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Polarization related to Obamacare

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger. To learn more about these excerpts and see them all, go here.


During Obama’s administration, Republican leaders went from mostly supporting the concept of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare) to completely rejecting it. This is one of the stories often used as an example to show how our politcs has become unreasonably polarized, specifically on the Republican side. 

A 2020 article on was titled Conservatives backed the ideas behind Obamacare, so how did they come to hate it? It described the conundrum this way:

The Affordable Care Act is back before the U.S. Supreme Court in the latest of dozens of attacks against the law by conservatives fighting what they now perceive to be a government takeover of health care.

Yet, in an odd twist of history, it was Newt Gingrich, one of the most conservative speakers of the House, who laid out the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act as early as 1993. In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Gingrich argued for individuals’ being “required to have health insurance” as a matter of social responsibility.

Over time, he drew on ideas from the conservative Heritage Foundation and Milton Friedman to suggest “that means finding ways through tax credits and through vouchers so that every American can buy insurance, including, I think, a requirement that if you’re above a certain level of income, you have to either have insurance or post a bond.”

If Gingrich laid the blueprint for the ACA, how did the law become a punching bag for right-wing politicians and their appointees in the courts?

This is a section from Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized that describes more of that backstory:

The bill was designed to be a compromise proposal, and for a time, it looked like it was. In June 2009, Senator Chuck Grassley, then the top Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, told Fox News, “I believe that there is bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.” 

And then something went wrong. In December 2009, every single Senate Republican voted for a point of order calling the individual mandate “unconstitutional.” [...] There were no revolutions in constitutional law between January 2007 and December 2009. Nor did the individual mandate show itself to be fatally flawed in some particular way. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was being successfully implemented in Massachusetts as part of Romney’s reforms. 

But there had been a political change: Democrats had gone from opposing the mandate to supporting it. This shift—Democrats lining up behind the Republican-crafted mandate, and Republicans declaring it not just inappropriate policy but contrary to the wishes of the Founders—shocked Wyden. “I would characterize the Washington, D.C., relationship with the individual mandate as truly schizophrenic,” he said. 

It seems probable that if Mitt Romney or another conservative had become president and proposed this plan, Republicans would have supported it. 

If you’re conservative and think that most of the fault for our divides lies with Democrats, it’s worth thinking about this example and reading up on it. One factor here is just the nature of polarization: when two sides are polarized and one side chooses a stance on something, there can be a reflexive instinct to push back against that stance. And another part of this was likely simply cynical politics-as-usual: there was clearly a desire to deprive Democrats of a political win. 

No matter how you slice it, hopefully you can see that this kind of thing isn’t helpful, and these are the kinds of things that help liberals form their narratives that Republicans are extremely unreasonable and obstructionist. 

But of course, Democrats are capable of such things, too. As was briefly discussed in a previous chapter, the American system of government likely plays a big role in amplifying our polarization. The political thinker Juan Linz believed that our system leads to a conflict between the president and the legislature, which results in there being little incentive for either side to help the other side. The system is set up in such a way to make cooperation unlikely. 

And we also shouldn’t forget that group peer pressure really does often get us to change our minds. What we view as cynical and deceptive political manipulation is often genuine belief. As we’ve seen in the past few years, polarization can result in people’s minds changing quickly: it can get people to believe things they wouldn’t have believed just a short time before. When we view the world in terms of a good-versus-bad battle, our minds become more malleable and more capable of quick shifts. We should tend to take people at their word that they believe what they say they believe, because you simply never know where they stand, and because accusing people of deception will serve to amplify their anger and their commitment.

This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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