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Week in politics: The Supreme Court's decisions reflect a generational clash


Twice this week, major Supreme Court rulings brought President Joe Biden in front of cameras. First, after the ban on affirmative action in college admissions. And then yesterday...


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let me begin by saying, I know there are millions of Americans, millions of Americans in this country who feel disappointed and discouraged or even a little bit angry about the court's decision today on student debt. And I must admit, I do, too.

PARKS: To discuss the political implications of these decisions, NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us now. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Miles.

PARKS: Yeah, thanks for being here. So this is becoming a little bit of a trend, the Biden administration versus the Supreme Court. How much of a blow were these decisions to the Biden administration?

ELVING: They are surely a blow to the Biden administration on several fronts, but these blows will be felt far beyond the Biden administration. For example, there's a direct challenge here to Biden on student debt relief, but the real impact will be on students with debt. The decisions also run counter to administration policy on the rights of same-sex couples. But the real impact is on those couples who will no longer have the full rights of a protected class, the rights they thought they had been granted by earlier Supreme Court decisions. And on affirmative action, the real targets here are the policies of public and private college campuses.

And, Miles, the thing people forget about affirmative action is that it is not just about the person who's applying and trying to get into a school. It's about the schools themselves and the nature of the education that's being offered and the values the schools represent. And for several decades now, racial diversity has been built into those values by affirmative action. And what the court is saying here is that the way that was done, at least at Harvard and University of North Carolina and other schools, itself constitutes racial discrimination.

PARKS: You kind of touched on this a second there, Ron - a second ago there, Ron. But these issues are very polarized, many of the issues that the court ruled on this term. What does all of this say about America more broadly in this moment?

ELVING: We are in the midst of a broad culture clash, and it is largely a generational clash. At the risk of oversimplifying, this is between the America of older, primarily white Americans, many of them attached to formal religious traditions, and younger, much more diverse Americans, young people, people who perhaps have less of a commitment to traditional formal religious traditions. The court here is speaking for one side of that clash and for the side that's resistant to the trends that they see in American life. But yesterday we saw former President Trump and his chief rival for the next Republican presidential nomination, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida. They were both at a rally in Philadelphia, competing for the support of more traditional Americans. Moms for Liberty was a group they were talking to. Trump said he would root out diversity programs in the government. He would use the Justice Department to get rid of them. And Florida Governor DeSantis has made such programs the essential target of his campaign and his governing in Florida. So we see this generational difference on other issues, as well, such as the use of religion to justify refusing service to a same-sex couple who wanted a website for their wedding. This is a generational war, even on the issue of debt cancellation because there's resentment not just between generations but also between those who do and don't get to go to college.

PARKS: We saw a real galvanizing effect from voters after the Dobbs decision last year, Ron. Do you think things like affirmative action, student debt relief - are these things that will have a similar effect with voters?

ELVING: Not to the same degree. Dobbs still looks like the big motivator. Polls tell us that maybe 60% or more of Americans are basically OK with legal abortion within some limits. The numbers just aren't that big in support of affirmative action and not that big in terms of same-sex marriage rights or the separation of church and state. Those issues are a little bit more difficult to sort out. They are real, but they just don't have the same degree of salience as abortion, and they don't affect nearly as many people.

PARKS: Ron, can you talk a little bit more about how Republicans this week have been responding to the Supreme Court decisions, the Republicans that make up the field for 2024?

ELVING: The 2024 field is in competition with Trump, but they're not really in opposition to Trump. So like the former president, they were all in with praise for these court rulings. There's a core conviction among them here that they're just doing the right thing, and the court is upholding them because the court is doing the right thing.

PARKS: NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Miles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.