Politics & Policy

A Conservative Case for Puerto Rican Statehood

A protester holding a Puerto Rican flag takes part in a march to improve healthcare benefits in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2015. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)
Besides being the right thing to do, it could reawaken Americans to the necessity of our Constitution’s federalist principles.

Democrats are in charge of the House of Representatives once again, and so they have placed a bill on the House floor that would admit the District of Columbia to the Union as a state. The political motivations are clear. The new state — for which they propose the unwieldy name “State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” — would be reliably Democratic, adding two senators and one representative to the party’s totals.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose this precise solution, but the issue of taxpaying Americans’ not having a representative voice in Congress is not easily dismissed. And if Congress wants to address that issue, Puerto Rico, not the District of Columbia, should become our 51st state.

Republicans have reason to support such a move along with Democrats. The GOP party platform has favored Puerto Rican statehood for decades, but Republicans have remained wary of acting on the issue, convinced that Puerto Rico, like D.C., would be a reliably blue state. That’s not exactly true. Puerto Rico had a Republican-affiliated governor as recently as 2013, and its current nonvoting delegate to Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, is a Republican. If Puerto Rico became a state, it is reasonable to believe that González-Colón or another Republican would take one of the island’s two seats in the Senate.

Puerto Rican statehood, besides being the right thing to do on the merits, would also enhance the nation’s appreciation of federalism and further entrench the conservative value of local control. Puerto Rico differs in significant ways from the rest of the United States, but this should be seen as an asset, not a liability. Admitting it to the union would increase diversity among the states, forcing us to question whether one-size-fits-all federal laws are the best way to govern an increasingly varied people.

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 until Spain ceded it to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1899. Other parts of the United States were once Spanish colonies, including Florida and the entire Southwest.

Those lands were sparsely populated, though, which meant that an influx of English-speaking Americans overwhelmed the existing Spanish and Native American populations, making them demographically similar to the rest of the country relatively quickly.

This was not the case in Puerto Rico. The island’s population at annexation was nearly 1 million, and while some English-speaking people moved to the new colony, they were always a minority. (Even today, roughly 95 percent of Puerto Rico residents speak Spanish as their primary language.) There were religious differences at annexation, too, as the island was majority-Catholic while the rest of the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, despite several decades of heavy immigration from Catholic countries in Europe.

These differences may have accounted, along with then-prevailing racial prejudices, for the ambiguous status of Puerto Rico within the American nation. In 1917, Congress extended American citizenship to anyone born on the island after 1898. In doing so, it recognized that the island was a permanent part of America, while also conveniently allowing draft-age men there to be conscripted as the nation entered the First World War.

Under a constitution adopted in 1952, Puerto Rico chose to continue the ambiguous status quo. In that document, the island is called a “commonwealth,” and the term has come to signify the relationship that exists between Puerto Rico and the federal government — a free, associated state whose people are Americans but lack some of the political rights of Americans who live in the 50 states. After five referendums with varying wording and results, that relationship continues to this day.

In 2017, Puerto Rican voters chose statehood in a referendum on the island’s status. It was the fifth referendum in the past 50 years, but, owing perhaps to its low-turnout or perhaps to Congress’s reluctance, no offer of statehood was extended by the federal government, nor did the Puerto Rican government formally request a change in status from free association to full membership in the American union.

That leaves the exact legal status of Puerto Rico in limbo, but the island and its residents are without a doubt a part of America. Puerto Ricans are Americans. They serve in our military and contribute to our nation. Yet they lack the voting rights that Americans in the 50 states take for granted. Statehood would rectify that problem, integrating Puerto Rico more closely into the nation of which it is already a part.

These points have all been made before by statehood advocates, and they alone would justify granting statehood to Puerto Rico. What is often unsaid is that making Puerto Rico the 51st state would also be good for the rest of America in one specific way: It would remind us why we are a federal republic.

Modern advocates of unitary government like to say that states are meaningless nowadays, that the differences between them are so minute that there is no point in honoring them. This was not the attitude of the Founding Fathers, many of whom found even the limited central government imposed by the Constitution to be threatening to the local distinctions between what had originally been separate colonies.

It seems trivial to point out now, but there were serious cultural differences among the 13 colonies even when all were majority-Protestant and majority-English. Puritan Massachusetts, Quaker Pennsylvania, and Anglican South Carolina did not view themselves as the same. Sizable ethnic (the Dutch in New York, the Germans in Pennsylvania) and religious (the Catholics in Maryland) minorities added to colonial diversity. Federalism, though primarily a political measure, also worked to preserve these unique subcultures of early America.

As the nation grew, the states became more diverse. Louisiana was a French colony when the United States acquired it in 1803, and that distinctive colonial heritage still flavors the culture and the law there today. The Southwest, as already mentioned, was historically Spanish, and Hawaii had a long history as an independent kingdom before being annexed by the United States in 1898. Although our nation’s cultural differences are less acute than they once were, thanks to internal migration and homogenized mass media, the states still vary from one another. Federalism helps maintain that variation within a united republic.

Federalism would help preserve Puerto Rico’s culture even as the island would become more deeply integrated with the rest of America. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s representatives in Congress would probably call for guarantees of federalism to make sure of that. Although many in the Republican party believe that the island would be thoroughly Democratic as a state, Puerto Rican politicians would not be keen on the national Democratic party’s penchant for consolidating power in Washington, D.C.

To see how federalism would look if Puerto Rico were admitted as a state, we need only examine our neighbor to the north, Canada.

In most respects, Canadians are just like Americans: a majority-English-speaking, majority-Protestant people living in a collection of former British colonies. The exception to the rule is Quebec. When Canada began the gradual process of securing independence from the United Kingdom, federalism was seen as the only way to unite the English-speaking Protestant provinces with the French-speaking Catholic one. And while the differences between Catholic and Protestant are less important to most people nowadays, the differences between French- and English-speaking Canadians remain and have helped preserve the federal nature of Canada’s union when other centralizing, progressive trends in Canadian politics might have destroyed it.

Even when Canada’s government is to the left of ours, federalism is maintained, with foreign affairs and economic policy mostly handled in Ottawa and cultural and educational matters dealt with at the provincial level. We think of Canada and the U.K. as both having socialized health care, and that’s true. But the two systems are not managed the same way. Britain’s National Health Service is the sort of top-down model that conservatives in this country fear; Canada’s model is managed by the provinces, not unlike our Medicare system. Both systems would probably entail too much government intrusion for most Americans, but the Canadian version offers more local control, and works better, than Britain’s.

Changes in Canadian governance over the years have involved negotiations between the provinces and the federal government. Disputes over federalism led to conventions between provinces, not just debates in the federal legislature. In the Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, these compromises failed, but even failure in such a scenario is better than huge top-down reforms rammed through without regard for local concerns.

A more diverse conglomeration of states would likely lead to similar demands for more local autonomy, which could not come at a better time. The United States government has grown too big and centralized to be controlled by a single executive. Greater variation in geography, size, and culture among the states would force us to appreciate anew the need for federalism and might even lead to a more clearly defined division of powers between the different sovereignties, as found in Part VI of Canada’s 1867 constitution.

A century of drift away from the American Constitution’s vital federalist principles has left them ripe for rediscovery and renewal. Adding a new state to the Union, especially one already accustomed to remaining culturally distinct within the American nation, would spur that process forward. Congress should admit Puerto Rico as a state, and Americans as a whole should embrace the differences within our nation and the federal structure that allows them to coexist in peace.

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