Skip to Content

A Reason to Celebrate?

Was Chief Justice John Roberts' role in the ACA decision worth of praise?
Monday, July 2, 2012

On Saturday, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman published a New York Times op-ed applauding Chief Justice John Roberts for risking his conservative political capital in order to make the right decision in the Affordable Care Act case.  Roberts, a conservative justice, shocked many on Thursday when he joined the Court’s four traditionally liberal justices in upholding the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care plan—individual mandate and all.

            Like many other political commentators, Friedman lauded Roberts’ courage; but he also noted a disturbing sentiment underlying the need the nation felt to praise the Chief Justice’s willingness to move to the left: “It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader ripped up the polls and not only acted out of political character but did so truly for the good of the country — as Chief Justice Roberts seemingly did. […] To put it another way, Roberts undertook an act of statesmanship for the national good by being willing to anger his own ‘constituency’ on a very big question.”

            Friedman is right to point out the negative connotations of the reaction, particularly among more liberal and progressive minded audiences, to the Supreme Court’s ruling. As a nation, we seem to have lost hope in the people we elect to political office. Though Roberts was appointed and not elected, he is still part of a governing system that was set up to benefit the greater citizenry, not just office holders and those with six figure salaries.

            Friedman refers to Roberts’ unexpected shift as “taking one for the country.” But that terminology assumes that Roberts was doing something above and beyond the call of duty, when in fact he was just acting in a manner that should be unremarkable. A public figure’s willingness to set aside petty partisan politics should not be cause for celebration. It should be commonplace. And these standards should exist for every person who seeks the benefits of being a citizen--of the United States or any nation that boasts similar democratic ideals—whether that person is in office or not.

Our system of representative, participatory democracy rests heavily on John Locke’s theory of the social contract: citizens give up some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of their natural rights that only a secure, functioning government can offer. In today’s political climate, however, both groups of stakeholders in this delicate compromise seem to have forgotten that the central tenet of our government is just that—compromise.

In a recent essay in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Harvard History Professor James T. Kloppenberg writes, “Ever since the 1970s, most American liberals have traded the language of duties for the language of rights. Unless we start talking about our responsibilities to one another though, the richest Americans will continue to exercise their right to increase the distance between themselves and everybody else.” Our government, as the Founders conceived it, cannot work if citizens are unwilling to sacrifice some personal comforts for the good of the greater society; nor can it work if the officials we elect to office are more concerned with protecting their seats in office than protecting citizens’ rights.

But the onus cannot be placed more heavily on one side or the other. Government officials should undoubtedly be expected to put their constituency’s interests over their individual political gain. However, the members of their constituencies must also be willing to accept losses when the time comes. Politicians and high office holders should not have to fear violent backlash from the public every time they’re forced to make a tough decision. If we as a nation want to encourage our office holders to engage in reasoned, deliberative and productive debate about the policies and laws that govern our country, we must give them the leeway to make decisions without fear of political retribution. Of course, this leeway cannot be comfortably provided in a political climate of distrust and hesitancy. Perhaps the first step, before we encourage our politicians to play nice with each other, is to encourage ourselves to live up to the standards we want to hold our politicians to.