The Obamacare repeal crusade and defining oneself by the other

At the end of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab becomes so fanatically obsessed with killing the giant white whale that he ultimately throws caution to the wind and is dragged away with his obsession.

The Ahab-like pursuit in which the Republican Party has sought to destroy the Affordable Care Act - and in doing so, undermining the legacy of former President Barack Obama - has turned into caricature. Anyone watching what might have been one of the most incompetent, chaotic, and stomach-turning legislative processes should understand how the Republicans arrived at this moment: out of options, yet not ready to concede.

To concede that the ACA, also known as Obamacare, is working and relatively popular (when compared to Republicans’ alternatives) would be tantamount to erasing the party’s very identity. After all, the modern Republican Party has based its very existence over the last seven years on a unified - and zealous - desire to destroy Obamacare.

While one shouldn’t overlook some of the subtle reasons for the GOP’s desire to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, including the fact that it bears the name of America’s first black president, the party - ranging from its leaders, to rank-and-file members, and grassroots activists - has made its virulent opposition to the law into dogma. No GOP candidate can claim to run for office unless the requisite pledge to “repeal” Obamacare is made.

Destroying Obamacare - like killing Moby Dick - has become the central part of validating the party’s existence, even if pluralities and majorities of Americans have long since moved on. But acknowledging that they can’t destroy Obamacare (without collapsing the U.S. healthcare system in the process) would invalidate a large part of why and how the Republicans came to power.

The GOP’s dilemma isn’t different from how other groups have come to define themselves as the binary opposites of the other, and over time, how reflexive and orthodox opposition becomes theology. From this standpoint, the creation of identities and imagined communities rests upon defining the Other. If the Other is not defined, then group-making is impossible.

The GOP defined Obama - and his policies - as an irreconcilable Other, and their dogmatism in eradicating his legacy united the party in the years they were out of the White House. Even with the recent health care failure, many Republicans continue to believe their identity is not complete without fulfilling their vow to destroy Obamacare.

This is why, even if the attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act are on ice for now, the GOP’s mission is far from over. Their very existence - like Ahab’s in Moby Dick - depends upon on it.

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