Michael Lind recently put out a piece in Slate called Let’s Stop Pretending the Constitution is Sacred. He won’t get any lip from me on that. I don’t think anything is sacred. But in making his argument, he ends up undermining one of the key understandings central to his argument. And I’m not sure he even realizes it.
Lind writes about how certain people in the U.S. venerate the constitution and then he connects that veneration to southern slavery and Jim Crow. He goes on to make a case for seeing constitutions as something in need of updating or even changing completely once in a while. But here is where the irony comes in. One of the things he uses to prop up his argument is the fact that the individual states do not treat their constitutions like sacred text. In fact, many states do exactly what he thinks should be done.
Most states in the Union have gone through several constitutions, with no apparent harm. Many of today’s state constitutions in the Northeast and West Coast date back only a few generations to the Progressive era, and show the influence of belief in apolitical, technocratic executives in the number of state officials appointed by a strong governor.
On the one hand, Lind adopts the very common belief that the ideas of states’ rights and limited federal government are only supported by backwards, hateful racists who wish they could still have slaves. And on the other hand, he shows how much more reasonable and progressive state politics can be. Kinda makes you go hmmmm.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Lind is wrong to make the connection. The connection is there. Much of the time (most of the time) the people who talk about states’ rights are reactionary and, if not white supremacist, not exactly informed anti-racists either. But what I have come to understand is that the automatic conflation of states’ rights with the KKK is equally as reactionary and does us all a huge disservice.
The drug war has been going strong for a century. And in the last 30 or 40 years it really ramped itself up, with horrible consequences. But lately there has been a lot of progress on changing drug policy in the U.S. Much of that progress has come because drug law reformers took a states’ rights approach to reform. They targeted certain states where there was decent support and started advocating for change, especially to medical marijuana laws. The result has been a domino effect. They were able to do state by state what they could not do on a federal level.
I’m not trying to argue for state’s rights here. I don’t give a crap about state’s rights. I don’t give a crap about any arbitrary borders – country, state, or otherwise. The only legitimate use for any kind of delineation is purely practical. When we are figuring out how to deal with an issue, we should be looking at all possible ways to confront the issue and not just, for example, forfeiting the state by state option just because of how state’s rights has been used in the past. It shouldn’t matter what boundaries we have used in the past at all. What is important is what boundaries are realistic considering the people effected by that issue and the number of people that can be coordinated without resorting to authoritarian structures and “representative” systems that don’t really represent anyone.
It is completely nonsensical to think that people in New York and people in Omaha would need exactly the same things. It is also nonsensical that people in San Diego and people in Tijuana would not need to work together to deal with some issues. Those simple facts seem to be really hard to grasp within our political context. People either live in denial, thinking we can cut off our borders and not have to negotiate with people in other countries, or people think that we can have social welfare systems similar to Northern Europe without considering the massive difference between the size of Sweden and the size of the United States.
Many of the most seemingly intractable issues actually boil down to our inability to see them through a different lens. How different does an analysis of Afghanistan or Somalia look once you accept the fact that it makes no sense to see those disparate communities as countries at all? The next time someone suggests that we should be emulating the social safety nets like those in the countries that continuously show up on indexes of the most peaceful, economically equal, and happy places on earth; point out to them that Denmark has 5 1/2 million people or so. That is about 15% of the population of California.
The United States is huge. It is almost impossible to get 300 million people, spread out over 3,536,294 square miles, to agree on anything. The scale of the operation is enormous. And the larger an organization is, the more difficult it is for the little people (that’s us) to have any real influence. I have worked for both small organizations and large, bureaucratic ones. You have a lot more influence when you can walk into your bosses office and talk to them (as opposed to the boss not even knowing your name).
Boundaries may be necessary, but they need to be fluid. We need to recognize that boundaries are a means to an ends, not an end in and of itself. We should be asking ourselves who is affected by the problem? By the solution? What is the smallest group that can deal with this issue? The largest? Is it a problem constrained by geography? Or do geographical boundaries not apply at all? And whatever boundaries we do use shouldn’t be written in stone. They should always be up for changing once they stop serving our needs. And it shouldn’t require a civil war to accomplish it.