Political change moves slowly across our big nation, but last week changed America. The Affordable Care Act is now settled law. Same-sex marriage will prevail in every state. The Confederate flag is coming down.
Ever since the ACA was passed in 2010, it has suffered constant attack by Republicans. The day after it was signed, Republican politicians in both houses of Congress voted to repeal it. The House voted over 60 times to repeal Obamacare. Republican arguments that the ACA was unconstitutional, however, have failed twice at the Supreme Court, although the majority of justices were appointed by Republican presidents.
Wikipedia characterized the ACA as “the most significant regulatory overhaul of the U.S. health care system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.” This victory does not end the war over health care and how to pay for it. It is one step forward in a long journey. During those 50 years, there have been many attempts to reform health care, as the cost of medicine has exploded. The politics have been clear: Democrats have proposed and Republicans have opposed.
This time, Republicans tried to stoke fears among the elderly that billions to pay for the ACA would come out of Medicare. That was untrue and cynical. In 1961, a youthful-looking Ronald Reagan came to national attention when he produced a 10-minute LP record outlining a nightmare vision of John F. Kennedy’s proposal to expand the government’s role in health care for the elderly: “behind it will come other government programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day, as Norman Thomas said, we will wake to find that we have socialism. We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free." Republicans opposed the bill unanimously in House committees, and eventually split down the middle in final votes.
In those days there were liberal Republicans. When the Clintons proposed health care reform in the 1990s, Republicans were totally opposed. The fight over the ACA is now over, although Republican leaders keep wasting public time with futile gestures. Rep. Brian Babin of Texas introduced the SCOTUScare Act to force Supreme Court justices and their staffs to enroll in Obamacare.
The day after announcing that Obamacare was the law of the land, the Supreme Court declared a momentous milestone in another long political battle. Same-sex marriage is legal in every state. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.
In 1960 every state considered gay sex a criminal act. As recently as 1986, the Court upheld a Georgia law against gay sex. Twelve years ago, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for an overwhelmingly Republican-appointed Court in Lawrence vs. Texas (2003), which struck down such laws in 14 states, mainly in the South. Scalia and Thomas also dissented from that attempt to protect the rights of gay people from violent government intrusion. Scalia was prescient: “this reasoning leaves on shaky, pretty shaky, grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.”
The struggle for sexual equality is by no means over, but the current desperation of its opponents is notable. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, running for President, proposed a national convention to write one constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and another mandating retention elections for Supreme Court justices every 8 years. Nothing less would do in these “darkest hours of our nation.” Cruz might consider that hundreds of Republican political leaders, nearly half of Republican voters, and two-thirds of Americans support same-sex marriage. Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have both advocated treason, if elected: “We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.”
Since a Confederate-flag loving racist killed 9 black worshipers in a South Carolina church, many conservative leaders have suddenly changed their minds about its meaning. That political fight has also been waged for decades. The Confederate battle flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy. It became popular in the South not during the Civil War, but later as a statement in favor of discrimination. Mississippi incorporated the symbol into its state flag in 1894, right after imposing a poll tax that eliminated the possibility for African Americans, the majority of the state’s population, to vote, serve on juries or hold elected office. Georgia added the Confederate symbol to its state flag in 1956, in response to another Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). South Carolina lawmakers raised the Confederate flag over the State House in April 1961, after a year of sit-ins across the South revived the civil rights movement.
June 2015 will be remembered by us and by tomorrow’s historians as a moment of profound cultural and political change. Like many significant moments, this one is tinged with tragedy. Behind the moment are long struggles for equality, dignity and justice, and desperate, even violent measures to stop that human progress. Remember the past and fight for the future.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 30, 2015