Dionne: The acceleration of history

Dionne: The acceleration of history

June 30th, 2015 by E.J. Dionne in Opinion Columns

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington last Friday after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.

Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — Sometimes history speeds up. Rarely in our nation's 239 years of life has a single week brought such a surge of social change and such a sweeping set of challenges to past assumptions.

The move against the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina quickly cascaded into a national effort to cast aside commemorations of secession, slavery and white supremacy. This was more than symbolism.

For years, the fact that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War was swept under a rug woven of heritage and battlefield glory. Confederate emblems that came into wide public use in the 1950s and 1960s in large part to protest racial equality and civil rights were treated as if they had always been there, representing a "tradition" kept vague enough to hide away slave labor, disenfranchisement and murderous night riders.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court decided, 6-to-3, to keep the Affordable Care Act whole. To go the other way, as Chief Justice John Roberts argued, would have violated any plausible understanding of what Congress had intended.

Yet if the King v. Burwell case was about a textual dispute, its implications were much broader. In principle, there are no irreversible changes in a democratic republic because everything is always subject to popular review. In practice, some reforms do become irreversible as they are accepted by overwhelming majorities as necessary and normal. Obamacare has not quite reached this point, but it is now on the road to joining Medicare and Social Security as fixtures of social policy.

And the next day the court made same-sex marriage the law of the land. Few legal cases have more dramatically demonstrated the complicated interaction of personal decisions, social movements, political struggles and judicial judgments than Obergefell v. Hodges. And on few issues has the American public so rapidly changed its collective mind. In Brown v. Board of Education, the court led public opinion. In Obergefell, the court followed it.

It's plain how this happened: As individual gays and lesbians came out, more and more Americans realized that someone they cared about belonged to a group that had long been oppressed and stigmatized. Supporters of gay marriage mobilized these new allies, gradually winning victories in legislatures and referendums. These campaigns further turned opinion to the point where Justice Anthony Kennedy could discern a 14th Amendment right to equal protection that did not seem to apply just a few years ago.

Despite my own qualms about judicial activism, I found myself cheering his logic and the result.

This does not make concerns about judicial activism disappear, and liberals should be candid: They cheered Roberts' judicial modesty in the Obamacare case and then criticized him for upholding a related principle in Obergefell. Liberals — myself among them — have also taken Roberts to task on his own brand of judicial activism in tearing apart laws on campaign finance and voting rights.

Yet these inconsistencies also illustrate something conservatives need to recognize: that social movements, public opinion, the courts and the elected branches are not hermetically sealed off from each other.

And the core liberal conviction about the Supreme Court, developed during and after the New Deal years, still rings true: that the court plays its most constructive role in our national life when it uses its power to vindicate the rights of beleaguered minorities. Last week will be remembered as a stunning moment when our institutions converged to accelerate our long, steady movement toward an ever more inclusive equality.

Washington Post Writers Group

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