The Supreme Court decision to uphold the constitutionality of the principal components of the Affordable Care Act provided President Barack Obama a tremendous political victory. This much is obvious. After all, the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” had become the signature piece of legislation of the Obama era. However, the magnitude of the decision’s impact will be felt primarily not by the Obama administration itself but rather by its liberal supporters.
American liberals of my generation – “new liberals” – came of age during the post-9/11 Bush years. In contrast to generations before us, we crafted a political identity entirely in opposition to a very divisive and partisan presidency. This has been both good and bad for liberals. On the one hand, new liberals have not been ideologically constrained by any single policy platform. That is, as long as we opposed President Bush, it did not matter what our political stance actually was. We were all “liberals.” On the other hand, as liberals would soon discover, little consensus existed on positive policy-making. As a result, though liberals managed to forge an individual political identity—and a collective ideological identity in opposition—this same group of people had not created an exclusive party (i.e. Democratic) identity. Riding on that wave of resistance liberalism, we felt that we willed Democrats to electoral victory in 2006 and 2008. But, not identifying purely as Democrats, we remained cautious with our support.
Barack Obama, more than any figure, came to symbolize the rise to prominence of this new generation. To us, he wasn’t a Democrat, he was a liberal. When Obama came to power in 2009, we all expected him to advance all of the policies we wanted. However, in domestic as well as international politics, liberals quickly became aware of the difficulties of governance. The Obama administration, cognizant of these challenges, chose to moderate its policies to a significant degree. It dragged its feet on gay rights, immigration, the environment, Guantanamo and personal liberty, and, most critically, health care reform. Many new liberals, dismayed, felt—and still feel—that Obama should have pushed a more liberal agenda. For these supporters, eight years in opposition had been a long time to wait for ultimately uninspiring policies.
Social identity theory, often imported by political scientists from social psychology to explain political behavior, can help explain how the nature of Obama’s policies may influence new liberal support in the fall election. The logic of this theory argues that when individuals make political decisions, they adopt the social identity that affords them the greatest tangible or intangible benefits. In a good example of this logic, a recent paper in the American Political Science Review by Moses Shayo argues that the lack of support among poorer Americans for redistributive policies in the United States stems from the intangible benefits brought about by identifying as American (i.e. patriotism) rather than as part of the lower class. In most European countries, by contrast, individuals support redistributive policies because of the benefits from identifying more closely with their social class.
On the eve of Obama’s bid for re-election, new liberals are being told to follow the party line in opposition to the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. For many of us, however, this is proving rather difficult. Though it provides little in terms of tangible benefits, the liberal identity, forged in opposition, gives an ideological freedom that liberals cherish. The Democratic identity, by contrast, affords less ideological freedom but greater benefits in terms of actual accomplishments. Thus, the desirability of the Democrat party identity vis-à-vis the liberal ideological identity depends entirely on the value of the accomplishments of the party in power. This is why the Affordable Care Act matters immensely for Obama’s erstwhile supporters.
While they may still vote for Obama, new liberals may not provide him the critical grassroots support afforded in the 2008 election. In that election, because Obama was not burdened with a substantial policy record, new liberals did not have to choose between their political identities. In the past few years, the presidency of Barack Obama has inextricably tied him to the more moderate policies of the Democratic Party, not liberals per se, forcing new liberals to decide between two competing political identities in the fall election. For this reason, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Affordable Care Act, a fundamentally liberal policy, will prove critical to Obama’s efforts to retain the support of new liberals. Now, identifying as a Democrat has suddenly become much more attractive. As a result, new liberals will find it much easier to forego their ideological identification in favor of the party identification that support for Barack Obama in 2012 necessitates.