It's trivial to compare the late-Sunday-night announcement from Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore -- Moore asked that local authorities ignore a federal mandate to issue same-sex marriage licenses -- to the most famous action ever taken by a governor of that state: George Wallace's 1963 blockade of the auditorium door at the University of Alabama.
It's easy to see the similar mentalities. The world was changing around both men, and each, savvy to the politics of a state that prides itself on its resolute conservatism, saw an opportunity to take a last stand against the incoming tide. It's easy to compare a moment of rapidly expanding rights for gay couples to the moment that Wallace tried to block another brand of social change, and it's easy to compare the arguments -- that states' rights and the will of that state's voters are paramount. (On Monday morning, the Supreme Court insisted that gay marriages in the state could move forward.)
In another sense, though, Moore's action is broader than simply another Alabama elected official seeking to make a futile statement. (Moore's position is an elected office.) It also reflects the ongoing national split between two political groups, each of which sees itself as the true democratic representative of the people.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 elections, President Obama embarked on a series of announcements and actions exploring the outer boundaries of his executive authority. In a news conference the day after the Republican rout, Obama claimed the mandate of the new Silent Majority: "To everyone who voted," he said, "I want you to know that I hear you. To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too."
Within weeks, he had rolled back deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants and announced plans to pick apart the figurative wall separating the United States from Cuba. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might have won the House and Senate handily last November, but Obama won the White House just as handily two years prior.
There's not a lot that Boehner and McConnell can do to prevent Obama from exercising his 2012 mandate. So Boehner, in an unusual move, decided to leverage his mandate, inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress next month without running it by the White House. It was clearly a power play, meant to demonstrate to Obama and the Democrats that Republicans had more tools in their arsenal than a lawsuit to try to stop his executive actions.
Last June, Pew Research outlined the results of a survey meant to gauge how far apart Americans were politically. It found a broader ideological divide than in past years (though there's some context that's worth applying), and an increasing number of people in one party who thought that the other party was a threat to the national well-being (among Democrats, 27 percent said that of Republicans; 36 percent of Republicans said that about Democrats). More Americans also stated that it's important to them to live in places where people share their political beliefs, with 50 percent of people on the right making that assertion.
Moore's move is very much in the "states' rights" vein of the 1960s, a 10th Amendment argument that's seen a renaissance in the era of a president who is deeply unpopular with Republicans. But it's hard to point to Moore's action as being simply Wallace redux when you consider the national picture. Boehner and McConnell are necessarily arguing for the primacy of local priorities, representing states and districts, not the whole country. In those places, Obama is so unpopular among their constituents that 66 percent of Republicans opposed working with Obama in the wake of last year's election; the response to his actions was similarly predictable.
For the next two years, we have a Congress that was elected by Americans to be Republican and a president that was elected to be Democratic. Moore's battle is with the Supreme Court, hardly an arm of the Obama administration, but the political fervor he's likely to leverage echoes the strains in national politics.
Moore has long followed his own interpretation of the boundaries of the Constitution, and it would surprise no one to learn that Alabama offers fertile soil for his politics. But his move over the weekend could as easily have happened in any number of other red states. There's no reason to think that for at least the next two years (at least) we won't see more similarly intransigent appeals to popular opinion, with "popular" being defined as the actor sees fit.