Since the beginning of this century, officials in states and localities controlled by the Democratic Party have increasingly disregarded laws, referenda and court decisions that affront their “progressive” sensibilities. That amounts to nullification, and it’s hard for the federal government to impose its will on them. But now the progressives are going to learn that two can play at that game.
Today, some 200 local jurisdictions are nullifying federal law on immigration, claiming the status of “sanctuary cities.” Colorado is formally nullifying federal law on marijuana, while Oregon and others are doing it informally. The State of California has an executive department to identify the ways in which the nation’s biggest state can ignore or stiff what might come out of Washington that is not to progressive tastes. President Trump wants out of a climate accord, but Jerry Brown’s California wants in. The Federal government raises no objection.
No objection then, theoretical or practical, should stop cities or states that are governed by solid majorities of “deplorables” from declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for whatever they want. Suppose that the government of North Dakota, or of Texas, were to declare the state a “sanctuary” for prayer in schools and other public places, ordering state employees to do nothing that might hinder any such prayer by anyone.
The states need not contest any of the lawsuits that would be brought against it, since they can ignore eventual court orders confident that Washington could not and would not deploy forces to places like Williston and San Marcos to arrest people in prayer any more that it deploys forces to Denver or Portland to arrest potheads. What if any state were to declare itself a “sanctuary” for the unborn and outlaw abortion within their borders? Would Washington send the Army to keep the clinics open and to free persons who state courts had convicted of violating the state laws?
American society today is divided as never before. Progressives look upon those unlike themselves with ignorance, contempt and a sense of entitlement to rule. Michael Tomasky informed the New Republic’s readers, whose primary moral/social feature is rejection of Biblical authority, that the rest of Americans “go to church. Not temple. Church. God and Jesus Christ play important roles in their lives.”
As Elie Mystal wrote in abovethelaw.com on January 30, “American cosmopolitans,” “elites who think America is better than that,” have the right to prevail against the “bigoted base” which elected Mr. Trump. Understandably, “the rest of Americans” take increasingly strong exception to that.
This divide’s depth means that any effort by either side to shove its preferences down the other side’s throat can only end badly. Hence, such possibilities for peace and cohesion as the American polity has left in it depend on both sides’ willingness to abide the other’s peculiarities in the places where they are majorities.
In fact, the United States’ federal structure, designed ab initio to accommodate the different choices that a free and diverse people might make, offers countless opportunities for people in different communities to go their own way. Yes, over the past half-century, federal judges have exercised executive authority over cities and school districts. They have overruled state referenda. Agencies have exercised intrusive authority merely by demanding adherence to agency policy as if it were law. Today, some district judges take it upon themselves to impose national policy on the president. But in the end, in America, real power rests with elected officials and, practically even more than theoretically, the police power resides in the states. Despite the federal agencies’ recent acquisition of SWAT teams, the federal government is not in a position to govern recalcitrant states or even cities. The state of Texas may prevent Austin from being a “sanctuary city” on immigration but Washington will not. That is as it should be, because it opens the possibility that people in progressive and non-progressive jurisdictions can live as they wish without making war on one another.
The oldest of political realities is that people are most tolerant of those who differ from themselves when they live among those who do not differ, and when they do not fear having alien ways pressed upon them. This recognition is what enabled history’s great ecumenical empires to survive in peace.
In today’s divided America, neither the progressive ruling class nor its “country class” antagonists have the power to defeat the other and to reconcile the defeated. The best that all sides can do is to recognize that the great moral/social/political sorting-out that has been occurring in America in this century is the default path to peace.
• Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.
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