Opinion | How to counter today’s tribalism and build ‘a more perfect union’

Bernice B. Donald is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Don R. Willett is a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Federal judges rarely write newspaper articles. Even rarer: a together op-ed by two assumed enemies. What could these two judges agree on in this era of toxic tribalism?

After all, one is an African American woman appointed by Obama and the other is a white male appointed by Trump.

For starters, we’re friends. More than that, we respect one another as sibling judges bound by a common oath; our robes are black, not red or blue. In this crude and unforgiving age, the belief that our similarities outweigh our differences might be derided as pollyanish. So be it.

Saturday is Constitution Day. But let’s start with the Declaration of Independence, which will celebrate its half-ficentennial – 250 years – in 2026.

The declaration is ambitious and introduces a uniquely American theory: that government exists to secure people’s inherent, individual, inalienable rights. The Constitution is architectural and establishes a structure to achieve these ideals. But the union was far from perfect when it was formed: a third of the signers of the declaration were slave owners.

Yet Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right in 1963 when he called the nation’s founding documents “a promissory note to which every American should become the heir.” While he recognized that America was “defaulting” in this regard by not recognizing equality for African Americans, he also knew that these founding documents enabled a government that could correct itself over time. He echoed Frederick Douglass, who declared a century earlier that the promises of the Declaration of Liberty and Equality are eternal even if America breaks those promises.

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King implored Americans not to tear down the nation’s heritage, but to live up to it. This may seem difficult these days, when an ingrained tribalism threatens to swamp the common bond of citizens with the nation. But that makes it all the more important to try. On this Constitution Day, here are five suggestions to help build a “more perfect union.”

log out In today’s hot-take culture fueled by social media, the art of pleasantly disagreeing seems odd. The snarls, jeers, and snipers come into their own in an arena we know well: modern law schools. Online rudeness seems to fuel real-life rudeness. Earlier this year, a panel at Yale Law School brought together lawyers from left and right to emphasize the importance of free speech. mayhem ensued. This happens when the views of the “other side” are no longer debatable but disreputable. Better to dismiss toxic voices online – and encourage civility in the physical world.

To learn. We the People’s civic IQ isn’t exactly Mensa level. According to the 2022 Annenberg Civics Survey, most American adults cannot name all three branches of government, and 25 percent cannot name a single one. The judiciary is probably the least understood – especially by those who portray the judiciary as hijacked by cowardly politics. Facts are enemy witnesses. The Supreme Court’s opposition rate is no higher today than it was in 1945, when eight out of nine justices were appointed by the same President. Also, the fixation on the Supreme Court is distorting: Ninety-nine percent of federal cases go no further than regional circuit courts. This is where we serve, and we can testify that, as research has shown, approximately 98 percent of decisions are made by district courts unanimously — hardly a sign of ideologically driven judgements.

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Grab it. True friendships across the aisle are rare these days. According to an NBC News-Generation Lab poll last month, about half of sophomores say they wouldn’t date, or even vote as a roommate, anyone who didn’t vote like they did in the 2020 presidential election. Americans too often curl up in like-minded echo chambers, marinate in confirmation bias, rarely meet, let alone befriend, someone who sees the world differently. Cross-party friendships are no easy feat. But if Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg could do it, so can we — and so can you.

withdraw. Many Americans look at everything through a political prism. Entire identities are distilled into partisan labels. The places where attachments have been found – such as civil and religious institutions – have thinned out and politics have fallen into a vacuum. Political disputes are nothing new, but things have radically aggravated. Unfortunately some judges contribute on harmfulness, the writing of caustic opinions that fuel a perception of judges as ideological combatants rather than impartial arbiters. But the toxicity is culture-wide. Fact: There is more to life than politics.

Plug in. President Jimmy Carter put it eloquently in his 1981 farewell address when he said he would “assume the only title in our democracy superior to that of President, that of citizen.” American citizenship is not a spectator sport. Be engaged citizens, not weakened (or angry) bystanders. Self-government is not a sure-fire success. This noisy republic belongs to all of us, and the secret ingredient is a citizenship with its sleeves rolled up.

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This Constitution Day, if any identity should define us as Americans, it should be one that transcends ideological and demographic differences: our shared identity as heirs to a rich civic heritage.

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