Rights and facts on the ground

The Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold the Affordable Care Act means that Governor Mitt Romney, by campaigning to repeal the Act, is promising to take health insurance away from 30 million people, none in Massachusetts.  This is far tougher than never extending the protection to them in the first place.

Of course, states can take rights and benefits away from people.  The purported Communists who lost the ability to earn a living in the Red Scare of the 1950s and more than 100,000 Japanese Americans interned a decade earlier know that too well.  Much more recently, gay and lesbian Californians who lost the right to marry through a ballot initiative know that rights can be taken away.  Someone who might appear to be Latino to a tired and pressured police officer on a dark night in Arizona also now knows that people can lose, as well as win, access, rights, and respect.

But usually it takes an atmosphere of crisis for authorities in a democracy to take existing rights away from people.  War and the perception of threat help a lot, and that perception isn’t always easy to conjure up.

This week the United States Department of Defense announced that it would commemorate Gay Pride month.  Officers and enlisted personnel attended the event, grateful that openness about their sexuality was no longer cause for being discharged.  David S. Cloud at The Los Angeles Times reports:

It was far from an outre gay pride celebration, like the Manhattan parade this month that one blogger said featured “dancing boys, granny boobs, marching bands, rainbow Storm Troopers, babies, feathers, pasties, thongs — heck, even a bunny in a hat.”

But if most of the Pentagon audience wore crisp military uniforms or conservative business suits, their joy was unmistakable. Several same-sex couples said they were attending their first Pentagon function together.

“It means acceptance,” said Doug Wilson, who stepped down this year as assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs but returned for the event. “It means people can be complete human beings.”

Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, attended the ceremony with his partner and called the event “the right kind of step forward. It’s measured. It’s done appropriately. It’s consistent with the way the military does things.”

Many, if not most, of the opponents of ending “don’t ask don’t tell,” still oppose the open service of gays and lesbians in the armed forces.   The Times quotes Ron Crews, a retired chaplain in the Army Reserve: “The Pentagon is now honoring something that a year ago was a court-martial offense, and that’s a radical shift.”   But Crews’s group, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, is focusing less on undoing the new policy than in stopping same sex marriages on military bases and maintaining the availability of Bibles.   The new policy effective shifted the front for the ongoing battle.  Policy matters.

And think about how hard it is to campaign against open service when gay service in the military is not an abstraction, but stories about real people serving honorably.  It’s harder to take something away from someone when you know who that someone is.

So, the Supreme Court decision makes it tougher for Governor Romney to campaign against “Obamacare” without offering something more specific to 30 million Americans who will depend upon the new law.  In effect, President Obama (affirmed by the Supreme Court) has established facts on the ground that tilt the playing field against his opponents.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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