Democrats Boosting Right-Wing Populism
In his triumphant speech on election night, the next senator from Massachusetts should have thanked top Democrats in Washington for all they did to make his victory possible.
For a year now, leading Democrats have steadily embraced more corporate formulas for "healthcare reform." In the name of political realism, they have demobilized and demoralized the Democratic base. In the process, they've fueled right-wing populism.
The Democratic leadership on healthcare and so much else -- including bank bailouts, financial services, foreclosures and foreign policy -- has been so corporate that Republicans have found it easy to play populist.
Fixated on passage of something that could be called "healthcare reform," the Democratic establishment has propagated the myth that enacting such a law is vital to the political viability of the Obama presidency.
With few exceptions, the most progressive members of Congress have twisted themselves into knots to move with the choreography from the White House. The worse the healthcare bill got, the more they strained to lavish incongruous praise on it.
Defenders of the current healthcare legislation don't like to acknowledge how thoroughly corporate it is. In the wake of the Senate election in Massachusetts, we're sure to see a new wave of mass emails from progressive groups urging a renewed fight for a public option. But the Obama administration threw a public option under the Pennsylvania Avenue bus well before the GOP victory in Massachusetts finalized its burial.
Key provisions -- such as a mandate requiring individuals to buy private health insurance without a public option -- are giveaways to mega-corporations on a scale so vast that it boggles the mind.
Such a federal healthcare law -- massively combining an intrusive government mandate with corporate power -- would be a godsend to right-wing populism for decades.
Government power should be used for the common good, not for humongous profiteering. But on the near horizon is a law that would further bloat already-bloated corporate coffers while undermining basic precepts of a social compact.
The mandate places legal, financial and ideological burdens on the individual for healthcare. In the process, at best, many low-income people would only have access to inferior coverage with plenty of holes.
Rather than affirm the principle of healthcare as a human right, the current scenarios for healthcare reform lay out limited federal subsidies for private insurance premiums -- in effect, an entitlement program in political terms, sure to be vulnerable to the kind of safety-net shredding that has done so much harm in recent decades.
The current versions of healthcare reform, New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt noted on Jan. 20, "are more conservative than Bill Clinton's 1993 proposal. For that matter, they're more conservative than Richard Nixon's 1971 plan, which would have had the federal government provide insurance to people who didn't get it through their job."
One of the biggest themes -- repeated endlessly by pundits and meme-prone Democrats -- has been the assertion that getting "healthcare reform" signed into law is essential for the political viability of a Democratic Congress and the Obama presidency. But at this point, given what's on the table under the Capitol Dome, the opposite is likely to be the case.
If Obama signs the kind of healthcare legislation now in the pipeline, it will be a political gift to the Republicans -- and a crowning negative achievement of bad leadership for the congressional majority.
Key House Democrats declared throughout most of 2009 that they would only support a healthcare reform bill with a "robust" public option. Now the same members of Congress are saying they'll be pleased to vote for a final bill with no public option at all.
Meanwhile, at the grassroots, many progressives are apt to buy into a false choice between capitulating inside the Democratic Party or staying away from it. But there's another option: an inside/outside strategy that involves openly fighting for progressive power within the party while also organizing outside of it.
If we want more progressive officeholders, then elections are part of the process: beginning with Democratic primaries this year. Support genuine progressive candidates -- and if you don't see any, maybe you should do some recruiting. There's no time to lose.