Barack Obama

Obama's Culture Wars

What happened to Obama's promise to make America less divisive?

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One of the sad legacies of President Obama, who rose to prominence on the basis of a 2004 speech announcing, "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," is that American political polarization has spread to the newly partisan battleground known as basketweaving.

That's one sad takeaway from the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The Obama administration tried to force the Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores owned by a Christian family, to obey Affordable Care Act regulations requiring employee health insurance to pay for birth control. The Hobby Lobby said it had a religious objection, and the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority, ruled in its favor.

Cue the Twitter reaction from the left: "There are other places to buy yarn, I assure you."

Polarization in the press has long been a concern among foundation types who fret about the right getting its news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh while the left listens to NPR and Jon Stewart. In investing, conservatives are stocking up on gold coins while the left saves in "sustainable and responsible" funds that avoid oil companies. Speaking of oil, the left drives Toyota Priuses—so much so that a Barack Obama bumper sticker on one is practically redundant—while the right drives pickup trucks with gun racks.

Meanwhile, President Obama, in his role as brand-endorser in chief, stops in at Costco or Starbucks or the Gap or Chipotle to signal his support of their labor policies, or their executives' campaign contributions, or whatever. Congressional Republicans cater their lunches from Chick-fil-A to back that company's stance in favor of "traditional marriage." And the Democrat-dominated New York City Council adopts the stance that not only should Walmart not open in New York City, but that New York-based institutions should refuse charitable grants from Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation.

I'm all for politics and for strongly held beliefs, but whatever happened to deciding what chicken sandwich to eat for lunch or where to shop for yarn based on old-fashioned criteria such as price, selection, taste, and quality, rather than where the company stands in the culture war?

I cringe when I see politics seeping into basic consumer decisionmaking for the same reason I appreciated Obama's 2004 DNC keynote speech. It seems a sign of bitter disunity, a kind of "house divided against itself," in Lincoln's phrase echoing the Christian Bible.

The flip side of bitter disunity, though, is individual choice and diversity. Allowing individual consumers to choose what companies they want to patronize may have its drawbacks in terms of eroding our common, shared American culture, but as a way of handling disagreements, it's far better than the alternative of mandated uniformity from Washington. I'd much rather have an America where some families choose to shop at Walmart and others choose to shop at Costco than an America where Congress, or President Obama, dictates that Costco and Walmart pay exactly the same wages and offer exactly the same health insurance benefits to employees.

With choice, as opposed to national legislation, firms can experiment with what works best for them, and customers can benefit from the variety, options, and competition. One reason Obamacare is such a bad law is that it deprives employers of the chance to design their own health care benefits, instead imposing uniform requirements of the sort that the Hobby Lobby's owners successfully resisted. The administration has granted waivers, some to politically favored groups such as labor unions, but those are exceptions. Another reason ObamaCare is such a bad law is that it preserves the tax incentives for people to have their health insurance provided by employers rather than buying it themselves, leaving employees' personal health decisions subject to the decisions of employers whose religious beliefs may differ from their own.

Deep cultural or religious divides turn out to be an area where markets and choice can handle disputes better than government regulations can. It's something to think about the next time you go shopping for yarn or a chicken sandwich.