BY MATTHEW ZABKA
Published June 26, 2012
On Thursday, the Supreme Court will announce its ruling on whether portions of the Affordable Care Act — also known as “Obamacare” — are constitutional. In March, the court heard oral arguments for three days that challenged and defended various parts of the law. But people are mostly interested in whether the court will strike down the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to either carry insurance or pay a penalty.
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Three days of hearings is an extremely rare phenomenon in modern Supreme Court cases, but the court deemed it necessary to spend a lot of time hearing “Obamacare” arguments because intelligent people, who study these types of arguments for a living, come down on both sides of the mandate’s constitutionality. The questions the law raises have no obvious answers, and a reasonable person should be able to respect the court’s decision on this difficult issue, even if he or she disagrees with it. This, unfortunately, will not happen, and it is a disturbing example of America’s polarization.
On one hand, the court may strike down the mandate. If the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which regulates interstate commerce, says that Congress can force Americans to buy health care, Congress also could require Americans to buy products from, say, a president’s campaign donor, since purchasing any product that crosses state lines affects interstate commerce. To some people, the Commerce Clause doesn’t seem to be intended to allow such laws.
On the other hand, previously decided cases like Wickard v. Filburn may provide precedent for the court to uphold the mandate. In Wickard v. Filburn, the court ruled that Roscoe Wickard was not allowed to grow more wheat on his own land than the government allowed, even if the wheat was intended for his own consumption, because growing extra wheat would cause him to buy less. The court decided that this affected interstate commerce, so it’s possible that the court may extend this ruling because Americans’ aggregate decisions on whether to buy health insurance affects its price.
The arguments for and against the individual mandate are complex, and both sides have their merits. Yet the hashtag #Obamacare on Twitter has thousands of tweets declaring that the mandate is obviously constitutional or unconstitutional, and if another user has the opposite opinion, he or she is an idiot. Why the court wasted three days on this case is anyone’s guess — the issue can apparently be resolved in fewer than 140 characters.
Politics has never been as polarized in my lifetime as it is now, and I doubt our republic has thrived for so many years by having its citizens call each other idiots for having differing opinions about complex questions. I believe this polarization exists because now people only get their information from extremely biased sources.
When I was a college freshman, there was no Facebook or Twitter. People’s main sources of information were the morning paper and nightly news. People were given all the information they needed to form opinions and seemed to be more respectful of others’ opinions. Since I’ve been in college and graduate school, the nightly news has morphed into shows such as Rachel Maddow’s and Bill O’Reilly’s, which give their viewers all the bias they need to form the exact same opinion as the show’s host. Meanwhile, most newspapers essentially have become news pamphlets, and everybody seems to think everybody else is stupid.
Social media and cable news aren’t going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean you have to become part of the troubling trend produced by these mediums. When the court makes its decision this week, social media and cable news will erupt with talk about the stupidity of the court’s decision. Ignore their banter, and maybe, on the way to work or school, pick up a newspaper.
Matthew Zabka can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewZabka.