DOMA and Proposition 8: The perils and benefits of an activist Supreme Court

The Supreme Court rulings on the Defence of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 stand in stark contrast to the day before, and show a split activist court.

The Supreme Court giveth, the Supreme Court taketh away. Just a day after a landmark ruling that rolled the civil rights movement back several decades on race, two more rulings were handed down by that most august of bodies today that roll it several decades forward on gender. One, by denying the right to appeal of a group of supporters of California's Proposition 8, effectively legalised gay marriage in the US's most populous state.

The other, a much more direct – and therefore important – ruling, found a central clause of the hated Defence Of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied gay couples equal protection under the law, unconstitutional. So while the day before was a bad day for black Americans, yesterday was a great day for gay Americans.

The one anchovy in the trifle was Justice Antonin Scalia, whose enraged dissenting opinion laid into Justice Kennedy's striking-down of DOMA, and who hinted that, while the Court had chosen not to directly address the national constitutionality of a ban on gay marriage in any state – dismissing the Proposition 8 case and sending it back to the 9th Circuit court of California's decision instead – it is inevitable now that one day the Court will take a similar case on merit at some point in the future. He went on grumpily to say that Kennedy was acting with “real cheek” by saying that the constitutionality of gay marriage wasn't up in front of the court yet.

This kind of judicial activism infuriated Scalia. “We have no power to decide this case,” he raged. “And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America.” This was pretty ironic, actually; just the previous day, Scalia had no such qualms about judicial activism when the court was addressing a conservative issue: he voted enthusiastically to gut the Voting Rights Act – which had been reaffirmed in Congress in 2006 by a huge majority.

It would be wrong to say that hypocrisy about juducial activism is unique to the conservatives on the bench. Justice Ginsberg's anguished dissenting opinion on striking down the Voting Rights Act is in contrast to her full-throated support of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion on DOMA; though she, along with Scalia, voted to send Proposition 8 back to California rather than address its merits there and then it is probably that had they debated the issue she and Scalia would be on different sides. Justice Kennedy is, as usual, the tipping-point between conservatives and liberals on the court – he joined Justice Roberts in voting to strike down the VRA. He is therefore probably the most important Justice.

But Scalia's prediction is probably also correct. The majority opinion by Kennedy on DOMA contains language that will allow for plenty of challenges to the constitutionality of marriage inequality down the line. He said, for example, that DOMA constituted nothing less than a “deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment, and also that it “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples,” and bases an argument around giving “dignity” to same-sex families. All of these give immediate legal precedent for challenges to state gay-marriage bans. So while this wasn't a day of final victory on marriage equality, it was decisive nonetheless. Sometimes an activist court isn't so bad.

San Francisco's City Hall flies the rainbow flag. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.