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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

It's the 'Public' Not the 'Option' in 'Public Option' That Counts

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I am a practical political sort of progressive, and understand why saving the health bill may require jettisoning public option. Indeed, as stalwarts like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Schumer of New York have acknowledged, the tradeoff between a weak public option and robust new provisions that extend Medicare (on a fee basis) to Americans between 55 and 64 may be a trade-off that actually does more to cover the currently uninsured than a public option would -- and offers tacit ongoing competition to the private insurance companies to boot (they have to compete with an expanded Medicare program).

What troubles me, however, is that the "public option" provision to be traded off was not just one version of a technical fix that Medicare expansion will replace, but a crucial rhetorical feature of the legislation, perhaps the only place in the bill where the rights and interests of the 'public' are publicly recognized.

And since the battle of the Republican Right -- sorry, that's redundant, of the Republican Party -- against health care, climate change legislation and financial regulation all turn on a pernicious assault on the very idea of public goods and the public interest, health care is effectively being saved by deep-sixing the principle that justifies it and a host of other vital democratic programs.

We win the health care bill but lose the war of words -- and words are crucial. By making it a pejorative, the Republicans turns Public into a synonym for "bureaucratic," for liberty-corroding statist, and for "socialist" -- finally, for "un-American." Ironically, the "Republic" (our things of the public or "res publica") that is the etymological root of the Republican Party is now, in their churlish lexicon, a reference to treason.

We are about to rescue a decent health care bill and win a crucial battle by ceding the rhetorical ground and losing the war of words that will decide the outcome of the long term struggle against democratic public life. This may be a necessary compromise, but it's also an abject surrender whose price will be paid again and again down the line.