The issue of states’ rights has long been tied to race in America. Cases like Plessy v. Fergusson and Dredd Scott v. Sandford illuminate this very clearly. States’ rights is not an ideological argument but one based on geography. Strom Thurmond led the Dixiecrat party, and before that was the Democratic Governor of South Carolina. George Wallace was also elected on the Democrat ticket – in Alabama – and like Thurmond, was noted for being progressive on the race issue in his own state. Wallace, as a judge, addressed black men in his court by their last name, instead of calling them by their first names as the rest of the judges did. This respectful formality and fairness he showed to blacks earned Wallace the endorsement of the NAACP when he first ran for governor, an election which he lost due to his opponent’s vehemence against segregation. Within hours of the loss, he was quoted as saying, “I was outniggered by George Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.” After that, Wallace became one of the staunchest supporters of segregation in the country, declaring at his inauguration four years later, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” This language earned him a rebuke, and after he learned to use the coded language of states’ rights, which Strom Thurmond started (though it wasn’t quite coded at the time) in his opposition to Truman’s efforts to end segregation. The most important take away from this is understanding that many issues are not ideological but geographical. This is why the Republican Party was able to so swiftly become the party of the American South, by playing up the most important issue in the area, which was integration. This is not to say that only the South was racist, as George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon received widespread, though varying levels of, support around the country. It was that the issue of race was far more immediate in the South than the rest of the country. Even though Southerners may have supported liberal economic policies, their stance on social issues were much deeper.
Unfortunately, this has resulted in a conflation of race and economic policy in the United States that has served to undercut the poor, who often vote against their own interests unconsciously. Think about terms like “welfare queen,” which implicate the government safety nets and the supposed work ethic of blacks. Some would support this argument by stating the greater percentage of blacks on welfare than whites as proof that blacks are lazy, which the data, viewed decontextualized and very simplistically, would seem to make validate. This of course ignores that the problem of poverty is an issue of location. That those who live in locations are under-serviced, have poor schools, high crime, and have other factors that limit the economic viability of its people is hardly a surprise, but in understanding the why we come to a chicken-egg problem that is explained differently depending on whether one believes entirely in individual responsibility or systemic issue creating systemic problems. The battle over how we conceive these issues is, again, geographical rather than ideological. Red states, which tend to rail against welfare, receive the greatest amounts of money from the federal government. Under the Reagan administration, welfare programs were cut while the national debt surged. As a contrast, federal aid programs grew even bigger under JFK and LBJ at the same time that we fought the war in Vietnam. The result? The national debt declined all through the sixties. Those who blame programs like Social Security don’t realize that the amount paid into Social Security is less than the amount paid out. The surplus is then used to fund other parts of the government’s budget.
So why this gap between what the Republican Party claims it wants and what it actually does? The reality is that the wealthy individuals who control the Republican party with their campaign funding are using race to play white voters against their own interests. A strong safety net helps everyone. If we compare welfare and trickle down economics, what we see is that by giving welfare to the poor, who must spend every dollar on surviving, the economy is able to continue functioning. Money is spent on food, clothing, rent, heating, water, gas, etc., all the basic essentials to living. Wealthy individuals, on the other hand, don’t need to buy as much of these necessities, being far fewer in number than the poor. Luxury products, though expensive, have high overheads, unlike cheaper consumer goods, which means more money goes to businesses and the wealthy individuals who own it, than to the workers. Therefore, tax cuts to the rich really do nothing for the economy, just in the same way that a strong stock market has no bearing on how well off workers are. Not that the Democrats will be our saviors. In order to remain a viable political party, they have had to make a sharp right since the Reagan years. The momentum of the Civil Rights movement has helped the party maintain its position on social issues, though one would hardly call them courageous for it. Similarly, their base is populated by union members, which requires they at least pay lip service to their constituents, even as they give them the shaft as they did with the Affordable Care Act.
To return again to the issue of states’ rights, what it remains is a way to speak about social issues in an underhanded manner. Controversial topics (today) like abortion, gay rights, and voter I.D. laws are wrapped up with states’ rights. We’ve even had North Carolina create a measure that declared the state did not recognize federal court rulings that have prevented states from declaring a state religion (which fortunately was struck down). The element of religion is a somewhat recent addition to modern American politics, which has proven to be very interesting for the GOP’s big tent.