David Segal: Guest opinion
November 6, 2012
In June 2011, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor taped an episode of “The Aaron Harber Show” at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen. Their conversation ranged from the history and role of the high court to the justices’ legal philosophies to their interest in cultivating democracy in America. To that final point, Breyer shared a message that feels even more relevant in the election of 2012.
Breyer told the story of his experience of Bush v. Gore in 2000. The case (as if anyone could forget!) focused on the Florida recount and resulted ultimately in the election of George W. Bush as president. Breyer dissented from the majority, arguing that the court should not have heard the case because elections are a state issue. Despite his dissent, he was proud and pleased that “the people followed the rule of law and no riots or deaths ensued after the decision.” This, he suggested, is a rather hopeful sign that democracy is alive and well in this country.
It’s a message for which Breyer has become something of an unofficial spokesman, and it’s a message we desperately need to hear. This is not an easy lesson to internalize with today’s election – a divisive, aggressively contested election at that (what election isn’t?). Except for those rare and fascinating undecided voters, we tend to be firmly entrenched in our candidate’s camp, eager to rally to the cause and hopeful for victory. In other words, we want our guy to win.
This intense partisan loyalty is, after all, understandable. We align ourselves with a candidate presumably because we believe in what he stands for. These principles matter enough to us to motivate us to fight for them and for the candidates who represent them.
But that intense devotion is precisely why we need to hear Breyer’s point: Beyond our passion for partisan victory, there is a transcendent commitment that all Americans should hold sacred. Beyond the name we check today, our ultimate candidate – the guy we want to win – is Uncle Sam. Our higher loyalty is to the United States of America. Democracy demands no less.
Political parties can be useful tools for advancing legislative agendas. But they are means to an end, and we often need to be reminded not to confuse them for ends in themselves.
It is easy to be cynical and take for granted the freedoms that manifest in our right to vote and the stability of our system, but a glance across the ocean at the political turmoil in much of the world might offer some valuable perspective.
In that vein, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Thanksgiving comes only two weeks after Election Day. We’ll have some time to celebrate a partisan victory or mourn a loss. But then we’ll gather with family and friends to celebrate the holiday in a spirit of gratitude and humility. We will give thanks for the bounty we have, the blessings we enjoy and the relationships in our lives. If we are lucky enough to get in touch with our best selves, we also will give thanks that we live in a country where we, the people, choose our leaders through free elections, where the transfer of power between opposing parties happens peacefully and where we needn’t hide our political beliefs for fear of persecution or oppression.
So go vote today, if you haven’t already voted early, and do so proudly and enthusiastically. Whatever the outcome, let’s try to remember that the challenges we face as a nation cannot be overcome by one politician alone or one party alone. We must meet them as a nation, strengthened by our political diversity, enriched by our differences.
(For help in cultivating that spirit of gratitude, Sunday offers two opportunities: at 11 a.m. at City Hall, Veterans Day will be commemorated through music and prayer. There are few more profound ways to gain perspective on how much we take for granted than by stopping to show our gratitude to our veterans. And then at 5 p.m., the Christian and Jewish congregations of the Aspen Chapel host their annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, followed by a potluck dinner – Thanksgiving style, of course.)