Progressive States' Rights
The Forgotten History of Federalism
Sales Date: February 9, 2024
344 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: February 2024
- Published: February 2024
Today, when politicians, pundits, and scholars speak of states’ rights, they are usually referring to Southern efforts to curtail the advance of civil rights policies or to conservative opposition to the federal government under the New Deal, Great Society, and Warren Court. Sean Beienburg shows that this was not always the case, and that there was once a time when federalism—the form of government that divides powers between the state and federal governments—was associated with progressive, rather than conservative, politics.
In Progressive States’ Rights, Sean Beienburg tells an alternative story of federalism by exploring states’ efforts in the years before the New Deal of shaping constitutional discourse to ensure that a protective welfare and regulatory governmental regime would be built in the states rather than the national government. These state-level actors not only aggressively participated in constitutional politics and interpretation but also specifically sought to create an alternative model of state-building that would pair a robust state power on behalf of the public good with a traditionally limited national government.
Current politics generally collapse policy and constitutional views (where a progressive view on one policy also assumes a progressive view on the other), but Beienburg shows that this was not always true, and indeed many of those most devoted to progressive policy views were deeply committed to a conservative constitutionalism.
“Though some readers may question Sean Beienburg’s understanding of the meaning and constitutional status of states’ rights federalism, none can successfully challenge his main point: associating states’ rights exclusively with white supremacy is a mistake, for liberals and conservatives have occupied both sides of the federalism debate. More generally, the states have served as important sites of opposition to, and occasional victory over, constitutional ideas that prevail at the national level. At a time when representatives of the corporate and cultural Right control the federal judiciary, progressives can profit from this admirably researched book.”—Sotirios A. Barber, author of Constitutional Failure, The Fallacies of States’ Rights, Welfare and the Constitution, and On What the Constitution Means
“An engrossing and deeply researched account of the role that federalism played in the early twentieth century in the advancement of progressive social and economic policies. Challenging the conventional wisdom that ‘states’ rights’ is a conservative platform, Sean Beienburg demonstrates through rich and detailed case studies how committed many progressives were to achieving their goals at the local rather than the national level. This book is required reading for those who believe that the states today remain a vital level of government for progressive causes, from gun control to abortion rights.”—Kathleen Sullivan, coauthor of Constitutional Law, Twentieth Edition
“In a masterful confounding of our received wisdom on states’ rights and federalism more broadly, Sean Beienburg unearths a forgotten history of progressive federalism that reveals not only a robust role for states in constitutional politics but also importantly decouples states’ rights from the reactionary racism and white supremacy to which it is most often associated. In so doing, Beienburg reveals not only how contemporary constitutional thinkers might link progressive policies and constitutional implications with what might, at first, appear to be paradoxically antithetical avenues towards those ends, but also that such connection has a rich history. This book reveals the creativity at the heart of our constitutional design and that no pathway of governance can or should merely be conceded to one side of the political spectrum. Beienburg’s richly nuanced, comprehensive, and impressive study is sure to be of interest to students of political development, political thought, and constitutional law as well as to anyone considering possibilities for constitutional and political reform.”—Stephen M. Engel, author of Fragmented Citizens: The Changing Landscape of Gay and Lesbian Lives
“The defense of slavery and massive resistance to civil rights has understandably loomed large in arguments about American federalism. Sean Beienburg’s illuminating study of Progressive-Era constitutional development shows that something important is lost when we allow these concerns to eclipse the more variegated tapestry of constitutional contention over centralization and localism, which is both our heritage and a resource. In our own unsettled constitutional moment, readers across the political spectrum will find Beienburg’s contextualizing history stimulating and enlightening.”—Ken Kersch, author of American Political Thought: An Invitation
“Challenging default assumptions, Sean Beienburg’s insightful analysis of progressive federalism shows us that racist reactionaries have not been the only defenders of the states’ rights tradition of constitutional interpretation. Beienburg’s methodical account of how Left progressives in the early twentieth century coupled arguments against national government power with the promotion of robust state level welfare and economic regulatory policies reveals a history obscured by post–New Deal politics—and offers a timely and important reminder of how the same tools can be wielded to advance very different political projects.”—Nicole Mellow, coauthor of Legacies of Losing in American Politics
Introduction: States’ Rights Returns
1. State Constitutional Interpretation in American Political Thought before teh New Deal
2. Against Motherhood and Apple Pie: The Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act of 1921
3. Sheppard-Towner II: Yankee States’ Rights
4. The Liberty of Contract: Federal Intervention in State Economic Policy
5. The Liberty of Contract II: State Resistance
6. Popular Constitutionalism, the States, and the New Deal Revolution: The Fall of Progressive Federalism
Conclusion: Progressive Federalism’s End . . . and Beginning?