BLANKLEY: The Pretensions of the States and the Threats to Democracy

Submitted by John Blankley, businessman, former member of the RTM, BET and Democratic candidate for local and state office.

Let’s state the obvious: we are going through a time of stress to our democracy. Never before have we impeached a president twice, never before have we had a former president criminally indicted, never before has there been an insurrection in our nation’s capital. Elected representatives in Congress seem to see no problem in allowing a sovereign debt default. Alexander Hamilton’s foundational financial principle, the full faith and credit of the US, is in danger. And the former president, guilty of so many outrages, is, astoundingly, highly likely to be the nominee of the Republican party in 2024.

Bad as all that is, there is even more that is testing our democratic norms and it’s going on in our states.

This resonates with me because I recently delivered a talk (to the Retired Men’s Association) on the first reporter and analyst of our young country, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote his masterpiece, ‘Democracy in America’ in the 1830’s. His warning, way back then, was the lurking threat, as he called it, of the ‘pretensions of the states.’ First and foremost in his mind was of course the threat of the southern states’ adherence to slavery, a conflict which he thought was only going to be resolved by a civil war. He died just before his worst fear came true, so he never saw the outcome but would undoubtedly have been gratified to see that our democracy survived.

Less gratifying would have been his realization, were he to come back now, that the ‘pretensions of the
states’ have not gone away and could well be said to be leading us to a cultural civil war, not existential, but still really serious. After the actual Civil War, the 14th amendment was passed that enhanced federal power and made us citizens of the United States as well as citizens of each state. In our lifetime many federal agencies were created, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed in the 1960’s, all of which pointed in the direction of a unified country with common values and institutions. Several big issues were the subject of national and, therefore unifying, policy. In addition to the Voting Rights act, Women’s reproductive rights were ensured by Roe v. Wade, Nixon passed the Environmental Protection Act in 1972 and assault weapons were banned in the 1990’s.

What we are facing now is the reversal of these gains. The assault weapons ban expired in 2004 and the
Supreme Court, effectively politicized by the chosen candidates of the reactionary Federalist Society, has
reversed the Voting Rights Act, overturned Row v. Wade and weakened EPA powers. State governments
controlled by Republican majorities have taken full advantage of these decisions. Some states have
banned abortions outright, some have weakened gun control laws and many, mostly the states of the
Old Confederacy, have reintroduced what can only be described as modern-day Jim Crow laws to
restrict the voting rights of minorities. The ‘pretensions of the states’ are clear, the states of the Old
Confederacy along with rural western states are engaged in forcing reactionary policies on their citizens,
often despite the wishes of their people. For the fact is, overwhelming majorities of the people as a
whole favor a woman’s right to choose, believe in strong environmental laws and would ban assault
weapons, institute background checks for any gun purchase and many other measures to curtail gun

However, emboldened by their success in rolling back federal powers on these major issues, Republicans are also indulging other authoritarian tendencies by, among other things, gerrymandering districts in a way which would make Chicago’s old Democratic bosses blush. Under the guise of enforcing parental control, they are banning books and restricting the teaching of history in schools. This mirrors the way “states’ rights” are invoked but which are no more than a smoke screen to enforce control over women and to discriminate against non-white citizens.

Identifying the “pretensions of the states” is one thing but reversing the trends, righting wrongs, returning to the norms of democratic behavior is a whole different matter. Shielded, for the most part, from the anti-democratic wave sweeping Republican controlled states, we here in our Connecticut redoubt can still do much. We can offer sanctuary to those oppressed or discriminated against in other states. We can vote overwhelmingly to help gain majorities in all branches of federal government to reaffirm rights which have recently been taken away or abridged. If the Supreme Court is now so clearly a partisan political body (and one without ethical standards, so it seems) we can push for its expansion.

We can advocate for improved voting methods, for example Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or open primaries. We can keep trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment which would ensure women have equal rights embedded in the Constitution.

We are the “Constitution State,” small, but a voice of reason to counter the pretensions of other states. We must make that voice heard, to do all we can to bring about federal action for in the end that alone will alleviate the burdens now imposed in the more authoritarian states. Let us set the goal, that is the first step. It will be the work of many years but let’s do it so that we can look back to Tocqueville and tell him that he need not have feared, for we still believe in our democracy.

John Blankley Businessman, former member of the RTM, BET and Democratic candidate for local and state office.