Political InQueery: Reinventing the Constitution

"Pull out a map of Virginia and look where the abortion clinics are. That doesn't make you mad?" Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was speaking to roughly two dozen pastors in the state as he showed them how to be more political without infringing on the state constitution.

A photograph of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker behind a podium. A sign in front of his stand reads Away from the bright lights and snazzy set decoration of CNN's debate stage, far from the on-camera smiles and carefully groomed candidates for President, there is a real battle going on at the state level, across the nation. I'm not talking about the so-called culture wars, a clumsy and passé term if ever there were one, I'm pointing to the unraveling of decades of bipartisan agreement and colleagueship in state government. If the Bush Administration signaled the end of cooperation in Washington, DC, then what 2011 has given us so far is evidence that the war has spread to state houses in every region of the country.

Let's look again at Cuccinelli: just last April, he froze funding to more than 12 charitable organizations in the state, including volunteer rescue squads, health clinics for the uninsured, and other social justice groups, saying the payments were unconstitutional. Previously these nonprofits had been funded through informal agreements with the commonwealth. There was certainly no hand-holding here about how they could continue to receive state funds for their work.

Many of us are familiar with the drawn-out argument and protest in Wisconsin over union and worker rights, which added a new chapter on Wednesday as the state's Supreme Court ruled that Governor Walker's new law may stand. To attempt to foil the Governor last spring, all of the Democratic state senators fled over state borders to prevent a quorum, and instead, thousands of demonstrators, including the police ordered by the Governor to clear the capitol, protested for weeks inside the rotunda. In a procedural move, the state GOP voted the bill into law, but not before creating gridlock on every other issue that needed to be addressed in state business, and not before some people noticed how much this new approach to unions would benefit two of the richest men in the US.

Certainly legislators have fled en masse before; in 2003 Texas Democrats left to prevent redistricting. But the battle in Wisconsin had very different, far-reaching implications—fights over redistricting are often pronounced and bitter—this governor had clandestinely planned an attack on long-standing worker's rights without ever bringing it up during his campaign, and without any of the customary information sharing that is part of the lawmaking process. Further, such damage has been done to the state government there that multiple recall elections are underway to remove many of the Republican senators (and a few of the Democratic ones), which will only prolong the resource shift away from getting state business done to sorting out who will actually remain in government.

In Michigan, Governor Snyder went even further than simply breaking up unions and collective bargaining rights, but he also sought to establish new powers to declare whole town governments unfit to manage their own affairs so that he could put them into receivership and control them from the state level. The very idea of representative government was rethought in a bill, passed by the state senate in March, that the governor could declare a locality in a state of financial emergency—which in Michigan, is practically anywhere—and then simply appoint new officials in that jurisdiction. That many of the areas in question were urban, mostly working class or working poor, and African American, should not go unnoticed. I can't remember a time when people of color didn't have their own right to vote . . . oh forget it, of course I can.

Some ultra-conservatives are talking about rolling back the Voting Rights Act, too. I'm looking at you, Rand Paul.

Behind these pushes to undo protections, funding, representation, and the separation of church and state are claims that because the whole system of government is facing a revenue shortfall, we need to change how our government operates. Businesses need more flexibility to control wages and benefits, said Walker's staff. The state needs to be able to pull back some of its spending on programs that look redundant, said Cuccinelli's spokesperson. Michigan needs radical approaches to stop its death spiral.

Let's be clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that hurting hundreds of thousands of workers in Wisconsin makes government or business operate better, or stimulate the state economy. None. Show me the money and I'll reconsider. There is no precedent of success that Governor Snyder can point to that says receivership on a mass level works to bring in new business. There is no significant influx of investment in Virginia just because Ken Cuccinelli wants to erode the wall between church and his state. But still, the kinds of changes we've seen this spring are being talked about in many more states, even as the Congress in DC looks at defunding health care reform, redefining rape, and giving more power to state government. It's an interesting cycle, and one that we may struggle with as revenue and the economy continue to stumble along.

The messages of American exceptionalism and strength, states rights, and no more taxes may sound populist on a glitzy sound stage, but how we execute these messages may actually be unraveling the very constitutions these candidates swear they're excited to defend. What does it mean for Michelle Bachmann, candidate for President, to say that she'd love to get rid of the Environment Protection Agency, on the grounds that they kill business? Do any of us think that sounds impossible anymore?

Previously: Messages and Omissions in the Early Campaign, Lying Liars and the Lies They Think They Can Get Away With

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