Ziemer: A lesson from Adams and Jefferson

BY JEREMY ZIEMER | JULY 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Supreme Court ended its most recent session with a flurry of big decisions a few weeks ago.

Prop 8 was sent back to California, and the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. Many were dancing in the street and singing the praises of this merciful and gracious court. I saw one person on Facebook say, “Keep up the momentum.” 

But, with respect to the court, what positive momentum is there really? 

This court, now ground zero for political change in the United States, is divided on many serious issues. Obamacare was barely upheld last summer, and this is the same court that decided the Citizens United case that gave corporations further opportunities to control elections. 

What’s more, last month this court — thanks in part to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the usually conservative swing vote — struck down the heart of a hard-fought-for piece of civil-rights legislation that protected our electoral institutions.

That law, the Voting Rights Act, helped to protect disadvantaged voters by making it more difficult for states with a history of discrimination at the polls to change their election rules to disenfranchise minorities. Now it is gone. States are freer to discriminate.

The fallout was swift. Texas immediately got to work on reinstating a voter-ID law and may redistrict in way that was previously rejected by the federal government.

In even the supposedly nonpartisan judicial branch, partisanship seems to trump progress.

Yet, despite the partisan rancor over Supreme Court decisions and Congressional and presidential failings, we were able to take a little time over the Fourth of July holiday to recall what makes this nation great.

The Supreme Court, Congress, and the country may be increasingly divided over different policy questions, but our country’s dialogue on these questions may still allow us to move forward through the battles in a more civil way.

I was reminded last week — as I usually am this time of year — of the relationship between two of this country’s great founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their relationship, forged in the rebellion against England, was marked by fierce disagreement during their political careers. Yet in their retirement, they became close friends and left a trove of correspondence for future historians.

They both passed away on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Their relationship can teach us something about the continuity of politics and the importance of civil dialogue for a democracy. Adams and Jefferson had an enduring friendship after their retirements from politics. They wrote frequently to each other. They both loved their country but saw different ways of governing it.   

It is saddening that this Supreme Court has determined that some laws that protect our voting institutions are not necessary anymore.  But, if there is any hope, it comes through in the recognition that the possibility of a civil political dialogue and a civil political solution exists still. 

It is up to us to live up to the standard of Adams and Jefferson in dealing with our problems in the absence of personal animosity.

While the nation does not have the luxury of retiring from politics, we can all surely benefit from taking a step back to revisit our shared history and follow the lead of our Founding Fathers.

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