Amanda Marcotte reminds us of the origin of the states’ rights claim (italics mine):
For the slower (willfully and not) people out there, the rhetoric about protecting the innocent states from the all-powerful federal government–rhetoric that would have basically every stalwart Republican and Libertarian out there pumping his fist in solidarity–is referencing Alabama’s “right” to prevent black people from voting, with violence if necessary.
It’s important to have long memories, because the language about “small government” and “states rights” is with us today, and there’s no reason to think the basic meaning has changed significantly from the days when it was about stopping black people from voting. “States rights” dresses itself up as anti-tyrannical language, but it’s actually pro-tyranny. It’s about crafting a nation that makes it the easiest to use government power to override individual rights.
In a larger sense, states’ rights also represents a withdrawal by social conservatives (both those motivated by religion or race) from the national community:
In the pre-desegregation South, massive resistance was the concerted effort (and battle cry) by private citizens and state officials to oppose desegregation. The reason I bring this up is that the failure of massive resistance led to the de facto withdrawl–and resegregation–of whites into suburban enclaves. It also led to the adoption of ‘anti-government’ politics by the white middle class: perceived government misspending wasn’t originally for ‘welfare queens’ but for black swimming pools, schools, parks, public golf courses, and libraries (and just about every other public service too, including transportation). The urge to secede withdraw was so strong that Georgia and Virginia attempted to privatize their entire public school systems (these efforts stalled when the voucher system underlying this scheme was declared unconstitutional).