The New Obamacare-Inspired States’ Rights Movement

The latest movement isn't so much a policy disagreement about health care as it is a no-holds-barred war for the future direction of domestic policy.
November 2013
People carry civil rights signs as they gather in Washington, D.C., before Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
People carry civil rights signs as they gather in Washington, D.C., before Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963. AP

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August brought back a swarm of memories. As a student-journalist in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the early 1960s, I was witness to countless sit-ins, mass arrests and other gut-wrenching scenes.

Some of the scariest moments for me came on Saturday nights as robed and masked Ku Klux Klansmen paraded around with their burning crosses, cheering speakers who called blacks, Jews and Catholics unimaginable names. The Klansmen saw reporters as co-conspirators with the demonstrators. Jesse Helms, the soon-to-be U.S. senator, who at that time was a conservative commentator on a TV station in Raleigh, even labeled my colleagues and me at the University of North Carolina student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, a bunch of Communists.

Ironically, the political leadership in the state in those days was moderate and pragmatic. The governor, Terry Sanford, was best known for his commitment to improving public education and promoting economic development. He probably was one of the more accomplished governors in the country at that time, destined to go on to the presidency of Duke University and then a term in the U.S. Senate.

Sanford was moderate on race relations compared to his fellow Southern governors—a bunch of “states’ rights Democrats” that rode the anti-integration fervor into higher office. Gov. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas started the resistance in 1957, when he defied a federal desegregation order, sparking a school crisis in Little Rock and setting the tone for the South’s resistance to integration for years to come. Five years later, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett defied a federal court order and stood in the doorway to block James H. Meredith from entering the University of Mississippi. The resulting confrontation was the sharpest clash between a state and the federal government since the Civil War. In subsequent rioting, two people were killed and hundreds injured. And Gov. George C. Wallace did the same thing at the University of Alabama almost a year later, two months before the March on Washington.

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But aside from the race issue, these governors—like Terry Sanford—were considered moderately progressive. They worked to improve public education and shore up the social safety net. I couldn’t help but think as I recalled covering these events that the rift between federal and state governments seems to have grown wider, encompassing an array of policy issues. Federal boots may not be on the ground—there haven’t been riots and no one has been hurt—but the level of resistance by a number of states in the South and Midwest to federal policy on a wide range of issues has not been this pronounced in almost a half century.

The central issue is Obamacare, but there are plenty of other issues to oppose: rules for who is allowed to vote or immigrate, rules for environmental emissions from power plants, rules for common education standards and rules for a wide array of social issues like guns, gay marriage, abortion, pot and so on. But health care is the centerpiece, and the resistance in some states is as strident as it is in the U.S. Congress.

At last count, 21 states have refused to expand their Medicaid systems to accommodate new enrollees even though the feds are paying all of the costs for the first three years, and 34 have refused to operate their own online insurance exchanges. A number of states have even enacted rules inhibiting so-called “navigators” from helping to enroll people in insurance plans or banning their city and county officials from helping in any way to phase in the new program.

Paul Posner, a federalism scholar at George Mason University, agrees that the current tension between the states and the feds mirrors the 1960s, but this time, he notes, it’s “to the states’ fiscal detriment. Money is overshadowed by ideology and the need for state leaders to make a statement about their positions.” While “passive resistance is not unprecedented,” he says, “several states have gone beyond that to become active resisters to the health reform law.”

That’s the key difference. Fifty years ago, some of the Southern governors were active resisters on the issue of desegregation, but on most others they were more mainstream. Now on a broad array of issues, the states’ rights movement is highly organized, heavily funded and uncompromising. In some cases, its tactics verge on sabotage of federal efforts. This isn’t so much a policy disagreement about health care as it is a no-holds-barred war for the future direction of domestic policy in the country.

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