The blur of Washington news this week – major decisions on voting rights, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and immigration – was a vivid illustration of how Americans are grappling with fundamental social change.
Some of this transition has been underway for decades, notably the efforts by African-Americans to gain equal rights. Some, such as the tide of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, has affected the United States over the last several years. Others, such as same-sex marriage, have emerged only recently.
The changes have ignited fierce reactions in the American political system. Each effort to absorb this week’s decisions triggered new, often-hostile debates that are likely to define 2014 and 2016 campaigns. “These issues are laden with political consequences,” said Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Research Center.
Perhaps none demonstrates the way these changes tear at the country and its politics as immigration does. The Senate voted Thursday to create a path to citizenship for more than 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally, while further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border to keep others out. All Democrats in the Senate voted for the overhaul; Republicans split.
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Many Republicans see the country changing fast, and are eager to get on the right side of the growing Hispanic population, which helped give President Barack Obama a second term. But those who do may face tough primary challenges from tea party activists that could divide the party in key states heading into the next several elections. Example A is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., once a darling of the tea party, whose support of the immigration plan has turned him into a pariah to some conservatives.
“To hear the worry, anxiety and growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, who I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me,” he said this week.
But, argued Rubio, the son of immigrants, the system badly needed change, and “I simply wasn’t going to leave it to Democrats alone to try to figure out how to fix it.”
Most of his Republican colleagues saw the Senate plan as little more than amnesty, and they were convinced that the public wouldn’t buy it.
“Every time I start to talk about immigration at a town meeting, someone stands up and says, ‘We need to enforce the laws we have on the books,’ ” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The political passion was less evident on this week’s other issues, but it’s simmering. The changes in play this week were first evident Monday, when the Supreme Court ruled on a case that involved the University of Texas’ admissions policies and signaled that it was skeptical about race-conscious admissions standards.
The next day, the justices struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act, a key agent of change since it became law in 1965.
It’s been a crucial tool in opening up black participation in Southern politics. Its reach was sweeping, as it led to the election of more black officials, which in turn helped provide better government services in long-neglected minority neighborhoods. The most recent renewal of the act, seven years ago, won strong bipartisan congressional majorities.
Now, however, the Supreme Court majority said there’d been enough progress over the last half-century that the key section of the law was outdated.
“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote. “Voter registration and turnout data in the covered states have risen dramatically in the years since.”
In 1965, for example, just 27 percent of African-American adults in Georgia were registered to vote, compared with 62 percent of white adults. By 2004, African-American voter registration in Georgia had jumped to 64 percent, exceeding white registration. Other Southern states have shown similar trends.
“Voting discrimination still exists, no one doubts that,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg countered. “But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination.”
Any fallout might not be felt in coming elections. Because congressional district lines were redrawn after the 2010 census so that most districts are safely Democratic or Republican, the court rulings seem unlikely to spark big changes, at least right now.
“If I were a Republican strategist, I’d think this decision buys me a few years,” said Richard Parker, a public policy and politics expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. But long term, he warned, it could cement the kind of image that might stymie the party’s efforts at inclusiveness.
A party study earlier this year ordered by Chairman Reince Priebus urged strong steps to be more inclusive. Priebus says the party is taking such steps, notably a new grass-roots effort that features Republicans trying to familiarize new voters with the party.
The same-sex marriage issue might follow a different scenario. Public opinion is still evolving, but the issue remains politically volatile.
In Virginia, for instance, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has been active in opposing same-sex marriage and in efforts to curb gay rights. Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe praised the Supreme Court ruling.
In Congress, battle lines formed quickly. A “Respect for Marriage Act,” which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, got 161 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 41 in the Senate. On the other side is the conservative bandwagon, revving up fast. The Faith & Freedom Coalition, for instance, is circulating an online petition that declares, “We believe the definition of ‘marriage’ to be the union of one man and one woman.”
Over the last 40 years, politics often has been shaken by single-issue voters, passionate constituencies with causes that have learned how to organize and have a disproportionate effect on elections.
Five years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established abortion rights, anti-abortion activists scored stunning upsets in several congressional races. By 1980, social conservatives with other causes had joined them to form a movement that continues to affect American politics.
Today, turning out the religious community might make a difference in more conservative states with too-close-to-call Senate races, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina. Then again, outrage over the Voting Rights Act might spark strong minority turnout in Southern states.
This much is clear, Kohut said, about all of this week’s decisions: “These aren’t issues that are going to bring Republicans and Democrats together.”