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States' rights is a concept in United States politics that asserts that the individual states should control most domestic policy. This is due to a couple of different theoretical ideas. Some believe in states rights because no policy determined for the entire country could fit well with the differing cultures and condition across the United States. Others believe that most powers belong to the states because it was the states that came together to form the United States.
The US does provide much more power to the individual states than most other nations provide to their administrative units. States control most aspects of law within their borders, and have a very large influence on health and family policy. These powers are typically considered to be protected by the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, which claims that powers not granted to the national government are reserved for the individual states. However, the national government has come to play an increasing role in many of these areas based in part on the authority of the 14th amendment (forbidding the abridgements of citizens' rights as well as requiring due process and equal protection for all citizens).
In political rhetoric, states rights are often invoked as dog whistle politics. Any conservative who opposes something the national government wants to do will claim the mantle of states rights, despite the fact that the phrase was most famously used as a justification for slavery and discrimination. Interestingly, most conservatives are willing to abandon any pretense when a state wishes to do something considered liberal, like grant same-sex marriage, or allow medicinal/ recreational use of marijuana.
 States' rights and the GOP
It is an historical irony that the GOP has come to be the party of states' rights. At its inception in the 1850s it was, of the major political parties, the strongest supporter of an activist federal government. During the Civil War, the Republican President and Congress even passed a (gasp!) federal income tax, more than 50 years before the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land. After the Civil War, the Republicans instituted Reconstruction of the former Confederacy, which whites in the Southern states bitterly resented. Once Reconstruction ended and the whites were able to suppress blacks' exercise of their voting rights, the Republican Party would be dead in the South for nearly 100 years, only supported by those few blacks with the franchise and a handful of white liberals.
In the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, a voter's support for either the Democratic or Republican party may very well been based on factors other than ideology. Region, social class, religion and other demographic factors all played important roles. To simplify greatly: New Englanders and Midwesterners tended to be Republicans; Southerners tended to be Democrats. The wealthy were more likely to be Republicans; the poor were more likely to be Democrats. Protestants were Republicans; Catholics and Jews were Democrats. City dwellers voted Democratic; countryfolk voted Republican. Immigrants supported the Democrats; the native (not the "Native" native kind) born voted Republican. Sometimes one factor was more important than the others; thus, wealthy Southern native-born Protestants were still likely to be Democrats. Ideology still had a role to play in voters choosing between the parties, but less so than today.
The presidency of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt remade the U.S. political landscape and massively expanded the role of the federal government in the nation's life. Under his administration, the federal government would come to adopt many liberal programs aimed at ameliorating the plight of the nation's poor and ending the Great Depression. Blacks, who had supported the Republicans after the Civil War, increasingly became Democrats. The Republicans were the party in opposition. Thus, liberals tended to become Democrats, conservatives tended to become Republicans. The major exception was the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, which was the most conservative political faction in the country, particularly on the increasingly prominent issue of civil rights.
Roosevelt talked a good liberal game, but did little on civil rights. He did however have the Black Cabinet, a group of around 45 African-Americans working in his administration. His political strength lay largely with the local Democratic organizations. In the Northern cities these were called "machines" and were controlled by a boss. In the South, the Democratic machines tended to be controlled by the local sheriffs. The machines rather liked the federal dollars that were flowing to them. After all, they would get to control some of the contracting and patronage hiring that went along with the increased federal activity. The bosses were less keen about the support some of the Roosevelt administration's New Dealers showed for civil rights. The political power of the Southern sheriffs depended on keeping the blacks from voting. The bosses in the Northern big city machines had a more delicate dance. Blacks were among the strongest supporters of the machines, and the bosses depended on harvesting their votes. However, the machines' core supporters were the whites who feared blacks moving into their neighborhoods. Thus, they oppposed, openly or behind the scenes, desegregation and truly open housing.
Nevertheless, civil rights remained a prominent political issue. Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, desegregated the military and introduced the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Some anti-Communists also were civil rights supporters, worried that discrimination gave the Soviet Union a propaganda victory in the Cold War. Politicians from both parties supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was much watered down to appease Southern members of the U.S. Senate, who would have otherwise prevented its passage with a filibuster. Southerners objected that civil rights legislation amounted to the federal government's interference with their states' rights to govern their own internal affairs.
In 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson introduced and was instrumental in Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law, which had not been watered down, was bitterly opposed by the South. The Republicans, who had been the party that had advocated a smaller federal government ever since the New Deal, saw their chance and ran on the Southern strategy, promising Southern whites that a Republican federal government would do less to interfere with their discrimination against and disenfranchisement of blacks than the Democrats. Barry Goldwater ran as the Republican candidate for President unsucessfully on the Southern strategy in 1964, but Richard M. Nixon succeeded in 1968.
Neither candidate was particularly racist: Goldwater had supported a nondiscrimination ordinance while serving on the Phoenix, Arizona city council, while Nixon, as Vice President, had been the Eisenhower administration's point person for its support of the '57 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater, firmly in the libertarian wing of the conservative movement, seemed to have a genuine aversion to expanding the reach of the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause, as the '64 Act would require. Who the hell knows what Nixon really believed, if anything, in his dark, rotten soul? Whatever they really believed, the Republicans knew that detaching the South from its firm allegiance to the Democratic Party was a political goldmine.
 Tenther movement
In recent history, the mantra of "states' rights" has found a new suit to wear: The Tenthers. Because they take an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, they believe that any power not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution belongs to the states, and that most of existing federal law is therefore invalid. They are named after the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which 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.
Though the term "states' rights" is still bandied about, the Tenthers have gotten more traction as the former term has become seen as an increasingly racist dog-whistle. Tenthers tend to be conservative or libertarian, although the movement seems to have attracted many with a narrow agenda against some federal law, like those who oppose the War on Drugs, religious dominionists who want to bring back state religions, tax protesters and even some gay activists. The Teabaggers of course, have latched onto this movement to conveniently declare any law they don't like unconstitutional. The Tenthers have invoked the language of nullification, i.e. the ability of a state to ignore or override federal law. Apparently, they know their case law better than all the Supreme Courts that have declared nullification invalid since the 19th century, starting with Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842. They also seem to know better than the Constitution itself, having overlooked these clauses:
- The Necessary and Proper Clause:
“”The Congress shall have Power - To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
- The Taxing and Spending Clause:
“”The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
- The Commerce Clause:
“”[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;
Oh, and of course, there's a whole bunch of case law against this notion. For starters, in 1819, SCOTUS ruled that the Necessary and Proper Clause gave the federal government implied powers in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland. The Court ruled against secession in Texas v. White. In United States v. Darby, the court had this to say:
“”The amendment states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered. There is nothing in the history of its adoption to suggest that it was more than declaratory of the relationship between the national and state governments as it had been established by the Constitution before the amendment, or that its purpose was other than to allay fears that the new national government might seek to exercise powers not granted, and that the states might not be able to exercise fully their reserved powers.
 Everything is Unconstitutional
Some things not found in the Constitution we'd have to live without:
- Social Security
- Political parties
- The Air Force
- Innocent until proven guilty
- Paper money (the federal government may only "coin" money)
- Primary elections
- The FDA and EPA
 Tenthers say the darn'dest things
Politicians embracing dumb Tenther arguments:
- Joe Miller: Unemployment Insurance is unconstitutional
- Sharron Angle: The UN is unconstitutional
- Mike Lee: Child labor laws are unconstitutional
- The GOP's Pledge to America:
“”We pledge to honor the Constitution as constructed by its framers and honor the original intent of those precepts that have been consistently ignored – particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all 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.
 See also
- ↑ While some other countries, particularly Mexico and Germany, refer to their highest-level divisions as "states", that doesn't always mean that they share the same system. Interestingly, however, with "devolved" governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom is heading towards much the same system.
- ↑ Ironically, "states' rights" was also invoked as an argument against the fugitive slave laws. See States' Rights and the Fugitive Slave Law at the Library of Congress.
- ↑ Unless you're Ron Paul
- ↑ The Tenth Amendment Center is probably the largest organization promoting this.