The so-called “tea party movement” is actually made up of a number of factions, including Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, and the Tea Party Nation, that have latched onto the concept as a way of attracting attention and pushing a political agenda that has so far relied on old fashion racism, intimidation, and sometimes violence.
Alongside operatives of the Republican Party, neo-confederates, and anti-immigrant activists the tea party movement is drawing support from “States Rights” supporters. In fact a cursory search of the terms “states rights” and “tea party” turns up numerous examples of Tea Party leaders defending the concept and the right of states to secede from the United States.
To understand the importance of this renewed push for States’ Rights it is necessary to take a look at the U.S. Constitution. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is the quasi-legal basis for those arguing for States Rights, states:
The powers not delegated by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Historically, the Tenth Amendment was the constitutional basis used to cling to slavery in the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War abolished slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship to former slaves and equal protection under the law to all citizens.
Unwilling to accept the outcome of the Civil War, Southern “patriots” used the doctrine of States Rights to institute Jim Crow and segregation. The States Rights argument was resurrected again during the 1960s to justify opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and federal laws ordering an end to racial segregation and voting discrimination.
The Tenth Amendment is a vital part of the checks and balances built into the American constitutional systems. It was ratified because the states rightly feared the concentration of too much power in the hands of the federal government. But, as U.S. history has shown, the abuse of power at the state and local levels is to be feared equally.
Under the veil of the tea party movement the contemporary States’ Rights advocates continue the tradition of hiding behind the Tenth Amendment to defend their opposition to both a black presidency and near sighted causes such as undermining American access to health care.
The legacy of the Tenth Amendment suggests that certain issues—civil and human rights—cannot be left to the discretion of the states. The tea party argument that state government governs best has become cliché – states have not shown themselves to deal with areas of law that call for uniform standards to protect the rights of people across local boundaries. Furthermore, government power is not the only kind of power subject to abuse. The recent mining tragedy in West Virginia shows that private corporations have at least as much impact on peoples’ lives as any government agenda.
Along with driving the Republican Party further to the right and hampering the Obama administration, Tea Party activists may succeed in reinvigorating arguments in favor of the darkest days of American history.