Term 'states' rights' heard anew in election cycle

By Allen G. Breed

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 12:09 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accompanied by his wife Callista speaks during an event at a Holiday Inn, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, in Cocoa, Fla.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — Pop singer Kelly Clarkson wasn't expecting such a harsh response when she tweeted her endorsement in the Republican presidential race.

"I love Ron Paul," she wrote late last month. Later, in a radio interview, she elaborated, "He believes in states having their rights, and I think that that's very important."

Clarkson received hundreds of replies, some lambasting Paul and at least one suggesting that the "American Idol" winner choose her words more carefully.

In particular, two words: "states" and "rights."

As the Republican presidential campaign has turned south, into the region that seceded from the Union 150 years ago, old debates about state and federal authority echo anew in phrases used by candidates, their supporters and the news media.

Even before the Civil War, "states' rights" had become a byword for the protection of black slavery. And since the late Sen. Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a States' Rights Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," the phrase has sometimes been labeled a "dog whistle" for racist elements in the electorate.

None of that was on Clarkson's mind. After a barrage of responses to her Dec. 29 tweet, the 29-year-old Texan told fans, "My eyes have been opened to so much hate." And she emphasized, "I do not support racism."

Sociologist and author John Shelton Reed, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was not surprised that someone of Clarkson's youth would fail to recognize the "baggage that 'states' rights' carries."

Still, he says, hearing the term employed by people like Paul — and also by Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he quit the race — "it's clear that we've turned some kind of page."

Paul, Perry and others referred to the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which states, "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."

The shorthand "states' rights" came later.

"Any time I hear it, I get this sort of little twitch, because I associate it with Ross Barnett or George Wallace," says University of Georgia historian James Cobb, referring to the governors of Mississippi and Alabama who, five decades ago, defied efforts to integrate their states' flagship universities. "But members of the younger generation, it doesn't have that kind of connotation to them at all. And whether this is to some extent the fault of those of us who are supposed to be educating the younger generations about their past, I can't say."

As Republicans prepared for the primary season, writer David Azerrad drafted a list of "New Year's Resolutions for Conservatives." No. 1 was "Speak of Federalism, not 'States' Rights.'"

"Not only is it incorrect to speak of states' rights, but the expression has more baggage than Samsonite and Louis Vuitton combined," Azerrad, assistant director of The Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, wrote on the organization's "Foundry" blog. "In case you didn't know, 'states' rights' was the rallying cry of segregationists. Since no right-thinking conservative will keep company with such people, let's just drop the term states' rights once and for all."

In a speech before the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas last April, Perry warned that the idea behind the term was in danger: "Over the years and decades, Washington has extended its reach bit by bit, until the sound concepts behind the 10th Amendment were blurred and lost and the idea of states' rights has become increasingly disregarded."

In an October candidates' debate in Las Vegas, Paul, a 12-term congressman from Texas who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, used the term to describe his position on the proposed national nuclear waste disposal facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

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