Variations of the state sovereignty movement have been around now for more than a dozen years, starting in the first term of Clinton’s administration. The basic idea is this: Thomas Jefferson intended the states to have the final say in public policy and saw them as a defense against malevolent overreach of federal government. I’ve interviewed and talked to most of the major scholars and lawyers involved since the beginning and used the strategy myself in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Most of these people are considered suspicious at best, treasonous at worst. So I’ve been wondering all week how this basic idea, after being proposed in the New Hampshire Legislature two weeks ago, suddenly found legitimacy and is now being proposed in 28 states.

I think I found the answer yesterday while eagles soared over Lake Morey in Vermont, where dozen of snowmobilers from all over the north country and Canada were doing test runs on the ice at up to 140 miles an hour: Todd Palin.

Todd Palin is not a secessionist, nor is the sovereignty legislation appearing across the country (primarily in the red agricultural states) secessionist. But he was caricatured as a secessionist by the liberal press in the remarkable assault on Sarah Palin that began the moment she took the podium with John McCain. The liberal press, including the most influential writers on the op-ed pages of The New York Times, hated the Palins the moment they saw them. They viciously attacked even one of their daughters who was pregnant and unmarried. In a coordinated attack, trashy caricatures of Palin appeared regularly from Tiny Fey and the “Saturday Night Live” crew all during the campaign. Mainstream newscasters like Katie Couric went out of their way to publicly embarrass her by asking her if she ever read the newspaper.

But here in the heartland the Palins played well. Country people can identify with girls getting pregnant. The people who listen to Merle Haggard and Shania Twain have babies, and up here they ride snow machines. Todd Palin was an immediate hit because he is a champion snow machine racer. But he also impressed us as being a real man: He was not embarrassed to hold his baby during the convention speech; he looked like he knew how to change a diaper. His children appeared comfortable with him. He was a man who worked with his hands, as we do; a fisherman, a man whom country people could identify with. His suggestion to his wife at the birth of their child with Down Syndrome that this would not be a burden to them but a gift showed him to be a remarkable individual, a superior man.

When it was reported that he had at one time belonged to the Alaska Independence Party (AIP), the mother of all states-rights political organizations, the press hostile to the Palins immediately nailed him as a secessionist. But then it suddenly appeared to us who appreciated the Palins that maybe state sovereignty — not secession — which the independent-minded AIP supported, was not such a bad thing. And when Sarah was being slandered by association and marriage to this treasonous man, it began to look like a good thing.

State and federal issues can be tricky. If the Founding Fathers consisted of only the unpredictable John Adams, the exotic Franklin and the power-hungry Hamilton it would have been considered a motley crew, and their actions treasonous. They would have failed to achieve independence and ended short lives at the end of a rope, as Franklin suggested. They needed the strength and courage of Washington and the vision and clarity of Jefferson to bring character and veritas to their initiatives. The entire history is linked to the personal integrity of these two; it changed the American secession from the British Empire from an act of treason to one of liberation.

So I think the state-sovereignty people finally saw one man they could look up to and admire with the vaguest association with the AIP. That was all it took to give the movement authenticity.

Historian David Smiley, author of a biography of Cassius M. Clay, the abolitionist newspaper editor in Kentucky in the 1860s, lectured that when the United States moved toward a strong centralized government in the 1850s, the idea began to awaken globally. China, Russia, Canada, Italy — virtually any group with power and influence began to abandon regional and decentralized policies and move to strong central government. He described it almost as a fever that took hold of the world overnight.

The protectionist legislation of the Great Depression was actually a global movement toward decentralization, and the headline this morning in The New York Times, which tells us that the economic crisis threatens to divide Europe into separate camps, is likewise a movement toward decentralization. The state sovereignty movement is a decentralization movement that seeks to shift some federal powers to states and regions.

Possibly, that which comes quickly in the night likewise goes in the night.

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