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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Road to Marriage Equality in the State of Independence

When President George W. Bush visited northeastern Pennsylvania several times in the 2004 presidential campaign, he highlighted his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage. Bush proudly touted that he was the only president in American history to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit gay marriages. Playing to socially conservative voters of both parties in northeastern Pennsylvania, Bush figured he could capitalize on this issue here, and elsewhere, to stoke enough fears - combined with his emphasis on national security issues - to achieve a narrow win. Bush was reelected but ultimately lost Luzerne County in 2004, succumbing to Kerry by a 49 percent to 51 percent margin in this heavily Democratic yet swingy county that Ronald Reagan won twice. However, it's likely that his margin was closer than in 2000 - both countywide and statewide as Bush lost Pennsylvania in 2004 by less than he lost it four years prior - in part because of his strongly anti-gay marriage stance.

A decade later, this position of opposing equal marriage rights for gay couples is so politically toxic in Pennsylvania, including in northeastern Pa., that our state's GOP governor, Tom Corbett, imperiled in his reelection bid, withdrew his efforts to appeal the recent court decision legalizing same-sex marriage here. This political progress is nothing short of incredible but it is not by mistake. It is the result of hard and determined work on the part of gay rights activists, gay and lesbian couples who fought against a discriminatory law in the federal courts, and public servants willing to stand up for equal rights even when it was politically risky. This collaborated experiment on the part of such individuals in changing public opinion and ultimately changing the law is a reflection of the best of America: people working together at the grassroots level to rally public support to pressure individuals in power to expand equal rights. This phenomenon, as historians and political scientists and social policy experts (most notably Howard Zinn) have pointed out numerous times, is what our history is all about in fact.

Locally, people like John Dawe and Bill Browne worked to gather public support for marriage equality, public officials like Rep. Phyllis Mundy and Congressman Matt Cartwright were the first out of the gate at the state and federal level, respectively, to embrace gay marriage thus further legitimizing it in a sense, and the alliance that all of these individuals provided to the couples fighting the Pennsylvania DOMA in court ultimately helped allow it to fall. As a result of their work, happy couples who have waited years to marry can finally do so -- and a majority of the public, both statewide in PA and here in NEPA according to several public opinion polls, is finally on board as well. Cheers to Judge Jones, the folks who worked so hard to make marriage equality a reality, and to the people of Pennsylvania.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Understanding America's Social Ills

In two separate appearances at the Historic Sixth and I Synogauge here in Washington, Politics and Prose Bookstore hosted Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Both individuals were touting their new books, A Fighting Chance and Six Amendments, respectively, while discussing their broader belief systems. In addition to listening to Warren and Stevens, I had the privilege of meeting and introducing Vice President Joe Biden, who we as GW College Democrats alongside the Program Board and the Student Association booked as our end of year speaker, as he addressed GW students. Biden addressed the Democratic criticisms of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal. All three of these public servants demonstrated that they firmly grasped the social ills facing the country, the plight of working class and middle class individuals shafted by special interests and a broken political system, and the need to utilize social and political levers to alleviate inequality. However, action is required beyond words in order to ensure that real social change is achieved.

Nevertheless, it is comforting that there are longtime public servants who understand the true injustices that have visited hardworking, decent people and who have the know-how, experience, and tenacity to see through it that these injustices can be reversed. None of these individuals are perfect by any means. Each of them have made flawed judgments that, in some cases, are not reflective of the interests of working class and middle class individuals. However, all of them fundamentally understand that it is these people who are the backbone of the economy, that it is their success that is inextricably linked to broader national prosperity, and that progressive public policy is necessary to advance their interests.

This understanding on their part was reflected in the language Biden, Warren, and Stevens used to make their cases. Vice President Biden powerfully made a compelling argument against the House GOP budget, outlining how philosophically, the Republican viewpoint is at odds with the history of our country being one in which economic success is driven by the middle class. Ryan and his acolytes believe in "this incredibly narrow mindset that presumes that wealthy investors are the sole driver of the economy - that all employers work solely by the grace of the shareholders' capital gain," Biden asserted. Senator Warren railed against the "system being rigged" in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected who, in the last three decades, have had a ladder up while folks at the bottom rung of the economic ladder have been denied such opportunity thanks to decades of laws pushed by big corporations to enhance their political and financial power. Justice Stevens scolded his former conservative colleagues on the Court for crafting decisions that have been favored by the Chamber of Commerce and big business interests, such as Citizens United in which he penned the dissenting opinion, and marginalized those with less.

It is reassuring that Biden, Warren, and Stevens articulate well the social ills facing the country and that they comprehend the disturbing outsized growth of power of the very wealthy as opposed to the meager growth of those making less. Further, the policy prescriptions they propose are ones that will materially improve the lives of those struggling to make ends meet. These ideas include a budget that rewards lower and middle class people while eliminating loopholes for the rich, more robust rules and regulations to constrain the financial sector from wreaking havoc, and a strong reaffirmation of core civil rights and civil liberties. In order for these policy initiatives to be implemented into law though, mass collective action is required to put pressure on politicians to make these changes. As Elizabeth Warren demonstrated in her successful fight to create a consumer protection agency, which the President embraced and fought for as well, it is worth a fight even if the interests seem stacked against you. Ultimately, the power of the masses yearning for the realization of full economic equality for working class and middle class people has, historically, won out, even after periods in which we had terrible inequality. It requires public mobilization though because as FDR said, "I agree with you, now make me do it." Make them do it.