When I first arrived in America in the early 1990s, what I found most attractive about this country was the intensity of its debates. Whether the issue at stake was political, economic, cultural, or something else, it was obvious to me that people on either side had deeply held beliefs that they were willing to spend enormous amounts of energy and time to defend. But, I also realized that opponents were primarily focused on using the power of their arguments to validate their viewpoints.
In the six-year period immediately preceding my arrival, I lived in the Soviet Union. Ordinary citizens there had little say in how they were governed because of the top-down nature of the political system. And before then, I had spent the first two decades of my life in Ghana, an on-and-off democratic society in which average citizens were technically free to express their views, but, due to a combination of socio-economic hierarchy and unaccountable political leadership, those ordinary people, in reality, hardly had any influence in shaping the course of their lives. The contrast between those two prior experiences and what I was witnessing in America was quite stark.
Over time, I came to realize that more than anything, it was the constant exchange of robustly presented ideas that helped make America so dominant politically and economically—and by extension, militarily. Whereas many societies were often dragged down by bad policies because policymakers were rarely questioned and thus the effects of bad decisions lingered, that was not the case in America, where active civic participation in political discourse mitigated those risks.
It is such a tragedy that the America I came to admire so much in those initial years is quickly disappearing before my eyes. Honesty and objectivity are increasingly becoming absent in national dialogue, making debates often seem more like pointless shouting matches. Apparently, people on either side of any given issue have simply stopped believing—or respecting—anything their opponents say. That intransigence is killing America, socially and economically, and as a country, we desperately need inspiration from wherever we can find it to help arrest this slide into chaos. That is why the tone set by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in recent years is so important and must be broadly championed.
Following oral arguments in the landmark case National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius in 2012, Chief Justice Roberts reportedly voted initially with the majority to invalidate the Affordable Care Act (ACA), by striking down the law’s “individual mandate” requiring citizens to buy health insurance or pay a penalty. He is said to have concluded, in the course of writing the opinion, that the law was indeed a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power to impose taxes—the complete opposite of what he had thought previously. He subsequently joined the four liberal justices to uphold the ACA.
This positional switch by Chief Justice Roberts, and some of his more recent votes in favor of liberal causes, have deeply angered his fellow conservatives who have accused him of playing politics rather than strictly interpreting the law. Some have even said they would like to see him impeached. However, in the view of Georgetown University Law Center’s David Cole, Chief Justice Roberts’s change of heart in the ACA case “…may simply reflect a commitment to an open mind, and to being guided by the law, even when it took him to a place he did not expect.”
At a time when too many Americans have become so sure of their views that they are unwilling to entertain even the slightest notion that they could be wrong on anything, the humility demonstrated by Chief Justice Roberts is remarkably reassuring. Too often, many of us make judgments too quickly without taking the time to look at issues from different angles.
Millions of people would have lost healthcare coverage had the ACA been invalidated, as some expert analyses have shown. That clearly shows how a lack of thoughtfulness in official decision-making could have grave implications for large numbers of people. Those who vehemently oppose Obamacare (as the ACA is popularly known) would probably not have felt too sorry that others lost their coverage. For them the ideological consideration was perhaps more important. But they should keep in mind that they themselves might someday be caught on the wrong side of a poorly made decision.
In a recent op-ed, David Brooks quoted the following from former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s new book, Call Sign Chaos: “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” The vast majority of us will likely not be able to read that many books during our lifetimes. That is precisely why we should have the humility to admit that we cannot know everything. The world is simply too large and overly complex, and so we must necessarily depend on other people’s knowledge—a division of labor of sorts—to get through life.
It is somewhat comforting to know that American society has a remarkable capacity to self-correct when things go wrong. The nation has been able to recover well from highly traumatic events throughout its history. However, it will require a monumental and collective effort to heal the current deep divisions. We should all thank Chief Justice John Roberts for leading the way.