Polarization in our civic discourse is not, by any means, a new phenomenon.
As long as there has been an American democracy, there have been impassioned, intense debates over the nation’s policies and direction. Today’s liberal and conservative labels are largely evolutionary tags, broad classifications that put our respective places in the centuries-old political spectrum within a contemporary context.
What is seemingly unique to the country’s more recent history is an overall disintegration of the public’s confidence in government specifically, and in traditional institutions more broadly. The approval rating of Congress sits in, or near, the single digits. Americans are increasingly cynical or simply apathetic about their leaders, and about the political process in general.
The U.S. Supreme Court had, for some time, managed to buck the trend and remain – in the eyes of most, at least – an institution truly above the fray, a force dedicated not to politics but to the rule of law.
That appears to be changing.
The court’s recent ruling in the much publicized Hobby Lobby case – which concerned the federal health care reform law’s mandate that certain employers provide health insurance coverage for employees, and that said coverage include contraception – has set much of the country abuzz, as did the decision in the legal challenges to the health care law’s employer mandate itself.
While the Hobby Lobby ruling is troubling enough, what is more concerning is the increasingly prevalent view among Americans that the court is nothing more than a political entity.
The majority in the Hobby Lobby decision has sought to assure critics that the ruling is narrowly focused, and does not open the door for such developments as employers asserting their right to dictate moral guidelines or discriminate against employees based on creed, color, gender or orientation.
Yet the core finding that closely-held companies have, in effect, the same rights as individuals – coupled with recent campaign finance rulings that have significantly opened up the ability of corporate and moneyed interests to influence the political process – points to a disturbing trend.
Whatever one’s personal beliefs, wherever one stands on the constitutionality of the health care law or the merits of the Hobby Lobby argument, the court’s recent decisions point to a growing willingness to ignore the traditional balance Americans have relied on in civic life.
The legal system is meant to function as an equalizer, a protector of the rights of all and a symbol of our responsibilities to one another. The nation’s highest court can never be all things to all people, of course. Nor should it try to be. But it should strive to be seen as more than a partisan tool in an era when true leadership and statesmanship is sorely needed.