• Otter Views: Balkan States of America

    by Tom Stevens

    Monday featured a round trip to Santa Cruz with National Public Radio for company. Hoping to skirt the city’s stop-and-go rush hour traffic, I left PG at 10 a.m. and started back at 2 p.m. It didn’t work. Santa Cruz now has rush hour all day.

    The up side of inching along in traffic was listening to the American history and issues coverage NPR programs each July for Independence Week. I heard about the Battle of Gettysburg; recent Supreme Court decisions; firearms, immigration and abortion; energy policy and health care for the poor . . . you name it.

    Prolonged carbon monoxide intake left me hazy on many of the finer points, but a composite portrait emerged of a nation incrementally fracturing. “A nation in transition” might be more acceptable parlance, but that suggests one country going through changes. I think we’re seeing Balkanization: one country breaking up into several.

    The recent Supreme Court decision voiding the Defense of Marriage Act brought that into focus. A dozen states and the nation’s capitol now authorize same-sex marriage, but the other 38 do not. As one couple put it: “We’re married here in Washington, but when we go back home, we’re not married any more.”

    Access to abortion and family planning services has also become piecemeal. Despite last week’s dramatic 11-hour filibuster, the Texas legislature will soon whittle the state’s 40-some abortion providers down to five approved clinics.  If North Dakota’s recent abortion law stands, that state will have one clinic. Thus, abortion and family planning will be readily accessible for some Americans; hundreds of miles distant for others.

    The same Supreme Court that sparked jubilation in a dozen same-sex marriage jurisdictions brought despair to civil rights leaders in a dozen more. By throwing out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the court effectively Balkanized U.S. elections. States and counties keen to restrict minority voting will no longer face the pre-election legal challenges that blunted many of those efforts in 2012. Henceforth, people in some states will be able to vote swiftly and conveniently; those elsewhere will face ID hassles and 8-hour waits.

    The beat goes on. The Supremes allowed the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) to stand, but they also allowed the states to opt out of its Medicaid provisions. Several already have, with more to follow. So, once again, health care coverage for the poor will look very different from state to state.

    So will firearms policies. In a growing number of “open carry” states, firearms commerce and ownership are encouraged. One Georgia lawmaker has even proposed that all state residents be required to carry firearms. Other states discourage firearms in schools, churches, diners, parks and other public places. This regulatory patchwork has confused traveling gun owners, prompting a tripling of airport firearms seizures.

    If there is a trend in all this, one NPR commentator saw it as a pendulum swing away from federalism and toward states’ rights. The Supreme Court has been in the vanguard, but national and state legislatures are also major actors.  Partisan extremism and unrestrained corporate lobbying have so shackled Congress that it no longer functions as the nation’s lawmaking body. Where Congress once honored “checks and balances,” there are now only checks.

    Legislative fecklessness has also disabled the executive branch, which is able to get very little through Congress. Judicial and cabinet appointments can languish in the Senate for years. Major administration initiatives – immigration reform is the latest – lumber into the La Brea Tar Pits of the House of Representatives and vanish. Only gnawed bones and gassy bubbles surface.

    Not only is the federal government hamstrung, it is scandal-ridden. Recent disclosures about Internal Revenue Service politicization and the National Security Agency’s vast domestic surveillance machinery have besmirched the feds and turbo-charged the states’ rights movement.

    As this week’s 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg reminds us, things could be – and have been – far worse. The states are not at war yet, and only Texas has thus far taken steps to secede. But the Union is pulling apart in many other ways. We are already divided between Republicans and Democrats, climate change believers and climate change deniers, “red states” and “blue states.”

    I can easily foresee further splintering. There will be fit states and fat states; abortion states and abortion-free states; heavily-armed states and lightly armed states. There will be voter-friendly states and voter-restrictive ones. Some states will support civil rights; others will suppress them. Some states will frack; others won’t.

    And so on. Watching from the sidelines will be a do-nothing Congress, an impotent executive branch, and an enabling Supreme Court. A century and a half after Gettysburg, we’re back on Little Round Top again. Ready, aim . . . .

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 9, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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