clock menu more-arrow no yes

This week shows us how the next Democratic coalition will be brought together

 Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the US Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage June 26, 2015, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the US Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage June 26, 2015, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Confederate battle flag is falling, and the rainbow flag is rising.

The cause of progressivism has rarely had such a lightning-fast and definitive wave of victories: Obamacaresame-sex marriagefair housing, and the beginning of the end of the Confederate battle flag. The cultural upheaval has liberals ecstatic about gains secured by the Supreme Court in the first three matters. Though it seems like a lifetime ago now, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from her state's Capitol grounds on Monday, a response to the racially motivated mass murder of nine black people in a Charleston church.

"This was a monumental and historic week for justice in America. This week, we felt the moral arc of the universe bending — toward love, toward equality, toward freedom and greater opportunities for all American families," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement to Vox. "We have affirmed the right of every American to decent housing, to affordable health coverage, to live free of the old relics of discrimination. Our work is far from over, but this week has been a true triumph for our democracy."

Together, these changes represent an affirmation in the shift of American attitudes — and of government response to that shift — on a host of domestic issues that divide the Republican Party and imperil its chances of winning the presidency in 2016. At the same time, the Democratic Party has coalesced under a broader umbrella of equality and inclusiveness that covers same-sex marriage, equal access to insurance, fair housing, and fighting discriminatory policies and symbols.

This week has shown that will be a boon for Hillary Clinton as she campaigns on those very same themes for the nomination of a party that has seen its divisions on domestic policy dissolve since Clinton's last run, and having a unified party that is more in line with the American public on domestic issues should help her in the general election.

Republicans have a problem

The set of issues is particularly problematic for a Republican Party that is still grappling with deep divides between the Tea Party conservative wing that helped fuel the GOP's ascendance in Congress and an establishment wing that understands it will be difficult to win the presidency without following the public's shifts.

Take latest decision, a 5-4 ruling preventing states from banning same-sex marriage. Republican presidential candidates are in a bind. Many base voters, particularly those on the religious right, still believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. But national polling shows that a solid majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.

In a May Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents said same-sex marriage should be legal, up from 27 percent in 1996 and 44 percent in 2010.

Gallup polling

That tension — between the general electorate and Republican primary voters — was evident in the statements put forward by several of the GOP presidential candidates, including field leader Jeb Bush.

"Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage. I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision. I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments. In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate."

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, an advocate for marriage equality, said on MSNBC Friday that Bush "struck the right tone" in trying to reach out to millennials and others who back same-sex marriage.

But it's clear that social conservatives looking to make up ground in the race won't make it easy for Bush and others to blunt the party's longstanding and aggressive opposition to same-sex marriage.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is in the top tier of candidates, vowed to his constituents that "the government will not coerce you to act against your religious beliefs," and called for a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of states to ban same-sex marriage.

"The states are the proper place for these decisions to be made, and as we have seen repeatedly over the last few days, we will need a conservative president who will appoint men and women to the Court who will faithfully interpret the Constitution and laws of our land without injecting their own political agendas," he said. "As a result of this decision, the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the US Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage."

Henry Waxman, who was a liberal leader in Congress for 40 years, said the GOP should be reeling from this week — noting, in particular, that some GOP officials have been supportive of same-sex marriage and ridding government buildings of the Confederate battle flag.

"The Republican right wing and Tea Party activists suffered three big losses that seemed unimaginable just over a year ago when they realized their goal of winning control of Congress," he said. "Those defeats came about in a short period of time when many of their leaders joined with the overall progressive public opinion on these subjects."

The conflict for Republicans is obvious, and it follows the thinking Bush once ascribed to himself. The winning GOP candidate will have to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general."

And therein lies the rub. Getting to positions that will appeal to general-election voters on same-sex marriage, Obamacare (which most don't want to relitigate) and symbols of prejudice could cost a Republican candidate his or her chance at getting to the general election.

Democrats are unified

Democrats are basking in all of these wins — marriage, housing, Obamacare, and the flag — and it's hard to find a single voice of dissent in the party.

Particularly on marriage, there's been a striking geophysical shift in party dynamics. In 2008, Clinton and Obama favored civil unions. By 2012, Obama was running on his backing for same-sex marriage. And by 2013, Clinton had endorsed it, too. There's just no tension in the Democratic Party on an issue that the GOP is struggling with.

"What an extraordinary achievement," Obama said at a press conference Friday. "What a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who endorsed same-sex marriage in their 2012 reelection campaign, called Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the case, to offer their congratulations.

The frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, announced shortly after she left the Obama administration in 2013 that she is in favor of same-sex marriage — a change from her 2008 position, in which she only backed civil unions. When he was president, her husband, Bill Clinton, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to ban same-sex marriage and the last piece of which was ruled unconstitutional in Friday's decision.

"This ruling is an affirmation of the commitment of couples across the country who love one another," Hillary Clinton, who equated LGBTQ rights with human rights in a 2011 speech, said Friday. "It reflects the will of the vast and growing multitude of Americans who believe that LGBT couples deserve to be recognized under the law and treated equally in the eyes of society. And it represents our country at its best: inclusive, open, and striving toward true equality."

The one issue that is settled is Obamacare. The court's 6-3 ruling upholding the insurance subsidies at the heart of the law included language that would make it very difficult for a future president to act unilaterally to undo the law.

That means it would take a Republican president, a Republican majority in the House, and at least 60 Republican votes in the Senate to overhaul the signature legislative achievement of Obama's presidency.

Ironically, Republicans said Thursday, the ruling made life easier for the 2016 GOP presidential contenders and congressional leaders. That's because they can now run against the law in whole rather than trying to figure out how to fix an insurance system they opposed in the first place.

Momentum?

The truth is that all of these progressive victories are the result of generations of fighting for equality and justice in various forms, and Democrats were quick to point out Friday that there is much work in front of them.

That said, there is a new energy in a progressive movement that feels emboldened by public support for positions that the left has long held — including on same-sex marriage and, especially as the election nears, on economic inequality.

The proof of the remaining work was in Obama's itinerary. After speaking in the Rose Garden, he was scheduled to deliver a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and minister who was killed in the shooting massacre in Charleston on June 17.

The suspect in that case, Dylann Roof, posed for photos with the Confederate flag, apparently wrote a white supremacist manifesto, and is alleged to have shouted racist comments during the shooting spree.

Those revelations spurred Haley and some other South Carolina Republicans to join Democrats in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from its place of honor outside the state Capitol in Columbia. Since then, elected officials in several other Southern states — and in Congress — have begun the push to take the battle flag out of state insignias, license plates, and government buildings.

But while the symbol of racism is being lowered, there's no evidence that the Charleston shootings will bring about substantive policy changes on either racial discrimination or the availability of guns — issues of great importance to progressives — in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

Roland Martin, the host of NewsOne Now on TV One, noted that the decisions this week came from the judiciary and the state executive branches of government.

"Has the body politic necessarily changed? That to me is going to be the real issue," he said. "The real question for us is still going to be how is public policy affected."

That's what Clinton has been trying to address on the campaign trail. At a church in Missouri earlier this week, she said that taking down the Confederate flag isn't an answer to racial injustice in and of itself.

"The truth is, equality, opportunity, civil rights in America are still far from where they need to be," she said.

"Nearly 6 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school and out of work. Think of that: neither learning nor working. And the numbers are particularly high for young people of color. Statistics like these are rebukes to the real progress we have made and they pose an urgent call for us to act -- publicly, politically, and personally. We should start by giving all of our children the tools and opportunities to overcome legacies of discrimination, to live up to theirown God-given potentials.

A new era of progressivism?

While there's been movement on criminal justice reform in Congress — and among the Republican presidential contenders — there's little evidence that Clinton would be able to move the Republican-led Congress on gun control, expanding the government's role in ensuring economic justice, or other major Democratic Party priorities.

Jim Manley, a former aide to Harry Reid and the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, said the victories were swift but not necessarily an indication that the country is headed toward a major leftward shift.

"To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of the moral universe is long, but when it comes to some of the more divisive social issues facing this country, it sure is bending quickly toward justice," Manley said.

The set of wins shows the government catching up to where the American people have been for some time, he said.

"I don't think these recent events signal that we are heading toward another golden era of progressivism or anything, but it has been fascinating to watch how quickly public attitudes have changed toward such hot-button issues as gay marriage and the proper role of the Confederate flag in this country," he said. "A few years ago, the fight for marriage equality was being touted as the civil rights issue of this era —now that debate is all but over."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.