it would have taken to allow for such a thing, a cultural plurality of support must have already existed. And yet, it hadn't always existed either. So what are the implications of that?
Well, at some point slavery was generally accepted in the United States (even though there were, of course, many detractors as well). Throughout the 19th century, a cultural shift in the direction of abolition begin to swell - particularly among a few states in the north. These were the first governments in the Union to enact pro-abolitionist reform. And it was this period that stands as a historical inverse to the periods for which supporters of strong centralized government lend support.
This was a time before such sentiments flourished in any kind of meaningful demographic sense. States with strong anti-slave laws were, at the time, very out-of-step with the rest of the country. It's a time when the reins of centralized government were in the hands not of abolitionists, but of those who supported slavery. And because of that the whole of the country was burdened by deplorable laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act(s), which ostensibly forced anti-slave states to do the bidding of slaveholders by returning to them their refuged "property".
This isn't something that usually comes up in discussions about the balance of state power. And, quite frankly, that is just baffling considering the modern implications that are still in front of us right now. Right now there are states out there on the forefront of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. But, as far as I can tell, the D.E.A. is still busting down doors in no-knock raids and dragging people into cages on the daily (at record rates, no less). Or how about states that are opening up to gay marriage? Do supporters of centralized government imagine them to have the power to bar these states from doing such? What do they have to say about D.O.M.A.-type legislation?
The point of all this isn't to excuse the abuses of power perpetrated by individual states. They abound, and by my count they are no more or less wrong than the abuses of larger governments. The fundamental difference is that we've ostensibly limited the geographic scope of these particular governments a bit more. It's not a guarantee against corruption, it's just a backstop that arguably makes those instances easier to handle.
The argument for diffusion of government power is, at the very least, not completely insane. But, I think the larger point is that we need to kind of expand the context around the points in history we tend to focus on in our justifications. We tend to think that political movement and action is only present at the crest of that particular wave; that what happens between them is not important. But, in fact, it's all of what happens in between that leads to the crest in the first place. And so it goes too with history and politics. If we imagine ourselves competent enough to navigate those waves, we have to understand them in their entirety.