Wednesday, October 15, 2008

LDS and Prop 8

On occasion I’m willing to break from what my uncle would call the “pinko-liberal” wing of American politics in search of good political solutions. I’d like to think of myself as a pragmatist in the spirit of Peirce and James willing to praise good ideas from wherever they might come.

A new kind of federalism comes to mind. There are compelling arguments for both sides regarding the proper balance of states rights versus federal power in our federalist system. Most of these arguments were anticipated by the founding fathers, so I’ll reduce the matter for brevity’s sake. On one hand, the Civil Rights Era showed that states can be reactionary in the face of needed reform. It took the power of the federal government to break down resistance to integration and the recalcitrance of state institutions. The Civil Rights Era, like the New Deal a generation before it, wed the liberal wing of American politics to idea of federally based policy solutions.

There are compelling arguments in favor of a federalism that respects constitutionally delegated balance of state and federal power. Though generally a conservative position advocated by those in favor of smaller central government, there is also a case to be made that individual states can better tailor initiatives to the specific needs of her citizens. Let the states innovate and become laboratories of policy and let the successes become models for other states and for federal policy.

State ballot initiatives have ushered a new wave of federalism as they blend direct democracy with the latitudes of state innovation. Issues like medical marijuana, affirmative action, gay marriage, assisted suicide, abortion, and animal rights have all found their way on to state ballots for the upcoming election cycle. There are 12 state-wide ballot propositions this year in California alone, a state where successful initiatives are tacked on the State Constitution, and where an unsuccessful proposition, 1994’s Prop 187 against funding for immigrant social services, triggered epic political realignment.

Two of the most contentious measures on California's ballot are negative propositions. Prop 4 (which has failed in two previous elections) would require minors to attain parental consent for abortions. Prop 8 would overturn the State Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of gay marriage.

Conservatives should have ideological motives to respect this process of state innovation. State initiative on issues like gay marriage would keep the culture wars out of Washington, D.C. Yet interest groups in red states are not content with outcomes in their own states and do not intend to watch Californians decide these issues for themselves. Money is pouring in across the border in an effort to sway Californians on the aforementioned hot-button evangelical issues. The leadership of the LDS church in Utah has mobilized an effort to pass Prop 8 and has raised over $8.4 million for the campaign.

One would think that the LDS, whose control of state politics once made Utah a virtual theocracy that was constantly at odds with officials in Washington, would be inclined to a live and let live attitude for state innovation. This is not the case. The federalist principle is less important to the LDS than the specter of gays mocking their concept of traditional marriage. Let’s overlook for a moment that an LDS marriage is hardly traditional—Mormons do not espouse till death do you part, rather they believe in a union sealed in this life that continues into the afterlife where man and his woman (for a fundamentalist, his women) govern over their own planet in a Mormon solar system—and call this an exercise in political pragmatism. Or is that hypocrisy, I get confused.

Californians have never been known to pass initiatives restrictive of rights, but the polls suggest that the LDS money is starting to turn the electorate in favor of Prop 8. A pity Californians can’t be left alone to figure it out for themselves.

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