It's the Federalism, Stupid

With Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint leading the charge, Tea Party candidates have been defeating established Republicans across America, from Nevada to Florida and Delaware to Alaska. The most recent victory of Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for Senate has left many moderates asking themselves where they fit in a new GOP dominated by Tea Partiers. Some political pundits have called Tea Partiers names, attacked newly nominated Republicans, and even made claims about the nonsense of ideological purity.

Politico reported that Scott Brown and other moderate Republicans were concerned that there "would be no room" for them in a new Republican Party. The queen of the RINOs, Olympia Snowe from Maine, recently shared her concerns with CNN. She said, "Well, there are fewer of us, so that goes without saying. We can't be endangered if you want to be a majority party." She continued by attacking DeMint and arguing that "[w]hat works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine. We all have different views. We're independent. I can't go back to the people of my state and say, excuse me, I have to be one hundred percent ideologically pure because someone has dictated that from another state. It just wouldn't wash."

Texas Senator John Cornyn, the leader of the National Republican Senate Committee, responded to O'Donnell's victory in the New York Times: "As I've traveled, I've talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: I'm fine with the Republicans as long as we're talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I go off the reservation is when you talk about social issues." For Cornyn, the plan is simple: focus on how Democrats have lost their credibility on fiscal issues while hoping that social conservatives stay within the Republican fold despite the lack of attention to their issues, thus pulling social moderates into the party. 

For politicians like Cornyn, Brown, and Snowe, conservatism just isn't flexible enough to include the diverse social opinions of Americans today. They misunderstand the true tenets of ideological conservatism, wrongly perceiving conservatism as rigid and narrow. These faulty criticisms must be met with a clear and strong response by conservatives, not one that rehashes the culture wars of the 1990s, but one that works to give a voice, and freedom that comes from that voice, to the most Americans possible. The answer to concerns about social issues raised by blue-state Republicans should be just one word: federalism.

Despite the fact that, as Senator Snowe attests, "what works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine," federalism, or states' rights, is often maligned in blue America and has had negative connotations attached to it by liberals and moderate Republicans due to the usage of those terms by segregationists during the 1960s. However, the Civil Rights Act was much closer to the end, and victory, for the struggle of assuring racial equality than the beginning. Federalism has often helped expand freedom rather than take it away.

Because most Americans today think of freedom as the standard of American life, it is difficult to place slavery in its historical context and see the pivotal role of federalism, a great instrument given to us by the Founding Fathers, in ending this brutal institution and helping bring about civil rights for all Americans. For hundreds of years, slavery was seen as the norm in most of the Western world, and freedom was considered unusual. The American Revolution changed that with the Declaration of Independence, making the claim that all men are created equal (though, of course, most white Americans in the 18th century still did not believe in the equality of African-Americans).

With independence secured through military victory, the Founders debated the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. Deeply rooted in Western culture, removing slavery at the national level would be difficult; ending it altogether was a less likely outcome than maintaining it throughout the newly formed United States, if one approach were to be imposed on all the states. The establishment of federalism protected Free States as much as it protected Slave States. Allowing each state to decide independently how it treated such a controversial (at the time) topic served to guard abolitionism and allowed the antislavery movement to grow in the North.

The same case can and should be made for civil rights. Without federalism allowing Northern states to desegregate and creating a base from which to attack Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement might have floundered as Southern Democrats helped stall national legislation against segregation early in the twentieth century. Throughout our history, allowing states the right to decide social issues has oftentimes acted to safeguard freedom as much as it has slowed its march.

Today, federalism is a natural ally to fiscal conservatives. They need only to look to Ronald Reagan to see how effective a coalition of fiscal conservatism and social federalism can be at winning elections.

In his executive order establishing "New Federalism," Reagan wrote,

The nature of our constitutional system encourages a healthy diversity in the public policies adopted by the people of the several States according to their own conditions, needs, and desires. In the search for enlightened public policy, individual States and communities are free to experiment with a variety of approaches to public issues.

Everyone under Reagan's Big Tent agreed that the federal government did not need to be involved in every aspect of our lives. It is no surprise that while the popularity of every other political label has waned, Reagan's vision of an America based on federalism still resonates with the American people, and candidates who offer his kind of solutions still win at the polls.

Supporting a more decentralized federal government with regard to social issues is inherently more inclusive. In a nation as large as the United States, finding compromise on such divisive topics as the regulation of abortion or gay marriage becomes much easier when we have many debates at the local level and multiple outcomes in the several states, rather than one decree from Washington elites.

As long as the results fit within the constitutional protection of individual rights of all Americans, promoting local and state debate on social issues offers the best way for the Republican Party to continue its commitment to social conservatism while remaining inclusive of all Americans who may disagree with the party on issues such as abortion or gay marriage, yet still value the policies of small government, low taxes, a strong national defense, and the free market.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rice University and studies 19th-century U.S. racism and politics.
With Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint leading the charge, Tea Party candidates have been defeating established Republicans across America, from Nevada to Florida and Delaware to Alaska. The most recent victory of Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for Senate has left many moderates asking themselves where they fit in a new GOP dominated by Tea Partiers. Some political pundits have called Tea Partiers names, attacked newly nominated Republicans, and even made claims about the nonsense of ideological purity.

Politico reported that Scott Brown and other moderate Republicans were concerned that there "would be no room" for them in a new Republican Party. The queen of the RINOs, Olympia Snowe from Maine, recently shared her concerns with CNN. She said, "Well, there are fewer of us, so that goes without saying. We can't be endangered if you want to be a majority party." She continued by attacking DeMint and arguing that "[w]hat works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine. We all have different views. We're independent. I can't go back to the people of my state and say, excuse me, I have to be one hundred percent ideologically pure because someone has dictated that from another state. It just wouldn't wash."

Texas Senator John Cornyn, the leader of the National Republican Senate Committee, responded to O'Donnell's victory in the New York Times: "As I've traveled, I've talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: I'm fine with the Republicans as long as we're talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I go off the reservation is when you talk about social issues." For Cornyn, the plan is simple: focus on how Democrats have lost their credibility on fiscal issues while hoping that social conservatives stay within the Republican fold despite the lack of attention to their issues, thus pulling social moderates into the party. 

For politicians like Cornyn, Brown, and Snowe, conservatism just isn't flexible enough to include the diverse social opinions of Americans today. They misunderstand the true tenets of ideological conservatism, wrongly perceiving conservatism as rigid and narrow. These faulty criticisms must be met with a clear and strong response by conservatives, not one that rehashes the culture wars of the 1990s, but one that works to give a voice, and freedom that comes from that voice, to the most Americans possible. The answer to concerns about social issues raised by blue-state Republicans should be just one word: federalism.

Despite the fact that, as Senator Snowe attests, "what works in South Carolina and Delaware may not work in Maine," federalism, or states' rights, is often maligned in blue America and has had negative connotations attached to it by liberals and moderate Republicans due to the usage of those terms by segregationists during the 1960s. However, the Civil Rights Act was much closer to the end, and victory, for the struggle of assuring racial equality than the beginning. Federalism has often helped expand freedom rather than take it away.

Because most Americans today think of freedom as the standard of American life, it is difficult to place slavery in its historical context and see the pivotal role of federalism, a great instrument given to us by the Founding Fathers, in ending this brutal institution and helping bring about civil rights for all Americans. For hundreds of years, slavery was seen as the norm in most of the Western world, and freedom was considered unusual. The American Revolution changed that with the Declaration of Independence, making the claim that all men are created equal (though, of course, most white Americans in the 18th century still did not believe in the equality of African-Americans).

With independence secured through military victory, the Founders debated the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. Deeply rooted in Western culture, removing slavery at the national level would be difficult; ending it altogether was a less likely outcome than maintaining it throughout the newly formed United States, if one approach were to be imposed on all the states. The establishment of federalism protected Free States as much as it protected Slave States. Allowing each state to decide independently how it treated such a controversial (at the time) topic served to guard abolitionism and allowed the antislavery movement to grow in the North.

The same case can and should be made for civil rights. Without federalism allowing Northern states to desegregate and creating a base from which to attack Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement might have floundered as Southern Democrats helped stall national legislation against segregation early in the twentieth century. Throughout our history, allowing states the right to decide social issues has oftentimes acted to safeguard freedom as much as it has slowed its march.

Today, federalism is a natural ally to fiscal conservatives. They need only to look to Ronald Reagan to see how effective a coalition of fiscal conservatism and social federalism can be at winning elections.

In his executive order establishing "New Federalism," Reagan wrote,

The nature of our constitutional system encourages a healthy diversity in the public policies adopted by the people of the several States according to their own conditions, needs, and desires. In the search for enlightened public policy, individual States and communities are free to experiment with a variety of approaches to public issues.

Everyone under Reagan's Big Tent agreed that the federal government did not need to be involved in every aspect of our lives. It is no surprise that while the popularity of every other political label has waned, Reagan's vision of an America based on federalism still resonates with the American people, and candidates who offer his kind of solutions still win at the polls.

Supporting a more decentralized federal government with regard to social issues is inherently more inclusive. In a nation as large as the United States, finding compromise on such divisive topics as the regulation of abortion or gay marriage becomes much easier when we have many debates at the local level and multiple outcomes in the several states, rather than one decree from Washington elites.

As long as the results fit within the constitutional protection of individual rights of all Americans, promoting local and state debate on social issues offers the best way for the Republican Party to continue its commitment to social conservatism while remaining inclusive of all Americans who may disagree with the party on issues such as abortion or gay marriage, yet still value the policies of small government, low taxes, a strong national defense, and the free market.

Carl Paulus is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Rice University and studies 19th-century U.S. racism and politics.

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