The Culture Wars Are Back

From race to immigration to the environment, divisive issues have come back to the fore in Washington.

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(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters take part in a demonstration to condemn the ban of same-sex marriages. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Suddenly, the culture wars are making a comeback, reigniting political passions and threatening to make the remainder of President Obama's term more divisive than ever. The emotionally charged social issues of race, crime, voting rights, affirmative action, gun control, same-sex marriage, and the environment vs. the economy are back on the front burner, with no easy consensus in sight.

– President Obama reopened the polarizing issue of climate change Tuesday when he announced a series of unilateral actions designed to limit global warming, including more stringent limits on emissions from power plants that his critics say would harm the economy and cost jobs.

Republicans immediately labeled his agenda a "war on coal." Obama argued than the country can have both prosperity and environmental protection, and advocated a number of lifestyle changes such as using less energy and shifting from the use of coal to natural gas and solar power.

[OPINION: Should Obama Use Executive Powers to Address Climate Change?]

– The George Zimmerman murder trial opened this week on a harsh and negative note in a case that is being covered exhaustively by the media. Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012. The prosecution said Zimmerman followed the African-American youth because he thought Martin looked suspicious and Zimmerman falsely thought the teenager was about to commit a crime.

(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters take part in a demonstration to condemn the ban of same-sex marriages. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Martin was actually staying in the gated community and had done nothing wrong. Zimmerman's lawyer said there was a confrontation and Martin began slamming Zimmerman's head against the pavement, and Zimmerman, 29, defended himself with deadly force. Many Americans are closely following the racially charged proceedings.

[PHOTOS: Protesters Seek 'Justice' for Trayvon Martin]

– The Supreme Court voided key portions of the landmark Voting Right Act of 1965, concluding that the voting-rights standards in the act were outdated and advising Congress to update the law. The 5-4 decision on Tuesday reopened a fundamental debate on how far the federal government should go in forcing states to guarantee voting and civil rights and to ensure fairness for African-Americans and Latinos.

– The high court affirmed the validity of race-based affirmative action in college admissions, but advised using standards that rely less on race as a criterion. This set up another debate over how much the government should do to make up for past discrimination. The 7-1 decision was announced by the justices Monday.

– The Senate voted Monday to proceed toward passage of a bill overhauling immigration law and strengthening security along the U.S.-Mexican border. The 67-27 vote indicated that the measure will pass the Senate easily, but it faces considerable difficulty in the House where the debate is expected to be ferocious over how to treat workers who entered the U.S. illegally.

[READ: Immigration Bill Moves Ahead With Bolstered Border Security Measure]

– Vice President Joe Biden has served notice that the Obama administration is still pushing for a major gun-control law after an administration proposal failed in the Senate earlier this year. Gun control is one of the nation's most emotional issues.

Still another incendiary issue is on the Supreme Court's calendar: same-sex marriage. A decision on that issue is pending, and it is sure to stir up emotions on all sides in still another manifestation of the culture wars that have riled U.S. politics and policymaking for many years.

More News:

  • Timing of Gay Marriage Ruling No Surprise to Court Watchers
  • George Zimmerman Murder Trial Starts With Expletives
  • All-Female Jury Will Try George Zimmerman in Murder Trial
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.