It was Gay Marriage Day in Washington today with two Supreme Court decisions on the issue. In United States v. Windsor, the Court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. For the purposes of federal law and benefits, legally married same-sex couples will now receive the same recognition from the federal government that opposite-sex couples d0. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court decided that the appealing party did not have the standing to argue for California’s Proposition 8 in federal courts and let the lower court’s decision stand. As a result, gay marriage will likely become legal again in California, though the situation in the rest of the country will remain unchanged.But these two decisions are not the only culture war stories we’ve seen lately. On the state level today, the big news is the setback for Texas Republicans hoping to use a special session to enact some of the most pro-life legislation in the country. Republicans announced that the law, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, had passed, only to quickly recant. The vote was invalid because it hadn’t followed proper legislative procedure. This may not stand; Governor Perry can call a second special session, and if he does, the bill will likely pass.Both of these come hard on the heels of yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision, which will now allow nine previously regulated states to make changes to voting procedures without federal pre-approval. And all of this was preceded by the total rout of gun control legislation in the Congress in April.There are things that could be said about all of these cases. For instance, the unusual majority in Hollingsworth (Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan) confirms the impression we got when the Court upheld Obamacare: The Roberts Court is political but not politicized. We may not like everything the justices do, but at least some of the time it is clear that they are thinking about the law rather than about their personal and political hobby horses. That’s good for the Court and good for the country, too.It’s worth taking a step back from the emotions and technical details of all of these events to ask about the broader trend they point to. Superficially, they point to a schizophrenic public: leaning pro-life; increasingly in favor of gay marriage; divided on gun control but unwilling to pull the trigger, so to speak, on significantly tightened gun laws. But on a deeper level, these all look like examples of the biggest cultural-political trend in America: a response to the growing complexity of 21st century life that revives individualism and states’ rights.Individualism sometimes work for the Right and sometimes for the Left. The right to marry who you choose is as individualistic as insisting on your right to bear arms. With abortion, that same logic is muddier, which is why the public is still divided. Pro-choichers lay claim to the individualism mantle by stating that women should be free to control their own reproductive health, while pro-lifers do the same by arguing that abortion involves two individuals with rights, not one.Similarly, when it comes to classical federalism, the Supreme Court’s decisions on the gay marriage cases are both deferential to the states involved. Again, states’ rights is sometimes a liberal and sometimes a conservative cause. The DOMA case said that the national government can’t deny federal benefits to the marriages recognized by the states. But the Voting Rights Act decision, for good or for ill, is an attempt to give back to the nine states in question some powers lost in the Civil Rights Era. Two wins for states’ rights; one each for the Left and the Right.The federal government is reaching for broad new powers. President Obama wants the EPA to assert the power to regulate (or at least to force all the states to regulate) emissions of carbon dioxide. Obamacare similarly involves some major new federal interventions in the lives of millions of Americans. And it appears that under President Obama federal surveillance of Americans has surpassed anything that transpired under President Bush.But here, too, the Supreme Court and public opinion are demanding the return of more powers to individuals and states. DOMA, pot legalization, the limits on the Voting Rights Act, and a rash of new state limits on abortion all point to a strong public interest in the decentralization of power.The federal legislature, the Court, and state governments, both blue and red, seem to have adopted this principle of devolution as a strategy for dealing with the most politically toxic issues of our time. America is too big and its citizens are too diverse for one-size-fits-all solutions to some of our culture war issues. Some traditional American views seem newly relevant as we cope with these issues: individuals should be allowed as much freedom as is consistent with their not harming others; wherever possible, states should be free to settle their affairs on their own terms.Some 18th-century ideas are proving surprisingly useful in 21st-century America.
Gay Marriage Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle