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The Deep Politics of the 14th Amendment

By Elvin Lim


In 2004, the Republican’s hot button political issue du jour was same-sex marriage. 11 states approved ballot measures that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Last week, a federal judge struck down California’s Proposition 8 (passed in 2008) because it “fails to advance any rational basis for singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.”

However, Republicans politicians are not taking the bait to revisit this hot button political issue, despite Rush Limbaugh’s encouragement. One explanation is that Republican voters are already angry and motivated this year, and they are concerned about the economy and jobs. There is no need for Republicans to exploit a get-the-vote-out issue this year.

But, that is exactly what some Republicans have done, just not on the marriage issue. Instead, prominent Republicans like Senator Lindsay Graham and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty are directing their attention this year on repealing the 14th Amendment, and in particular the provision guaranteeing birthright citizenship.

So is it or is it not “the economy, stupid,” for Election 2010? I think it’s about something even bigger than the economy. It’s about the power of the federal government, which increased dramatically with the passage of the 14th Amendment.

Consider that the first sentence of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”), which established the priority of national citizenship over state citizenship. While there were references to citizenship in the Constitution of 1789, the Framers did not define the content of citizenship in part because there was little need, at the time, to consider the idea of national citizenship as opposed to state citizenship. The nation as we know it today was not fully developed until the Civil War.

Read in totality, the first Section of the 14th Amendment isn’t so much a grant of birthright citizenship – the content of the first sentence – but a constraint on states’ rights, the point of the second: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” We know this to be historically accurate. Since the 1930s, the “equal protection” and “due process” clauses have been used against state actors to extend the scope and depth of federal governmental powers.

Fast forward to the 2010, and it is no coincidence that almost everything up for political debate today and in November has something to do with the power of federal government versus states’ rights, whether it be Arizona taking it upon itself to write its own immigration policy and the Obama administration insisting that immigration policy is a federal prerogative, or Missouri primary voters rejecting the federal (“Obamacare”) mandate that all individual citizens must buy health insurance, or Californians deciding in Proposition 8 that only marriages between a man and a woman are valid in their state. If the unifying thread in these agitations is the perception of a bloated, out-of-control federal government, it is also worth noting that the major resource for the aggrandizement of the government has been the 14th Amendment.

The Republican Party of 2010 is not the Republican Party of 1868, the year the 14th Amendment was ratified. The GOP, back then, believed in federal preemption of states’ rights. Democrats were the ones who were wary of federal power. The Republicans’ switch today is the culmination of Reagan’s successful Revolution. Now that even the 14th Amendment is at least symbolically on the table, we can be sure that very fundamental, soul-searching questions about the very nature of the American union will be up for debate this election year.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

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