A Cynical Society Update Part 3
When I wrote The Cynical Society, I was guided by two opposing propositions: that democracy was deeply ingrained in American everyday practice, and that cynicism was as well, presenting a major challenge. This dynamic between democracy and cynicism was clearly evident in the case of the recent Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of “Obamacare.” Chief Justice John Roberts demonstrated how individual action matters. He apparently acted in a principled fashion, defying cynical interpretation. In my judgment, he made a significant principled contribution to the health of the body politic, as well as to the health of many American bodies.
I had an inkling that this could happen in April:
“I worry that this [cynical] kind of attitude has even become the common currency of the Republican appointed justices of the Supreme Court, as they express Tea Party talking points about the health insurance mandates, with Justice Scalia pondering the forced consumption of broccoli and the like. But I have hope. It seems to me that it is quite possible that the Court, with Chief Justice Roberts’s leadership, will seek to make a solid decision based on the merits and not the politics of the case, in the shadows of the Citizens United decision and Bush v. Gore. The integrity of the court, its reputation as a judicial and not a political institution, may very well rule the day.
The way the Court handles this case is a good measure of the degree cynicism has penetrated our politics and culture. My guess is that the health care law, in whole but more likely in part, will be overturned in a political 5 – 4 decision, or if the Court wants to fight against cynical interpretation, attempting to reveal principled commitment, the decision will be 6 – 3 upholding the law, with Kennedy and Roberts, joining the liberals. If the law is overturned, from my partisan point of view, the chances for a decent life for millions will be challenged. But I also worry about what this says about the state of our political culture.”
I was close to predicting the outcome. I thought Roberts was key. I was pessimistic, but had some hope. My mistake was thinking that if he affirmed the constitutionality of the law that Justice Kennedy would follow Roberts.
The talking heads on cable and the print pundits of various political orientations are now mulling over the partisan significance of this. Particularly interesting is the split among conservatives. Elite conservative pundits, David Brooks, George Will, et al., see the principled conservative grounds of the Roberts decisions. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and company see betrayal. In the long run, the elite perceive a smart move in the grounding of Roberts’s opinions. Relying upon Congress’ taxing power and restricting the use of the commerce clause serves the conservative project. Right wing populists see treason to their cause. Generally speaking, Democrat and liberal judgments are parallel with those on the right. While most see victory and support for their cause, there is concern that the precedent has been set for future conservative judgments, building upon Roberts’s actions. Of course, there are also some on the anti-Obama left who read the decision as a diabolical indication that the two factions of the corporate elite are in lockstep, solidifying the final defeat of the single payer plan, promoting the interests of the insurance companies, limiting the power of the federal government to advance social justice.
I have my own partisan judgments. I think Obamacare is flawed but that it significantly moves in the direction of decency. Millions will have access to health care, use it and be healthier, as a result of this law. The principle of universal health care will become more broadly recognized as a right. And over time the flaws in the system will be addressed, resulting in a more efficient and effective health care system, with improved public health. The Supreme Court properly let stand one of the great accomplishments of President Obama.
But as a sociologist of political culture, beyond partisanship, I see another important advance: a small but significant blow against cynicism for the democratic side of the democracy–cynicism dynamic. Roberts appeared to do two things in his judgments by going along with the conservatives in his reading of the commerce clause and by going along with the more liberal justices in confirming the constitutionality of Obamacare. On the one hand, as in all proper court decisions, he confirmed his position with reference to the constitution and to previous judgments of the courts. This is certainly open to cynical interpretation. Whether it is original intent of the founders, or precedent, or in the reading of the facts of the case, the partisan will read the case in a partisan way often unintentionally. In fact, as the most basic sociology of knowledge teaches us, for example Mannheim’s, we all inevitably do this. But, on the other hand, by going against the partisan grain, Roberts confirmed the ideal that the law exists beyond political interests and calculation, beyond the immediate politics of the day.
Ironically, Roberts may have come to this position in a highly calculated, even cynical fashion. It is possible that he found the grounds to make a decision that both was true to his conservative commitments and enhances his court’s reputation. Did he actually cynically and hypocritically strike a blow against cynicism? Did he calculate that the reputation of his court beyond his conservative enclave is worth a little flexibility and act accordingly in his own interest? Is Roberts a hypocrite? If so, I say once again, two cheers for hypocrisy!