Recent events, including the Supreme Court's evisceration of
the Voting Rights Act, a general push in Republican-led statehouses to change
voting rules -- viewed as increasing
barriers to those on the left; as decreasing the chance of (nearly
non-existent) voter fraud by those on the right -- and
increasing restrictions on abortion rights raise a large question. A question that is complicated by the recent
Supreme Court rulings on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's
Proposition 8 barring same-sex marriages in the state. Why
are these things happening at this historical moment, by which I mean, in the
main, since the election of Barack Obama in 2009, though evidence of these
movements can be seen sooner?
One of the standard narratives is that these represent some
sort of racial backlash to the election of the nation's first African-American
president. Angered at Obama's
election, Republicans in charge of the House and of most state
governments have begun retrenching on policies that led to increased
minority voter participation , which led to Republican defeat in
2008 and 2012. Abortion restrictions represent resistance to "rights"
created by judicial fiat and which trample the states underfoot.
These causes are near and
dear to the president and to Democrats, after all, and whatever he is for
Republicans must be against. Surely
this is what is at work in Republican resistance to the president's
health care plan, itself a carbon copy of the program implemented by
Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, and a product of the Heritage Institute in
many particulars. Or so the story goes. While most
of the proponents of the rollback on voting and abortion rights are
Republicans and while Republicans are certainly the inheritors of the
Democratic coalition that broke up in part because of the push for civil
that included the Voting Rights Act, this seems insufficient.
As suggested above,
moves to restrict abortion and to tighten voting regulations have a history that
is longer than that. Certainly in the
case of abortion, in places the push to restrict access to the procedure
immediately post-dates the 1973 Roe v.
Wade decision that effectively legalized the practice in the United States. And states targeted under the Voting Rights
Act of 1965 have long tried to skirt the act's provision, attempting to follow
the law's letter while ignoring its spirit.
But these voices have never been sufficient to do much damage until
Same-sex marriages, on the other hand, have always been at a legal disability
and it has been suggested more than once that the push for their recognition is
the next stage in the struggle to extend the promise of America to all of her
citizens. It's advance seems something
of an anomaly, since its opponents are the same crowd working on abortion and
I would like to suggest, however, that the DOMA and Prop 8
decisions are, in fact, not anomalies.
Rather, they confirm the pattern that includes the erosion of basic
liberties for certain groups of citizens, especially women and racial
minorities. For this reason, while we
should praise the signal these decisions send that there is no constitutional
impediment to marriage equality, we should be careful to follow this victory
with concerted action to make sure this equality extends to all citizens, not just those in certain states. We must also be wary of attempts to strip away the civil liberties of other citizens. Because what these rulings actually seem to
do, at least until further legal action, is return the decision over who can
marry whom to the states. This handover
of authority on matters of basic civil liberties to state governments is part of the process that is also leading to
erosions in women's and minorities' rights.
This erosion is in
some senses intentional and in others systemic.
By intentional I mean that there are some people who are genuinely
interested in rolling back advances made by women and minorities, with the aim
of increasing their own status and power. This is not true of all the participants in
this rollback, but seems likely true of the leaders. Others
are likely actually motivated by concerns over federalism, but this
does not excuse them from responsibility for the effects of their
systemic I mean that there are deeper structural reasons new limitations are
being proposed and adopted.
What we are witnessing, I contend, is the unraveling of what
I will call the American orthodoxy.
This orthodoxy is one that was established in stages from the aftermath
of the Civil War through the middle of the 1970s. At its core was an extension, albeit imperfect
and uneven, of the promise inherent in America's founding documents, to those
whom it had previously been construed to exclude. It began to be attacked in the late 1970s by an
alliance of Republican politicians and adherents to a certain brand of
Protestant ideology. Following the
conclusion of the Cold War, it truly began to unravel.
In this series of posts I would like to explore this
notion. The next post will take us back
in history, explaining briefly how orthodoxies are constructed in response to
threats and in tension with heterodox ideas.
Following that, I will engage in a brief discussion of how these forces
played out in the founding moment of the nation, and how they birthed the notion of American exceptionalism. Moving forward in time, I will then discuss
the formation of the American orthodoxy, its relationship to the idea of American exceptionalism, and the conditions of its
creation. Finally, I will approach the
unraveling of the American orthodoxy that is occurring now, its effects, and consider what
might be done about it.
Michael G Bazemore, Jr., is a history professor, writer, SCUBA diver and dad-to-be living in Raleigh, North Carolina. When he's not doing history, he is reading and occasionally blogging, on whatever interests him at the moment. He earned his M.A. (more...