The United States of America is structured as a union of individual states. The United States Constitution purports to delineate the specific rights and powers the states granted to the central Federal government as part of the cost of forming a centralized structure. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution, passed at the insistence of the smaller states who otherwise would have blocked the nine main amendments of the Bill of Rights, says:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Over the years, Congress, the Courts and the Executive have found reasons to override presumptive state authority in a number of areas by declaring the underlying conduct to be part of interstate commerce, over which the Federal government was given exclusive control in the Constitution. Also used in a similar manner is the “equal protections” clause that prohibits states from denying citizens of other states the equal protection of the law within their borders. But these mechanisms have proved unreliable as a way of leveling the playing field in some important ways. Particularly as the nature of the problems with which we as a society must grapple grows in complexity and transcends state-drawn borders, it has often been the safe harbor of reactionaries and others who would attempt to claim that their state’s traditions or history or mores or culture or religious preferences should be allowed to hold sway within their borders even when doing so disadvantages other American citizens.
As the population has grown increasingly mobile, as corporations have transcended first state and then national boundaries, the idea that any significant problem is properly the sole province of the state in which the problem arises or is being attempted to be enforced has lost its value and credence.
Texas may wish to have its own largely unregulated petroleum industry, for example, but the pollution it creates doesn’t stop at the Texas state line. Nor, it is now clear, does the other damage to climate and even seismic activity confine itself within that invisible line. Many other Americans living in other states have their rights infringed by a decision that Texas sees as affecting only its residents.
The same is true in California, which is now undergoing a severe drought. Decisions made about how to allocate and conserve water in California have tremendous implications for the food supply of the entire nation. It is difficult to argue with any reason that the drought and how it gets resolved — or the water resources when they are abundant and how they get managed — is strictly in California’s purview.
Elections are another place where state boundaries shouldn’t but do create radical difference in citizens’ rights and their ability to influence outcomes based on the state of residence. At least when it comes to electing the President and Vice-President — and I think a cogent argument could be made for including Senatorial races as well given the Constitutional role of that body — a single uniform national law about eligibility and process is clearly demanded by the way some states have chosen to corrupt the process for the benefit of a minority.
The United States could play a more significant role on the world stage and contribute far more greatly to the solution of national and global problems if it weren’t saddled with the notion of “states rights.” While it is clear that the concept of the state is never going away in our country, legislation and judicial rulings as well as executive decisions that can move the marker closer and closer to a unified nation and away from invalid differences between states would be a welcome shift. The default should make it necessary for a state to prove it has a vital right to its own policies and procedures in a given area of control and administration rather than the present assumption that the central government must prove its primacy.