Reagan: A Legacy of States’ Rights

Reagan: A Legacy of States’ Rights

What was consistent about the man was his belief that each state has a sovereign right to control its laws.


The national mourning, outpouring of love, adulation and respect that was evident in the various programs and services honoring the passing of our fortieth President, Ronald Reagan, was appropriately concluded with a western-movie-like ride off into the sunset at his entombment.

Ronald Reagan was an enigma. He had broad personal appeal for the American people, but those who knew him best said that ultimately he was remote as a person. Publicly, he revealed comfort with himself, even as he concealed his truest self from the public. His affability and sense of humor often hid his cruel and insensitive politics and policies.

What was consistent–and even more fundamental–about the man was his political commitment to states’ rights, the belief that each and every state has a sovereign right to control its laws. States’ rights logically flowed into a related issue–radical individualism, with every private business having the right to welcome or exclude whomever it wished from its form of transportation, restaurant, hotel or motel.

In 1981 NBC’s David Brinkley followed Reagan for a single day just thirty days into his presidency. At a meeting of the nation’s governors Reagan made it clear that he believed in state sovereignty, and that during his Administration the states would not be subjected to mandates sent down from the federal government.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency is credited with giving conservatives their ideological line–fewer taxes, less government and a strong defense; and for transforming the Republican Party in the South. The centerpiece of this conservatism is its historic commitment to states’ rights. Reagan was merely its most recent popularizer.

States’ rights were first made famous by Thomas Jefferson–the Democratic Party’s ideological founder. South Carolina’s Democratic Senator John C. Calhoun intellectually refined it. Democrats Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Northern Army of Virginia took it to its logical conclusion–seceding from the Union. This was followed by Democrat Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat campaign of 1948; Republican Barry Goldwater’s states’ rights campaign of 1964 (in which Reagan was intimately involved); Independent George Wallace’s presidential campaigns in the late 1960s and early ’70s; the Reagan years of the 1980s; the current Supreme Court, whose decisions have been consistently moving back toward states’ rights; and most recently the Bush campaign and Administration. So, whether Democratic, Republican or Independent politicians, or Supreme Court Justices, all are dominated by conservative states’ rights thinking.

Understanding states’ rights helps to explain why Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was invited to do so by then-US Representative (later Senator and majority leader) Trent Lott. In Philadelphia Reagan endorsed states’ rights and in turn was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, which was present on that occasion. In 1964 Philadelphia was the site where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered in the name of states’ rights as they attempted to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. In 1980 Reagan was sending a states’ rights signal to all conservatives, South and North, that their states would be given freedom even if it was at the expense of justice.

For states’ righters, the federal government is not to meddle in the internal affairs of states, especially the internal affairs of conservative Southern states, which were merely protecting “their Southern way of life”–heritage, not hatred. It’s probably why President Reagan responded affirmatively to Congressman Lott’s later request that the federal government continue to grant tax-exempt status to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, even though it practiced racial exclusion and discrimination.

Conservative states’ righters also don’t like the federal government telling them how to treat their workers. The PATCO workers, one of only three unions to endorse Reagan in 1980, didn’t understand that, so President Reagan made it clear–he fired them when they went on strike. That warmed the hearts of all conservative “right to work” states’ righters. So-called right-to-work antiworker laws, solidly rooted in the South–but also present in many small, rural and Western states–are a continuing legacy of the postslavery period, derived from post-Civil War business efforts to undercut or deny Southern workers, black and white, the ability to organize unions to protect their economic interests during Reconstruction and beyond.

During the funeral coverage it was reported that Nancy had once said, “Ronnie was unlike any actor I had ever met. He was so humble. He didn’t talk about his latest or next movie on our first dates.” When asked what he talked about, Nancy said, “The Civil War and horses.” She didn’t say which side of the Civil War he identified with. The Presbyterian minister who performed the burial ceremony–Reagan’s pastor for forty years–was originally from South Africa. Is it likely Reagan consulted his pastor for moral clarity during the debates over economic sanctions on South Africa?

Reagan, the states’ rights conservative, was allegedly “sensitive” and “didn’t have a racially discriminatory bone in his body”–the parallel to Bush’s compassionate conservatism. But he ignored AIDS for most of his time in office; supported the apartheid regime in South Africa (Congress overrode his veto of economic sanctions against the regime), seeing Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as communists; defunded enforcement of civil rights and tried to weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act; opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday (though he finally caved in and signed it); fought against affirmative action; demonized a fictitious pink-Cadillac-driving “welfare queen”; cut Medicaid, Medicare, school breakfast and lunch programs while declaring ketchup a vegetable; tried to undermine Social Security; wanted to deny women choice; tolerated an illegal Iran/contra effort in Nicaragua; diverted attention from the 241 servicemen killed in Lebanon by invading tiny Grenada under the guise that it posed a communist threat to the United States; in the name of anti-communism supported and funded right-wing murder squads in Guatemala and El Salvador; and branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire” (while ignoring the evils of racism, poverty, homelessness and illiteracy at home).

Those living in the valleys, on the fringes and in the trailer parks of America–not in the “shining city on the hill”–caught hell under Reagan.

Bush and Republicans pretend to be part of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, their first President. The Republican Party was founded as an antislavery party in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854 during the Kansas-Nebraska debate. That debate was over whether to allow the people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders–an idea of “state sovereignty” pushed by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas.

Lincoln opposed Senator Douglas’s conservative idea with a moderate alternative: Slavery could remain in place where it existed, but it should not be allowed to expand westward. Gradually, the new free states would join with the Northern free states–which would eventually outnumber the Southern slave states–and Congress would eventually write laws to outlaw slavery. That was Lincoln’s central idea and conviction, upon which he would not compromise.

After Lincoln was elected in 1860, and the South could not live with his central idea, eleven states’ rights states seceded from the Union, the nation engaged a Civil War and Lincoln saved the Union. At Gettysburg, our sixteenth President called upon the nation to rededicate itself to its unfinished work and complete the great tasks that lay before it. He called upon the nation to have “a new birth of freedom,” of which the three Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution were a down payment.

The United States has become a more perfect Union by using the Constitution’s commerce clause to build a federal highway system, a federal rail system and a federal aviation system–which helps to facilitate business interests and enhance individual achievement.

But states’ righters are against constitutional amendments that would provide every American with an individual right to vote, a right to public education and healthcare of equal high quality. Even though we pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, these states’ rights and individual “freedom” lovers don’t want the federal government involved in helping to achieve justice for all. And that’s Ronald Wilson Reagan’s real legacy.

Republican Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is that of a Union perfecter. President Reagan was a strong, strong advocate for states’ rights. He was never much interested in building a more perfect Union.

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