The fault line lies right at the heart of the American social landscape, the tectonic plates grinding past each other like gritted teeth, generating a store of latent energy that just has to give. Still, there’s shock when the tremors come, a tendency to interpret the sudden rattle and heave as a fundamental shift that’s left nothing standing quite where it was yesterday.
It’s been that kind of month.
White southern Republicans rushing to ditch the Confederate flag. The Roberts Court preserving Obamacare and, the very next day, declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right.
Not for a while have the plates ground together with such violence. And even the experts who parse the underlying forces can’t definitively answer: What was that we just felt? What did it mean and why did it happen? Was it the Big One, or are we letting our imaginations run away with us?
Maybe we’re seeing a generational paradigm shift. Perhaps the train called Millennials pulled into the station with shuddering force, ushered in by a 21-year-old throwback named Dylann Roof and nine robed justices whose average age is 69.
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Or maybe this is a momentary confluence of more or less random events that, by Inauguration Day 2017, will prove unforgettable but also unconnected.
“In the broadest sense, there are some profound social changes taking place,” said Robert. M. Howard, a political scientist at Georgia State who studies how courts affect public policy.
His colleague Lakeyta Bonnette, who studies political attitudes and public opinion, is more definitive, crediting June’s headlines to a resurgence of the groundswell that carried Barack Obama into the White House. The past two weeks, she said, “have been very significant.”
Not so, said Emory historian Joseph Crespino, who specializes in American politics since World War II. “I’m doubtful that events this week and last will mark any fundamental shift in our partisan divide, nor do I think the timing of these developments holds any real significance,” he wrote in an email.
Taken individually, each event was certainly dramatic and, in its own way, surprising.
Of them all, the Supreme Court majority’s embrace of gay marriage was perhaps the most expected but still the most earth-shaking. The court did not set the pace, of course: the culture itself did that.
“The court is always behind society,” said Georgia State political scientist Susanne Schorpp. “They could have made this decision so much earlier, but they didn’t.”
In part, the shift was generational – opponents of same-sex matrimony departing this life and supporters growing into adulthood – but only in part. Millions of individual Americans have moved with truly stunning swiftness from opposition to acceptance and, in many cases, to outright approval.
“In my childhood, my mother wouldn’t even say the word ‘homosexual’ because it was too threatening,” Howard recalled. “Now she is a big supporter of gay rights.
“My guess is that a lot of Republican candidates are secretly relieved,” Howard said of both the gay marriage and Obamacare decisions. In effect, the rulings let them quickly pivot away from the issues when they judge that avoidance is the prudent course.
But the justices’ judgment left unsettled genuine issues of what will happen when the constitutional mandate clashes with religious belief and individual conscience. “Religious liberty” is not only a political rallying cry but a foundational American value, and last week’s ruling in no way discharged the tension along this societal fault line, however much it rearranged things at the surface.
On the eternally fraught matter of race, it took just a few moments for a skinny 21-year-old to do what a rash of bad policing and #HandsUpDon’tShoot and #BlackLivesMatter couldn’t. Roof put a bullet through the notion of a postracial America just as certainly as he took the lives of nine black worshippers in Charleston.
When he was done, the dots of racial hatred and “southern heritage” were well and truly connected, in a way that brought a whole new meaning to the phrase Lost Cause. Thousands of words in a Justice Department report on racial bias in Ferguson had less impact than a single photo of Roof with his curdled stare and his Glock .45 and his Stars and Bars.
Emory historian Jonathan Prude recalled that when he moved to Atlanta several decades ago from Massachusetts, “the Confederate flag was part of the wallpaper.”
Given how long the banner has held its ground, Howard, another northern transplant, was surprised by how quickly the tide turned against it. “All I can think of,” he said, “is that the politicians’ internal polling must have shown that they had not much to lose and a lot to gain” by calling for its removal from public spaces.
Bonnette sees the widespread recoil against Roof’s twisted act as a societal “tipping point.” But she said the murders merely put an exclamation point on the sustained backlash to Obama’s tenure, which showed many Americans that racial tensions they thought resolved are still in play.
“The fight for equality stems from the perception of inequality,” she said.
Elizabeth M. Bounds, a scholar of Christian ethics at Emory, agreed that Roof’s rampage “profoundly reminds us of what has not changed.”
But even in the midst of the universal public condemnation it engendered, she said it is important to remember that while he is “absolutely an extreme, there are plenty of people who understand how he feels.”
Economically and socially marginalized, “they feel deeply dispossessed and unsettled,” Bounds said. “They are angry as hell.”
And they are not going away.
The Obamacare ruling is perhaps the most difficult to parse, to see in perspective from this close vantage point. What does one make of the survival of a program whose individual features are widely popular but which, in its totality, still evokes disquiet and even loathing?
Whether gays can legally marry arguably affects them and no one else, regardless of how deeply straight people hold their opinions. Whether people of color are as free and as safe as white people primarily affects them, however passionately whites may feel on the subject.
But the health care law affects us all. It also goes to the profoundly uneasy relationship between notions of individual agency and the government as an instrument for the betterment of society as a whole.
Bounds sees each argument (on matters of racial and gay rights, too) as deeply rooted in divergent strains of American Protestantism. On the one hand is the fierce belief in the primacy of the individual and the overarching importance of personal redemption. On the other is the commitment to manifesting the Kingdom of God on earth through social action for the common good.
Both, she said, “are in our DNA,” adding, “It’s a pretty complex society.”
Of course, one all-American impulse that cuts across the great divide is the desire to proclaim that This Moment is Our Moment – whichever side one may stand on. Google the term “inflection point,” and you’ll turn up these declarations (admittedly, both penned before any of the events discussed above):
From a 2011 draft of a document called The Progressive Strategy Handbook: “America has already begun a fundamental transition. Many vested interests cling to the status quo without realizing that the world has changed under their feet. But progressives already know the truth: It has changed, and there’s no turning back.”
From a post by Repair_Man_Jack on the RedState blog: “2015 could be an historical inflection point. The spirit of 1968 has failed. … When people truly see where all this ‘Progress’ leads, they will be moved to projectile vomit. Then, the conservative movement gets a turn to move things in our direction. Let 2015 be that year.”
That’s the thing about political tectonics: the momentum can shift in either direction. And does.
So how will all this play out in the presidential campaign that is just revving up?
“That is the $64,0000 question,” Howard said. “2016 is going to be pivotal.”
Prude is among those reluctant to ascribe a common thread to recent headlines. But he said they create an opportunity for actors across the political spectrum to fashion an encompassing narrative capable of moving the needle in the presidential race and beyond.
“It’s a huge opportunity” for all the candidates, he said. Whether they seize it is another matter.
Even Bonnette, who reads great significance into recent events, knows that issues come and go, especially in election years.
“Americans have a very short attention span,” she said. If the economy were to seriously wobble, for instance, the dialogue would shift instantly. “A lot can happen in America in a year.”