Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gay Marriage Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle. By Walter Russell Mead.

Gay Marriage Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle. by Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, June 26, 2013.


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.