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Steve Lonegan spent decades trying to convince people he was right.
He marched against abortion and railed against gay rights. He called for prayer in schools, limited restrictions on legal gun ownership and a reduction in environmental rules for businesses.
Now, at 66, the former Republican mayor of Bogota who failed in several attempts to take his right-wing agenda to Congress, the state Legislature and the governor's office, finally feels vindicated.
Spurred by a series of recent landmark rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, unabashed and outspoken conservatives such as Lonegan firmly believe they have won a major victory in America’s long-running culture wars.
“It’s a turning point,” said Lonegan, who now lives in Hackensack and runs a restaurant. “This is going to put a lot of wind into the sails of the social conservatives.”
But where is this wind blowing? And will it change direction as progressives push back, especially in this fall’s midterm Congressional elections?
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For more than half a century — perhaps as much as a century, some historians say — America’s progressives and conservatives have fought a seemingly endless series of polarizing conflicts over how we live our lives and the values that are recognized as pillars of government and society. The battlefields stretch from schools, libraries and state legislative hearing rooms to the White House, the Congress and, most importantly perhaps, the marble façade of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The litany of conflicts are now all-too-familiar: abortion, gay rights, gun control, environmental rules, affirmative action, gay marriage, prayer in schools. But framing these issues — and the disputes they invariably set off — are fundamental questions about religion, family customs, personal freedoms and the power of government to regulate life from classrooms to bedrooms.
For decades, these conflicts seemed unresolved — and all too permanent. But that may change, experts say, with a series of recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court on gun control, school prayer, religious freedom, environmental regulations, immigration and abortion.
But what’s next? Is this a crossroads — the “end of the beginning” as Britain’s Winston Churchill suggested after a crucial battle during World War II? Or are these recent rulings by the Court a prelude to even more contentious fights?
Answering such questions is difficult, especially amid the tumult of upcoming Congressional elections this fall as well as the explosive revelations from the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021 assault of the U.S. Capitol. But interviews with a variety of liberal and conservative observers paint a portrait of an American cultural landscape that has clearly shifted in the aftermath of a series of landmark Supreme Court rulings.
The question is how far this shift will go — and how long it will continue.
“It’s clearly an important marker in American history,” Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson said of the recent Court rulings. “It’s a sensitive moment, maybe a decisive moment and a clarifying moment. The divides in American people will be here for a long time. But I think the Supreme Court rulings will make them starker.”
Jackson, whose wide-ranging research extends from the Ku Klux Klan to New York City’s history and the expansion of America’s suburbs, cautions that predicting permanent changes in American politics and culture is always a risky business.
In the 1980s, conservatives hoped Ronald Reagan’s presidency would drive a fatal spike into the bleeding heart of 1960s liberalism. But Reagan — and his successor, George H.W. Bush — were never able to dismantle America’s social safety net or, in a great disappointment to conservatives, reverse the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that proclaimed abortion a constitutional right.
Likewise, by 2008, progressives viewed Barack Obama’s election as a springboard for dramatic societal change. Yet, Obama’s reform-minded proposals, especially his plan for government-supported universal health care, gave birth to the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s presidency.
Now comes a series of earth-shaking rulings by the Court.
Besides reversing the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling that imposed a constitutional guarantee of abortion, the Supreme Court also scuttled what had been seen for years as a virtually unassailable New York State law that prohibited most people from carrying concealed firearms. The Court's change in the New York gun law will also likely impact similarly restrictive laws in six other states, including New Jersey.
The court also lifted decades-long constraints on prayer in public schools by allowing a football coach in Washington to pray after games, broke down government limitations in Maine and Boston on religious expression and curtailed federal environmental limits on power plants. In addition, the Court, earlier this year, also blocked the Biden administration from imposing anti-COVID rules on businesses. In a minor victory, the Court gave the Biden administration the option of loosening some Trump-era immigration restrictions.
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That's not the end. Indeed, more dramatic changes may be coming.
Next year, the Supreme Court has signaled that it will take up the constitutionality of affirmative action, the 1960s-era practice of offering preferences in jobs and schooling to minorities. And while the full Court has not hinted at its intentions, its most senior conservative justice, Clarence Thomas, recently suggested that the justices should consider reexamining a series of privacy rulings that offer constitutional protections on birth control and same sex marriage.
In other words, America’s culture wars may even expand.
“You certainly have to give conservatives the edge. It’s been their week,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s something they’ve worked for the better part of 50 years.”
But Rasmussen said the Court’s rulings should not be seen as a final victory. Indeed, the fighting may worsen.
“Maybe this is the week when liberals and Democrats are finally waking up to the fact that they have to fight back,” he said
David Greenberg, a Rutgers historian who is writing a biography of civil rights activist and Congressional icon John Lewis, said recent losses in the culture wars may also force Democrats to examine how to appeal to a broader constituency.
Only a few decades ago, Greenberg said, Democrats could count on wide support among Midwest farmers and Roman Catholics and Jews. Today, Democrats have been reduced to a minority party in many Midwestern states. And their support among Catholics and Jews has been fractured.
“We used to have Democratic senators from the Dakotas,” Greenberg said. “No more. I think liberals made a mistake in giving up on the farmers as well as the religious class and the working class.”
In recent years, Greenberg said, Democrats have focused too much attention on “urban elites, young people and professionals” who were seen, rightly or wrongly, as “moralistic, preachy, self-righteous” and overly focused on such issues as transgender rights rather than broader economic concerns.
At the same time, Greenberg said, some of the most vocal Democrats were also pushing the party's most radical policies.
“It’s very hard for Democrats to maintain a popular image with voters outside their base when so many people associated with them are taking such extreme positions,” he said. “The whole team has to be rowing in the same direction.”
What resulted was not just a geographic separation of America’s politics, with Democrats holding power in large cities, but also a generational divide.
Nevertheless, Greenberg said he thought progressives had the upper hand in changing America’s values. “It really seemed for the last several decades, that for all the fighting, liberals were winning the culture wars,” he said. But the Court’s rulings — and the dramatic change in its make-up in recent years — put a stop to progressive gains. “This is really more of a story more about the Court than about the culture,” he said.
Ashley Koning, the director of the Rutgers Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, said the Court’s rulings seem to contradict what she is seeing in surveys of American’s attitudes and values.
In recent years, Koning said, support grew among majorities of Americans for such contentious issues as abortion rights, same sex marriage and controls over firearms. Now, she said, it’s like “culture wars, part two” with the added problem of “a real disconnect” between what the Supreme Court sanctions and what most Americans support.
Strangely, Koning said, the end result may actually be positive.
“These culture war issues are such hot button issues,” she said. “They are really big rallying cries that will motivate people to turn out and vote in elections.”
Bret Schundler, who gained national attention when he tried to expand prayer in schools and other public space as the Republican mayor of Jersey City, said Republicans may actually benefit in upcoming elections from the Court rulings.
Schundler, who now runs several charter schools in Jersey City, predicted a major defeat if Democrats follow the suggestion of President Joe Biden and other party leaders to focus on abortion in this fall’s Congressional elections. With Republicans planning to focus on economic concerns, Schundler said his party may win sweeping victories.
“Let’s say Republicans win big in November,” Schundler said. “What that will say is that you can’t focus on a couple of social issues that are very controversial.”
And so, the wars will continue.
Columbia University’s Kenneth Jackson isn’t worried, though.
“We’ll survive,” he said. “We’re a strong country. Our diversity is our strength. I don’t think the bottom will fall out.”
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns spur culture wars