Yes, Medicare For All Is Definitely A Litmus Test For Democrats

09/26/2017 06:24 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2017
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

There’s been an ongoing discussion surrounding Bernie Sanders’ highly-anticipated, newly unveiled “Medicare for All” bill (S. 1804); specifically, whether or not it will become a litmus test for Democrats in future elections. Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti reports that — in Washington, D.C. — Senate Democrats have “wondered” if their unwillingness to cosponsor Bernie’s bill (or alternatively, John Conyers’ companion bill in the House, H.R. 676) will catalyze primary challenges against them. In a recent segment on MSNBC’s AM Joy, a panel vocalized the same concerns about progressives making Medicare for All/single-payer a litmus test for Democrats. In the aforementioned clip Joy Ann Reid asked panelists if Berniecrats would “walk away” from Democrats that aren’t on board with single-payer. Jonathan Capehart, a fellow panelist in the said clip, called on Sanders to unequivocally “condemn the people who attack” Democrats that don’t get on board with his bill.

Presumably, I would qualify as one of the “Berniecrats” being discussed in D.C. circles, and I want to take a moment to clear up some of their confusion about whether or not Medicare for All is a litmus test. Medicare for All is absolutely a litmus test! Democrats that refuse to cosponsor Sanders’ or Conyers’ bill in the Senate or House, respectively, will not only lose support (read: votes) from progressives, but we will actively find primary opponents to challenge and defeat them. If incumbent Democrats won’t support Medicare for All, progressives will find somebody else that will. In fact, we’re already doing that. Our intentions have been quite clear from the beginning.

On my podcast, The Humanist Report, I discussed a town hall that took place in Nevada’s 4th congressional district with newly-elected Rep. Ruben Kihuen. An activist named Amy Vilela showed up to ask Kihuen — a self-proclaimed “progressive” and member of the congressional progressive caucus — why he refuses to cosponsor Conyers’ Medicare for All bill. More importantly, Vilela’s question was accompanied with her daughter’s poignant story. Vilela explained to Kihuen that her daughter, Shalynne, died at the young age of 22-years-old because she was denied basic medical screenings that would have undoubtedly saved her life. Shalynne couldn’t prove that she had medical insurance and was instead told to go get insurance and find a doctor. But Shalynne’s story didn’t resonate with Kihuen, apparently. Not only did he refuse to commit to cosponsoring Conyers’ Medicare for All bill at that town hall, but even got arguably defensive, as constituents kept pushing the issue further. After reporting on the events that took place at this town hall, and how a so-called progressive couldn’t provide his constituents with one good reason why he wouldn’t support Medicare for All, my viewers submitted hundreds — if not thousands — of voicemails to both of Kihuen’s offices, demanding that he cosponsor Conyers’ bill. He still wasn’t moved.

As a direct result of Kihuen’s unwillingness to do what he was elected to do (i.e. represent his constituents), he is now facing a primary challenger. His opponent is the mother he didn’t take seriously during that town hall: Amy Vilela. She announced her candidacy on July 19 on The Humanist Report, and she intends to cosponsor H.R. 676 herself since her representative refused to do it. But Amy isn’t the only progressive challenging an incumbent Democrat that refuses to support single-payer.

After months of putting pressure on Rep. Denny Heck in Washington state’s 10th congressional district, he’s now being challenged by a progressive named Tamborine Borrelli, namely because Heck refuses to cosponsor John Conyers’ bill. But Vilela and Borrelli are just two of many progressive candidates running in 2018 and boldly campaigning with Medicare for All as one of the signature planks to their platforms. Other 2018 congressional candidates enthusiastically supporting single-payer include Stephen Jaffe, Sarah Smith, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Letitia Plummer, Anthony Clark, Adrienne Bell, Michael Hepburn, Chardo Richardson, Paul Perry, John Heenan, Dotty Nygard and more.

So by now, it should be painfully obvious that Medicare for All is, in fact, a litmus test. But if you ask House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or even Bernie himself, they’ll assure worried Democrats that they don’t have to be afraid of progressive challengers if they refuse to cosponsor Sanders’ bill in the Senate or Conyers’ bill in the House. Again, I want to reiterate that their fears are wholly justified—they should absolutely be worried—and both Pelosi and Sanders are wrong; and also, they’re inadvertently instilling Democrats with a false sense of security. Simply saying you’re “defending the Affordable Care Act” or want to move forward with a “public option before single-payer” are answers that will not suffice in today’s populist political climate, nor will it allow Democrats to evade backlash they’ll inevitably receive if they don’t get on board with Medicare for All.

Now, conventional wisdom tells us that Democrats residing in relatively conservative districts—or red and purple states—shouldn’t get on board with an idea that presumably won’t resonate with more conservative voters. This line of thinking, however, is outdated. First and foremost, Democrats have lacked the courage to embrace bold progressive policies in conservative states and districts and have played it safe for years; and yet, they still managed to get wiped out at all levels of government. Playing it safe obviously hasn’t been a successful strategy for them.

Second of all, we’re witnessing a rapid cultural shift akin to the wave of social acceptance we saw in the early 2010s towards marriage equality. The “big government” and “socialist” boogeyman arguments just don’t work any longer. A majority of Americans now support single-payer. A recent Harvard-Harris poll found that 52% of Americans back Medicare for All. Some polls even find that single-payer is supported by a plurality of Republicans; that is, more support it than oppose it. Even in polls indicating single-payer doesn’t yet have a majority of support, attitudes towards Medicare for All are still becoming increasingly positive. Additionally, there’s overwhelming support for the general idea that “government is responsible” for ensuring citizens have healthcare. So even in polls that are less kind to single-payer as a policy, there’s still a great deal of symbolic support for it—which is a strong indicator that Bernie is changing hearts and minds. In fact, Vox’s Dylan Matthews reports that even the alt-right “loves” single-payer, surprisingly.

But even if momentum wasn’t shifting towards single-payer among the general public, it would still be a winning strategy for Democrats. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually strategically sound. As Democrats have continued to shift to the right—in an effort to court moderates turned off by the Republican Party’s increasingly extremist right-wing views—they’ve disenfranchised their core base that still exists on the left. America’s Overton window is almost exclusively right-wing, and the Democratic Party has abandoned their populist ideas in an effort to cater to what they think are more moderate voters. This is a strategy that has led to the Democratic Party being completely annihilated at all levels of government. Moderates don’t like Democrats. When given the choice between a Republican candidate and Republican-lite candidate—they’ll almost always opt for the real deal. The Democratic Party’s constituents have always been working class voters, and those individuals aren’t going to take time off of work and spend hours in line at the voting booth supporting a candidate whose neoliberal policies will only harm them slightly less than the Republican. They’ll just stay home.

If Democrats actually move back to the left and embrace a bold, progressive message, the voters they’ve abandoned just might come back to them and vote for the first time in a while. So, Democrats should be thanking progressives for making Medicare for All a litmus test because, if anything, it will help their electoral chances. Running away from progressive ideas is a losing strategy in conservative regions of the country because you need your base more than ever in these particular areas. Republicans don’t court moderate voters on the left because they know their core base on the far right won’t go for that; and in a time where Americans are incredibly polarized, it’s time Democrats acknowledge the reality of our current political landscape and opt for a strategy that will actually help them defeat Republicans. They must reinvigorate their demoralized base.

But everything I’m saying would be considered blasphemous to the Democratic Party’s overpaid strategists. Why listen to ordinary Americans when elites in D.C. and the media reinforce all of their bad decisions? More importantly, why alienate potential donors from the health insurance industry when Democrats know they only have to wait for Americans to grow so tired with Republicans and Trump that they’ll inevitably come running back to them even if they change nothing? That’s what the Party is banking on, which is why progressives have made Medicare for All a litmus test. We know Democrats won’t back Sanders’ or Conyers’ bills unless we force them to—and that’s exactly what we intend to do.

Progressives (and left-leaning Democrats) would be dimwitted to not capitalize on the momentum and grassroots enthusiasm we currently see for single-payer. But besides Medicare for All being a practical and advantageous strategy for Democrats, it’s a litmus test because it’s the right thing to do. If Democrats don’t support a policy that would literally save countless lives, then what good are they? Really, Medicare for All is the easiest litmus test for Democrats to pass. If you don’t care about helping people, and only care about appeasing your donors, why did you run for Congress in the first place? If Shalynne’s story doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, then you’ve become too detached with the struggle of ordinary citizens. This is a moral issue.

Medicare for All is definitely a litmus test. Stomping your feet, bemoaning so-called “purity tests” and insisting progressives are being unreasonable won’t change the fact that Medicare for All is a litmus test. If Democrats truly care about defeating the tyrannical Republican Party, they’ll galvanize their base once again by rallying around an issue that will excite people: single-payer.

If Democrats aren’t with us on this issue, they’re against us.

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