Everything Language and Grammar

What Does “States’ Rights” Really Mean?

Posted by languageandgrammar on May 13, 2011

By Paul Yeager, author of Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

I love hearing the term “states’ rights” during  political discussions because of what it seems to mean, which is something like “This radical idea I’m espousing has absolutely no chance of becoming law at the national level, but a few of the wacky states might agree to it; therefore, I’m a strong proponent of states’ rights.”

I’ll use what I heard from Ron Paul today as an example.

He talked about how the legality of drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, should be decided on a state level (states’ rights issue). He also said that his personal view is that there is too much of an emphasis on “the war on drugs” and that legalizing drugs would make them easier to control, reduce the strain on prisons, etc.

There is something to this idea, but good luck getting anything like that passed in the U.S. What politician is going to want to face a re-election campaign with that as fuel for the opponents? I can hear it now: “Joe Smith wants more heroin addicts in the parks where your children play. Vote for me, and I’ll keep your children safe.”

If he believed that this idea had national support, would he still believe that it’s a “states’ rights” issue, or would it be part of his national platform? Paul actually might leave it to the states because that tends to be one of the tenets of a true libertarian; however, in most cases, the language of “states’ rights” is an attempt to get a foothold for a policy that has little national support.

Politicians just can’t be that transparent.

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