Almost four months ago, I wrote in this space that the US Supreme Court held “a monumental opportunity to wreak havoc on those of us who toil at our labor and scrape together meager earnings for necessities like housing, food, fuel and healthcare.”
After years of accumulated disappointments, my attitude towards government and the courts has evolved into a guarded posture of hoping for the best, while fearing the worst.
On a mere technicality, I wrote, the Supreme Court could have essentially blown up the Affordable Care Act, ruling that citizens who purchased healthcare through exchanges run by the federal government were not entitled to a subsidy. That would have resulted in my health insurance premium jumping $160 per month. For our family, which struggles to cover the costs of housing, student-debt payments and utilities on modest earnings from my wife and me, $160 is a significant amount.
At the time, we were also wrestling with the decision of whether to buy our first home, entailing an increase in housing costs from the $450 per month we paid in rent to about $600 to cover a mortgage, taxes and homeowners insurance.
Rational economic actors might have waited for the Supreme Court decision before crossing that Rubicon. Instead, we took that most American venture of faith, and leveraged ourselves into greater debt in the face of significant uncertainty. We bought into the American Dream, perhaps against our better judgment.
So the Supreme Court’s decision last week to turn down the challenge to a key provision of the Affordable Care Act came as a huge relief. Having come to the conclusion long ago that the government and the courts are elitist institutions whose chief decision-makers are oblivious to the needs of ordinary citizens, I’m still in shock.
The Affordable Care Act ruling was followed by two other decisions that will have resounding and far-reaching impact on ordinary people. The decision to protect marriage equality regardless of the gender of the partners as a matter of equal protection under the law not only upholds the dignity of gay and lesbian citizens, it ensures them the same access to tax and retirement benefits, guarantees that parents retain custody of children in the event of the death of one partner, the ability of partners to make important end-of-life decisions and to visit loved ones in the hospital and myriad other benefits that heterosexual couples take for granted. Our 2-year-old daughter marked the historic Supreme Court decision by uttering the word “rainbow” for the first time on Sunday.
The third decision, much overlooked, is the court’s ruling striking down a key provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which imposes additional time on the sentences of defendants with whose crimes involve what are vaguely termed “violent felonies” or “serious” drug crimes. The ruling could potentially affect the sentences of about 7,000 people serving time under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
While the decision might not be as impactful as rulings on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, it matters to defendants who are serving excessive sentences because they might have possessed a sawed-off shotgun. It means they will have the opportunity to come home sooner and take care of their families. As a nation, we appear to be finally drawing down our massive prison population slightly, and addressing the staggering economic drain on families and taxpayers that results from warehousing men and women during their prime earning years. That’s something to celebrate.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, Southern states began to take down the Confederate flag and Walmart announced it would remove the symbol of white supremacy from store shelves.
These are all significant progressive victories, but what they mean for the ongoing culture wars is less certain. For Southern politicians like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who announced his presidential bid last week, calling for the removal of the Confederate flag allows viability on the national political stage, while sacrificing support from poor, racist whites who cling to the flag as their only remaining bond with white elites.
The marriage-equality decision likewise allows Republican presidential hopefuls to spend less time reassuring conservative base voters about their traditional values because they can argue that while they oppose same-sex marriage, the matter is now settled law. Of course, the less time they have to spend pandering to the conservative base in the primary, the less baggage the eventual nominee carries into the general election.
Yet while progressives might celebrate this week, they hardly get the last word.
Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition invoked the specter of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court will no more settle the issue of gay marriage than Roe v. Wade settled the issue of abortion,” she said. “Forty years later, the majority of Americans are more pro-life than ever, and I believe that history will prove the arrogance of this Supreme Court’s new illusory definition for marriage.”
Welcome to the next phase of backlash politics.