If Lincoln was right, we're heading for trouble. "A house divided against itself, cannot stand," is what he said. And, at the time he said that, he was in a position to know. The nation was divided between states that wanted to do what they wanted – mainly to maintain slavery -- and states that wanted to impose a national standard of behavior and rule of law – in particular to end slavery.
Southern states bristled at the notion that a bunch of northern Yankees had any right to tell folks in Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi what they could do or not do with what – or who – they owned.
The north won that argument and the house stood. That victory validated the notion that some laws and rights are so fundamental they transcend artificial, political boundaries. Owning other human beings was just as wrong in Georgia as it was in New York or California.
But our nation's founders left a few more loose ends when they were handing out rights and assigning powers. It took a civil war nearly a century later to tie up that little loose end. But slavery was not the only loose end. The Fathers were smart guys, but they were not psychic. They dealt with the human condition as it existed nearly 250 years ago They had no way of knowing what kinds of social relationships would develop.
So new loose ends keep materializing over time. Fighting a civil war over each of them was, thankfully, not the path chosen. Instead those fights have been non-violent, political, battles. Presidents proposed, Congress disposed, and, if that did not tie up the loose end, the Supreme Court cleaned up the mess once and for all.
Sure it took a century after slavery was abolished before blacks had anything like the same rights whites enjoyed, especially in the South. But, thanks to Supreme Court rulings, like Brown v. The Board of Education, that one loose end after another has been woven into the fabric of American law and life. Brown is a perfect example. It was the right decision, a decision Congress should have made decades earlier. But it took the Supreme Court to do it.
All in all, the Court has proven itself wise in its decisions. For example, can you imagine what America would be like today had the Court punted to the states in the 1960s on integration? States would have been left to decide for themselves how they wanted to handle access to public facilities. Some states would still allow white-only schools, pools and drinking fountains. Some states, frightened by terrorism, might now have laws restricting access to public facilities based on religion – Islam. All legal – as long as "separate but equal" facilities were provided for the excluded.
Conservatives backing states rights would say that's wrong. That left to their own devices state governments would have eventually integrated their facilities. They just didn't want "outsiders" telling them what to do.
Maybe. But I lived through the 1960s and I didn't sense the slightest inclination on the part of hardcore southern states to integrate anything, any which way. (And, let's be honest, even today, plenty of white folk would happily re-segregate if they thought they could get away with it.)
No, it's been the US Supreme Court that has kept this otherwise divided house standing for the past century or so. The Court has settled the kind of incendiary cultural and social arguments that in the old days would have been settled with baseball bats, guns and dynamite, the victor usually being the most brutal of the parties.
That's about to change as the Supreme Court shifts to the right. A conservative Court, hostile to the power of a central government, will slowly but steadily return power to the states. The process has already begun. State and local governments can now, thanks to the Court's decision just last month, seize your property and give it to a private developer in order to increase the local tax base. Local politicians seeking tax revenues teaming up with private developers seeking profits. Has there ever been a more unholy alliance sanctified by the Court?
Get ready for more of the same in the years ahead. Conservatives have been waiting fifty years for this moment, when they can begin turning around the ship of state. Just where they think they are taking us is not be entirely clear. They are seeking a return to an America that few of them actually know. They think they know it, but they never lived it. What lures them is a gauzy Norman Rockwell-ish vision, an America where men are men, women are women, kids mow suburban lawns and set up lemonade stands. And, though they would never admit it, a vision in which everyone but waiters, gardeners and doormen, are white.
And what about women in this vision. Well, they stay home, bake stuff, raise kids, go to PTA meetings and arrange church raffles. And, if an unmarried girl should get pregnant? Well, the little tramp!
As this new conservative Court rolls back earlier rulings protecting equal access, personal choice, freedom from religious indoctrination, rights to a speedy trial, even the right to a lawyer, states will fill that vacuum. Citizens of progressive states, like California and New York, will see little change. They will just have be more careful while on vacation in those other states. Don't get caught with a joint while in vacation in Georgia or try to get an abortion for a daughter attending school in Mississippi, for example. Oh, and why did their daughter get pregnant in the first place? Because Mississippi passed a law allowing pharmacists to refuse to sell contraceptives on religious grounds. (Coat hanger, anyone?)
The biggest changes will come in redneck states which will quickly pass redneck-friendly laws. Their public schools will become Christian-oriented madrases. Creationism will be taught as science while doubt provoking science like evolution will be dismissed as godless "theory." School vouchers will again allow white kids - using public money - to attend private all-white schools as their parents exercise embrace their newly returned right of association – association with other white folks. And yes, there will be a copy of the Ten Commandments in every class -- but that would be the least of our worries by then.. Conservative states will reinstate the right of housing developments to have charters that exclude "undesirables," like Jews, blacks, and -- under the rubric of national security -- Arabs would be the newest excludees.
After a century of creating a common house, the new Supreme Court will begin dividing it up once again. In a decade or so it will no longer be one nation, but fifty, each with it's own take on what rights Americans within their boarder have and what rights they no longer have.
Conservatives will accuse me of exaggerating, fear mongering, stereotyping. They will say that Americans are decent people who would never return to that kind of reprehensible behavior. All they want is for the feds to get out of their lives and let them run their own states the way they see fit. Not to worry. All will be well, they say.
Well, maybe, but I have my doubts. Such doubts are only fueled by studies of human behavior, one in particular sticks in my mind.
Scientists assembled a group of subjects. They hooked half of them up to a chair that gave them a jolt of electricity when someone in another room pushed a button.
There were two rooms with a shocking button, one had a window through which the subjects could see each other, the other was windowless.
When the button pushers were in the room with the window through which both would be victim and would-victimizer could see each other, they were reluctant to inflict pain on those looking them in the eye. But when these same people were allowed to push the button anonymously in the windowless room they pushed it with vigor. (Fortunately for the would-be victims, researchers suspected this would happen and had disconnected the victims from their chairs.)
But that study tells us something fundamental about human nature. And it's something that, until now, members of the US Supreme Court understood as well. Beginning next term though a whole lot of Americans are going to be wondering what the folks in their windowless "state's rights" room have in store for us.