April 28, 2023, Letters from an American, Prof. Heather Cox Richardson
According to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute (EPI), legislatures in at least ten states have set out to weaken federal child labor laws. In the first three months of 2023, legislators in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota introduced bills to weaken the regulations that protect children in the workplace, and in March, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law repealing restrictions for workers younger than 16.
Those in favor of the new policies argue that fewer restrictions on child labor will protect parents’ rights, but in fact the new labor measures have been written by the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a Florida-based right-wing think tank. FGA is working to dismantle the federal government to get rid of business regulations. It has focused on advancing its ideology through the states for a while now, but the argument that its legislation protects parental rights has recently enabled them to wedge open a door to attack regulations more broadly.
FGA is part of a larger story about Republicans’ attempt to undermine federal power in order to enact a radical agenda through their control of the states.
That goal has been part of the Republican agenda since the 1980s, as leaders who hated federal regulation of business, provision of a social safety net, and protection of civil rights recognized that a strong majority of Americans actually quite liked those things and getting Congress to repeal them would be a terribly hard sell. Instead, Republicans used their control of federal courts to weaken the power of the federal government and send power back to the states.
Historically, states have been far easier than the much larger, more diverse federal government for a few wealthy men to dominate. After 1986, Republicans began to restrict voting in the states they controlled, giving themselves an advantage, and after 2010 they focused on taking over the states through gerrymandering. This has enabled them to stop Congress from enacting popular legislation and has created quite radical state legislatures. Currently, in 29 of them, Republicans have supermajorities, permitting them to legislate however they wish.
The process of taking control of the states by choosing who can vote got stronger today when the North Carolina Supreme Court, now controlled by Republicans, revisited an earlier ruling concerning partisan gerrymandering. Overruling the previous decision, the court green-lighted partisan gerrymandering, opening the door for even more extreme gerrymanders in the future. The court also okayed voter restrictions that primarily affect Black people.
Gutting the federal government and throwing power to the states makes it easier for business leaders to cozy up to legislators and slash business regulations. It also enables a radical minority to enact its own worldview despite the wishes of the state. This dynamic is very clear over abortion rights and gun safety.
Last June, quite dramatically, the Supreme Court overturned federal protection of the right to an abortion guaranteed in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision the right-wing court said that decisions about abortion rights belonged to voters at the state level.
But as the last ten months have made clear, the right wing does not really intend to let the voters of the states make decisions that contradict right-wing ideology.
After the Dobbs decision, Republican-dominated legislatures immediately began to restrict the right to abortion, although it remains popular in the country and voters have rejected extreme abortion restrictions in every special election held since the decision. Now Republican legislators in Ohio are trying to head off an abortion rights amendment scheduled for a popular vote in November by requiring 60% of voters, rather than 50%, to amend the state constitution.
Gun safety shows the same pattern. A new Fox News poll out yesterday shows that 87% of voters favor background checks for gun purchases, 81% favor making 21 the minimum age to buy a gun, 80% want mental health care checks on all gun buyers, 80% want flags for people who are dangerous to themselves or others, 77% want a 30-day waiting period to buy a gun, and 61% want an assault weapons ban.
And yet, Republican majorities in state legislatures are rapidly rolling back gun laws. Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee legislature went so far recently as to expel two young Black representatives when they encouraged protesters after the majority quashed their attempts to introduce gun safety measures after a mass shooting in Nashville. But they were not alone. Last week, when the Nebraska senate passed a permitless concealed carry law, Melody Vaccaro, executive director of Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, shouted “Shame!” multiple times. She has since been “barred and banned” from the Nebraska statehouse.
The attempt of a radical minority to enforce their will on the rest of us, who constitute a majority, by stealing control of the states and then, through them, control of the federal government is precisely what the Confederates tried to do before the Civil War: it is no accident that one of the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, carried a replica of a Confederate battle flag.
And yet, in the wake of the Civil War, when former Confederates tried to dominate their Black neighbors despite the defeat of their ideology on the battlefields, Congress tried to make it impossible to pervert our democracy by capturing the states. It passed and in 1868 the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, putting into our fundamental laws the principle that the federal government trumps state power.
It reads, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” and it gives Congress the “power to enforce…the provisions of this article.”