Friday, September 04, 2009

This Is How Democracy Works

Last night I took our cool new light rail link to Westlake Center for a health care reform rally. I found out about it via email a couple of days ago. I knew our congressman-for-life Jim McDermott was going to be keynoting, so I figured there would be a decent crowd, but otherwise national press coverage lead me to expect a milquetoast turn-out and some unruly opposition.

But this is Seattle. We’re a kick-ass, professionally run Democratic Party city. Political opposition more often comes from the left than the right. We were not going to let the loyal opposition drown us out. I’m terrible at guessing these things, but the turnout impressed me: at least 2000, and maybe as many as 10,000, but it didn’t really matter.

This is how democracy works. I was not there out of ideological passion, but I wasn’t there cynically either. I go to political rallies because it’s important to sometimes vote with your body. Earlier this summer, the opposition scared me by its ability to turn out bodies at health care town hall meetings, but we are clearly in the majority and the only way we can fail to achieve meaningful health care reform is if we don’t make this fact clear to our political leaders by showing up.

Every political rally to which I’ve ever been, starts out the same way. We kind of mill around while efficient young people representing various unions and other organizations hand out signs, stickers and the opportunity to sign a petition or two. There are a few hippish-types, but mostly it’s a bunch of the middle-aged, middle-class people we see at the grocery store. It’s just us and we’re always a little awkward and self-conscious.

A band called My Parade kicked off the event. Many of the older people felt they were too loud, but no one seemed upset that the very charming lead singer kept saying fuck. A few of us tried to rock out, but you know, we're out of practice. I’m sure my 12-year-old would have been embarrassed.

Nothing unexpected happened. We heard from a father with employer provided health insurance whose son has lymphoma, but has to wait 6 months to start treatment for purely bureaucratic reasons. The owner of Cupcake Royale told us how 25 cents of every cupcake she sells now goes to pay for her employees’ insurance, and that’s for coverage that’s not nearly as good as what she could afford last year. The pastor who emceed the event had us practice 3 simple chants. Dr. Jim McDermott was there to assure us that he is doing the job he was elected to do: represent us in congress.

As each speaker stepped up to the microphone, with each repetition of Hey Hey Ho, with each heartbreaking story, with each repetition of the simple facts, with each reference to the two dozen frightened people “across the street” with their signs that read socialism, or government is evil, with each mention of Teddy Kennedy, we became less awkward, more united. By the time the pastor asked, “Can you feel it? Can you feel that we’ve already won?” our confidence was soaring. This is how you’re supposed to feel at a kick-ass, professionally run political rally.

We will wind up with meaningful healthcare reform. We will wind up with a strong public option that will, over time, evolve into Medicare for all. We will pay for it through the premium payments from those under 65. These premiums will be much lower than private insurance can charge because there is no need to the generate profits, bizarrely high executive salaries, or gigantic marketing/lobbying budgets. Health care costs will be controlled by the bargaining power of an enormous pool of customers, which the public option will inevitably attract. It will kick the butt of the private sector by being more efficient, while producing better results, like what happens in the rest of the industrialized world. Private insurance will have to compete or die.

Ayn Rand (who I was into as a 9th grader until I realized that I didn’t want to live in a world in which selfishness was considered a virtue) will just have to roll over in her grave. Capitalism is cool, but not unregulated capitalism. And sometimes it’s just plain immoral. There is no morality in an industry that is motivated to deny healthcare and/or drive families into bankruptcy.

By now, I don’t think there are many regular citizens who haven’t made up their minds. The lines are drawn and the time for persuasion is over. All that’s left is to make this fact clear to the US Senate, which still seems to think there’s something left to debate. Our own Washington State senators are on our side. Patty Murray has been on the bandwagon from the start. Maria Cantwell has been slower to come to the table, but when I called her office earlier this week to ask about her position, the woman I spoke with assured me the senator is in favor of a “strong public option” and not the watered down “co-op” idea as was rumored.

But we must keep the pressure on. Yesterday, the White House re-floated the idea of giving the private insurers a couple years to meet some sort of benchmarks and only if they don’t, would it “trigger” a public option. This plan would mean the sacrifice of thousands more American lives and thousand more bankruptcies, while executives take home billion dollar paychecks. I simply do not trust them to do anything but make one more last grab for money. This is what’s called a trial balloon. If we don’t shoot it down, our political leaders will run with it. Please call your representatives and the White House and let them know you are against the “trigger” idea. This is how democracy works.

As the rally broke up, the pastor urged us to shake one another’s hands and say, “Thank you.” Loud, motivational baby-boom music like Don’t Stop and Higher Ground filled the void left by the speakers causing middle-aged, middle-class people to unselfconsciously dance in public.

Many of us took a tour of the tiny fenced-off area across the street where, at most, two dozen counter-protesters morosely mingled. They were not the kind of people you see at the grocery store. I thought it was an urban legend, but there really was an elderly man who proudly announced that he was on Medicare, but carried a sign that read, “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Private Insurance.” Shame on those who have lied to him. There were several guys in their late teens wearing baseball caps with images of guns or Confederate flags, and a couple more who were slightly older wearing suits that looked like they might have belonged to their fathers. Most of them covered their faces when someone turned a camera on them. They seemed frightened. They looked like they needed a hug and a whispered assurance that everything was going to be alright.

As I boarded the train to head home, I fell into conversation with an older Mexican-American man. We talked about healthcare reform and art. It turns out he is a Beacon Hill neighborhood activist with whom I have several friends in common. When he got off at Qwest Field to go to the Seahawks game, a young African-American man leaned across the aisle to tell me that he knows my companion and he is, “a great man.”

We talked about the rally and reminded each other that Barack Obama has proven to be a smart politician who plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers. I said, “I hope he takes a strong stance on the public option in his speech next week.”

He answered, “I think he will.”

I said, “He hasn’t so far, but he’s fond of the FDR line about if you want me to support change you’re going to have to . . .”

And he interrupted to finish my sentence, “. . . make me.”

This is a truly historic opportunity. When the G20 meets later this year, the US will be the only nation represented that does not provide universal healthcare. We will be dead last on the list in terms of health care outcomes, and first on the list in terms of cost. There will never be a better time. We’ve been trying to get this done since the other great Teddy – Roosevelt – first proposed it. The mid-term elections will likely see the opposition taking back some seats in congress and that may be enough to doom us if we don't get it done now.

The next couple months are important. We must make them do it.

This is how democracy works.

Bookmark and Share


Anonymous said...

I haven't fully formed my opinion on any of the proposals being floated about. Obviously change needs to happen, my wife works in a hospital and our coverage is not terrible, but it isn't great. My brother, who just had his first child, is in an even worse spot because his employer was recently purchased by a new owner and their health plan is horribly expensive in relation to his wages. I'd like to see something work, but without tort reform (yes, they will have to take on the big lawyers) and reining in big pharma I'm not as confident as you.

Teacher Tom said...

Even today, If Medicare was allowed to negotiate prices with the drug companies, prices would fall dramatically. They would fall even more if we had a larger public option. At least that's the way other countries do it.

As far as tort reform, my understanding is that malpractice insurance accounts for less than 2 percent of our overall healthcare spending. Not a small number, and worth addressing, but not nearly as pressing as the rest of it.

Rallies are there to motivate people and this one motivated me. I've been running up my phone bill calling congress critters. =)

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

You are so eloquent I can hardly stand it. I found myself saying, "Yes, yes!" at the computer as I read. I so hope there is an end in sight and I hope that Obama will do what he said he was going to do and keep the option on the table.

Now, I request that you write a post about the President's school speech brouhaha. I am so mad about this that I could spit and I know you will be much more refined and calm than I am about it. Do you take post requests? :)

Unknown said...

Tom, great post. I learned a lot from it, and I have a new appreciation for rallies like the one you described.

Another blogger who has a lot to say about healthcare initiatives (and public opinion on them) is John McIntyre at You Don't Say. (

Unknown said...

I should have said, "Another *eloquent* blogger ..." There are probably many thousands of bloggers who have a lot to say this topic.

Eternal Lizdom said...

Pumpkin's like me and is making topic requests!! And ditto hers, by the way. I'd love to hear from both of you on that one.

Love this post. I need a Facebook "like" button.

S3XinthePantry said...

I agree. I don't know if my letters or emails ever make it to my congressmen / senators - but I know they record phone calls and have automated menus to tally the phone calls they get.

I try to call 2x / day

Call often!!!

SabrinaT said...

As someone who has government run healthcare all I have to say is..

If we end up with government heath care for all, then be prepared to pay.

By the way even my "free" health care is not free.

Teacher Tom said...

First of all Sabrina, thanks for stopping by.

Secondly, no one is talking about government run health care. I don't want the government to run health care either. We are advocating for a government sponsored health insurance option. If you like your private health insurance, then you get to keep it. It's all good.

Thirdly, no one is talking about "free" health care. We fully expect to pay premiums to buy into government sponsored health insurance option, just as we would to a private company. The difference is that the government option will likely be much less expensive because there will be no obligation to pay profits to stockholders, no incentive to pay gigantic compensation to executives, and no need to spend billions on advertising/lobbying.

Fourthly, I do no believe that you read this entire post or I wouldn't have to repeat myself.

And finally, I do no believe you are on government run healthcare unless you are writing from England or you are in the military. Medicare and the healthcare provided by the government to its employees is health insurance, and you always have the option to buy private insurance elsewhere.

I hope this answers your questions.