Point Austin: Happy Fourth!
Amidst a world of conflict – real reasons to celebrate
Watching the U.S. women handily defeat Germany in the World Cup, I'll confess to feeling a bit more patriotic euphoria than usual. It was an intense and exciting match, but it wasn't entirely the soccer. It was partly the sense that – thanks to legal and cultural changes ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the last few days – the possibilities of American democracy and American life have been expanded.
Although the deliberations and drafting may have taken months, the decisions have come quite quickly. First was the upholding of the Affordable Care Act, in response to a lawsuit so silly that even the recruited plaintiffs didn't really understand its purpose. The next day followed the cultural blockbuster – the affirmation of equal marital rights to same-gender couples – which has mostly overshadowed everything else that followed. But there was also a fair housing decision that maintained the crucial standard of disparate impact (i.e., not requiring proof of discriminatory intent), along with a ruling that Arizona's referendum creation of an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission is not unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, as if to remind us that the state is determined to retain its power over life and death, the majority rejected a challenge to capital punishment – specifically, that current death-drug methods are unreliable and amount to torture. That decision was mainly notable for Justice Stephen Breyer's illuminating dissent condemning capital punishment outright, and the growing sense that the ideological polarization of the court is beginning to leak more noticeably into the decisions.
Working for Perfection
Setting aside that last decision, it has been an extraordinary week. The Obamacare majority was 6-3, including Chief Justice John Roberts – setting right-wing teeth on edge. But it was always a frivolous lawsuit, a reading of one ambiguous phrase in isolation from the entire law, and it's the dissenters (inevitably Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas) who should but won't be embarrassed by their ideological rigidity. The decision means that 6 million or more people will continue to receive federal subsidies, some 13 million and more will continue to have access to regular health care – and a structural change that expanded medical access while reducing costs is steadily becoming institutional. Now we need to take it nationwide.
That real progress has been understandably overshadowed by Obergefell v. Hodges, the case out of Ohio that began as a simple request to list a surviving spouse on a death certificate, and ended as a sea-change in national public life. Despite continuing reaction in the usual quarters, it's been amazing to watch how quickly the culture has shifted from rigid fear and rejection to tolerance, acceptance, and finally community celebration. The war is hardly won – witness the state politicians beating their chests and the county clerks crawfishing – but this victory is an important one, reflected in President Obama's judgment that "we have made our union a little more perfect."
And we shouldn't forget that these changes do not arrive courtesy of the court – which only acknowledges the earthquake – but from decades of LGBTQ (and allied) organizing, activism, cultural pressure, family work, political work, etc., etc. To that extent, court dissenters and critics are right – the Constitution may not be a living document, but the Republic is – and despite the muttering about religion and state sovereignty, basic human rights are not subject to majoritarian rule.
Light the Fireworks!
I began with patriotism, and though I don't often write holiday-oriented pieces, this is certainly a week to contemplate the meaning of what pundits still like to call the American Experiment. In the wake of the horrifying terrorist massacre in Charleston, the continuing chaotic legacy of our Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, the sorry state of our policing and criminal justice systems, and our intractable economic inequality – this is not a moment to get carried away applauding the advance of American civilization.
But real victories deserve real celebration. The simple facts that basic marital and family rights have been extended to – have been won by – more of our neighbors, and that millions more have access to basic health care and do not have to fear destitution due to medical emergencies, are important and real victories for human progress. The more political victories – for fair housing and fair representation – are not equally dramatic, but they also are pieces of the construction of a "more perfect union."
Elections, like popular movements, have consequences, and more than one observer has noted that the composition of the Supreme Court would have been very different with John McCain or Mitt Romney in the White House. President Barack Obama – despite a defiant congressional gridlock – has now become the standard-bearer of a different country than we knew under George W. Bush, and the arc of the universe is bent, just a little more, toward justice.