The United States Supreme Court handed down a trio of hotly-anticipated rulings this week, and so far Democrats and progressives are cheering the expansion of gay rights almost as loudly as they are bemoaning the potential for setbacks in voting by African Americans and other racial minorities central to their electoral coalition.
On Tuesday, the high court invalidated the central provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which mandated extra scrutiny of rules and procedures in states and localities with a legacy of discrimination at the polls. On Wednesday, however, the Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, clearing the way for gay couples to receive equal treatment before federal law. The Court also deferred to a lower court ruling in California invalidating that state’s ban on gay marriage, effectively legalizing it in the 13th state in the country.
Reactions from the right have been somewhat muted in both cases, as neither race nor sexual orientation are particularly useful topics for Republicans or conservatives to be making a fuss about right now. Having been walloped among both blacks and gays in November, national Republican leaders see no currency in wading in to such divisive fights, perhaps intent on recalibrating the brand. On other hand, local GOP lawmakers have already sprung into action, advancing voter ID laws that restrict access to the polls in six of nine states that had previously enjoyed federal protection from such measures. The question that remains is whether local, grassroots conservative activists’ views on such cultural matters are so isolated from that of GOP elites that these decisions serve to expose the party’s divisions and resentments rather than highlighting its modernity.
When it comes to gay rights, national activist groups will continue their push into other states, essentially having enjoyed a tacit show of support from the high court even if it refused to recognize a constitutional right to marry at the federal level, which would have brought a national change along with it. If most of the states with gay marriage on the books so far are liberal and coastal ones, we can expect more aggressive targeting of moderate bellwether territory like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Gay donors and leaders, having seen the efficacy of their work, will double-down in hopes of essentially removing this issue from the national debate within the next few years. Voting rights, on the other hand, may have been dealt a lasting blow. Certainly, Democrats and liberals will have no way to advance new standards at the national level with conservatives controlling the House more concerned about voter fraud than minority access to the polls.
It remains to be seen whether the attention on such polarizing social issues will infect the pending immigration reform law, which had been gathering steam and seemingly was on a trajectory to passage before the decisions came down. There’s nothing like a bit of identity politics to complicate a major legislative push, though with the consensus among Americans about gay rights at an all time high, the real question is, as usual, whether there’s room for racial minorities in the modern Republican Party.