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Failed States

Failed states remind us how far some state governments must come to live up to the nation’s constitutional ideals. 

There are parts of the United States that struggle to exercise common sense about would be in the interests of all their residents.  More than a few continue to marginalize racial, income or lifestyle groups. At other times, every citizen is penalized by harmful actions. To be sure, no state is exempt from having some regressive laws. But there are still clear markers of failure within a state:  indicators like high infant mortality rates, high numbers of firearm deaths, minimal Medicaid support, or little additional help to struggling families.

Sometimes it is the state legislature that has its eye on the rear view mirror rather than the road ahead.  At other times progress is blocked by a reactionary governor serving only his or her affluent electors.

In particular cases, sections in the southern tier of the country seem especially hostile to matching the support and services common in other developed societies. America’s own failed states remind us how far we still must come to live up to the nation’s constitutional ideals. It is sobering to note that over the last decade, many other countries have warned their citizens about traveling to the United States, especially due to high levels of crime or gun deaths. Uruguay, Venezuela, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Germany are among them.

Consider recent egregious actions in just Texas and Florida.

Texas has sent a number of representatives to Austin who favor policies that yield high tax rates on the poor, limited access to health care, and restrictive reproductive services for women.  That these hit the most vulnerable residents is hardly acknowledged by official levels.  As the Texas Observer’s Molly Ivins once wrote about the legislature, it “always commits its disservices to the public interest with great style.” Other samples of misplaced Texas bravado include a requirement for public officials to “acknowledge a supreme being,” the policing of school textbooks to focus on musty versions of American history, and widespread acceptance of high levels of income inequality.

Texas policies also tend to pit citizens against each other. Far too many qualify to carry handguns or a rifle in public, often without the requirement of even a permit.  At the same time, a dismaying total of 17 of its members in Congress voted against the usually routine business of certifying a presidential election.  Members like Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert took strange pleasure in a stunning vote to nullify the results.  In a younger America such an ill-considered form of defiance would have been seen as an act of treason.

In a second audacious insult to the rest of the nation, the state formally petitioned the Supreme Court to actually nullify the entire electoral results of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Rarely has stupidity, hubris and arrogance been served up so clearly in an action by officials of any state.

Florida is another case with a growing reputation for fostering dark impulses to undermine the rule of law or scientific best practices. New rules limit the use of drop boxes where voters can deposit absentee ballots. The same draconian law also adds more identification requirements for anyone requesting an absentee ballot.  These restrictions are another form of an old ploy in Jim Crow politics: “paper” a poorer citizen with stringent document regulations in the hope they will stay home during an election.

An alarming inversion of common sense often rules in the Sunshine State. The current governor recently issued an order prohibiting businesses from requiring the use of face masks as protection against the pandemic. Masks are a common tool to control the transmission of contagious illness.  But sound public health standards receded even further in a second action that prohibited cruise lines from requiring vaccines for travelers planning to leave Florida ports. The state’s Alice-in- Wonderland politics has also yielded a twisted logic that permits Florida’s current government to put a thumb on the scales of justice in favor of anyone who injures a protester, as can happen when a hothead driver comes upon a peaceful march. A formally reckless act can now be immunized from civil prosecution.

Every state has laws on the books that could stand a second look. But it is disturbing that the core foundations of a civil society are under constant threat in the fastest-growing population centers of the nation.