Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Strange things are happening in Washington and around the country which suggest that the country could explode. There have been political activities at the state and federal level over the past few weeks which—in a not too distant past—would have produced riots in the streets. These recent events may well be disastrous, but, so far, it appears that America of 2013 is not the America of the 1960’s and early Seventies in how it is responding to them.
It began with the Supreme Court’s decision at the conclusion of its last session in June, overturning key provisions in the Voting Rights Act. This galvanized numerous States to move aggressively to implement an array of redistricting initiatives and voter ID practices which could go a long way to restrict the hard won right to vote that African Americans achieved over the past five decades. The Roberts Court understood full well that even if they were correct in arguing that the data used by Congress was not appropriate in renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act– most recently in 2006 in the Bush Administration–the political and societal consequences in striking down the law meant that for whatever time it will take—and it will probably be years–States will be able to encumber and restrict peoples’ rights to vote. The consequence will be manifested immediately in congressional elections as well as state and local elections as soon as next fall. The irony for Republicans who were the main champions of these initiatives, especially the voter ID requirement, it will only further alienate potential Hispanic voters among whom the GOP is already in deep trouble.
Next we have seen, the parade of state laws restricting and limiting abortion rights within key states. While the most hysterical and publicity-filled fight has been in the Texas state legislature, similar battles have been going on in North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Wisconsin—so far. Largely orchestrated by Republican lawmakers, it seems that here again elected representatives are trying to turn the country back to the 1960’s. In this instance the right-to-lifers are also alienating women throughout the country, among whom the GOP—based on 2012 numbers–already is a weakened position.
Finally, Congress is not only moving so slowly in the House on immigration reform as well as meaningful gun legislation–which some have been expecting to still be brought back—but yesterday they scrubbed the food stamp program out of the Agriculture bill for the first time since 1973. The Republican controlled House suggested they would consider the food stamp program independently, but the Senate and the White House have already indicated they would reject an agriculture bill without food stamps included. Once again it seems that the GOP is prepared to disregard the needs of “have-nots” of the country; presuming their votes are not significant enough, plus many of them will not have voter ID’s.
The growing political toxicity in Washington is now spreading around the country. It is difficult to comprehend the extent to which so many of the hard fought battles of 50 years ago are re-emerging as if nothing has changed or been settled. Beginning with the President no one is prepared to take the heat to challenge the slide—aggressively and frontally. Without a voice belling in the night, however, the nation may be backsliding faster than anyone dreamed.