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The Unraveling American Orthodoxy

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Michael Bazemore Jr.       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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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 racist Democratic coalition that broke up in part because of the push for civil rights that included the Voting Rights Act, this seems insufficient.   
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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 now.   

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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 voting restrictions.   

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 actions.  By systemic I mean that there are deeper structural reasons new limitations are being proposed and adopted.    

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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.

 

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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...)
 

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