Seven days from now, the Supreme Court will hear the first oral arguments in what will likely be a landmark case to decide the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Last week, Adam Liptak penned a thoughtful piece in The New York Times that considered one of the three major aspects of the case. Liptak wrote on how the decision will shape Chief Justice Roberts’ legacy, but also mentioned the practical impact on healthcare in America and the impact on President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Each of those three aspects is worthy of a full-scale discussion, but I’d like to introduce another variable into the equation: us. We’ve seen a lot written about how this decision will change healthcare policy and how it will shape the November election. Now Liptak considers how it will develop the legacy of the Roberts court.
Those are all forward looking aspects, but what about a reflective take. What will this decision, and specifically our reaction to it, say about the country we’ve become over the last generation? Will the losers accept defeat and move on? Will the winners acknowledge they narrowly escaped their own brutal loss and take
their feet off the gas?
It’s hard to imagine everyone just accepting the outcome and deciding to play nice. Except that’s what normally happens in America.
In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College by a single vote. He might have won if three states hadn’t held scandalous elections that were ultimately certified for Rutherford Hayes by the Republican state governments in each state.
In a lot of countries, especially before the mechanized war of the 20th century, that would have meant war. In America, Samuel Tilden accepted the results and told his followers, who were ready to let the streets run red with blood, to do the same. The validity of the system, of our institutions, mattered more to Tilden than his own individual pride. That has always been the America way.
You might think that’s a tale from a time long since passed, but I’ll take you back 12 years to remind you it still lives.
Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but George W. Bush won the Electoral College after the Supreme Court stopped the endless recounting in Florida.
No blood was spilled in 2000 over the presidency even though people believed the election was stolen. We didn’t reject the system and decide it doesn’t work just because one side’s guy didn’t win a vote they thought they deserved.
In 1876 and in 2000, the American system was tested with a crisis without a blueprint for solving it. In both cases, a makeshift resolution was found as all sides acknowledged there wasn’t a totally fair way to do it. Again, in both cases, everyone accepted the solution and went home.
When the contest is that close, when the line between constitutional and unconstitutional is razor thin, we have always recognized that both paths are flawed and neither is virtuous. So we take one. The winners realized that they narrowly escaped defeat, so they hold back. The losers see nothing gets solved when we don’t recognize the finality of a decision and fight on forever about something that must be put to rest.
If the court upholds the law, those who hate it need to accept it. If the court overturns the law, its champions must do the same.
We need to follow behind Samuel Tilden and let final word stand. We can’t re-litigate every issue after every election. How we react to this decision will say a lot about the country we’ve become.
I want to believe that we’re still the country I write about above. A lot of evidence suggests we aren’t. We’re louder. Our attention spans are shorter. We seem to understand our history less and less. Yet Tilden took the better path just a decade after our most polarizing years. Maybe it depends on the person, but I think our political culture matters here. We need leaders to speak up, but we all have a part to play.
Upheld or overturned, let this be the final word.