Medicare for All vs Solidarity for Some

Just over four years ago I was writing about the contortions which many Democrats were twisting themselves into, over policies including Medicare for All, seemingly in order to pretend that their feelings toward individual candidates were policy-driven.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Short version, Bernie Sanders is back running for president again; in the intervening four years his advocacy of Medicare for All has been joined by a small number of top-ranked Democrats, including even one of the other leading candidates for president, Senator Elizabeth Warren; Sanders’s campaign has vigorously framed Medicare for All as a wedge issue to justify disdain for and distrust of Warren, anyway, without any remotely credible basis in policy disagreement.

I’ll just elaborate on the policy substance, briefly:

  • Warren openly, officially and on the record advocates replace-the-whole-dysfunctional-mess Medicare for All single-payer healthcare coverage.
  • Warren has released a detailed, expert-vetted plan to pay for it sustainably which, unlike Sanders’s more general remarks on the issue, avoids the obstacle of requiring middle-class tax increases.
  • Warren has proposed a very ambitious transition period which no one in their right mind would call stalling, given realities like e.g. the years-long implementation of the Affordable Care Act which was expressly designed to minimize change, and which still proved too ambitious to have ready on schedule.
  • Warren, unlike Sanders, also openly advocates empowering a Senate majority to pass legislation, rather than continuing the abomination known as the “filibuster” whereby legislation may be killed stone dead by 41% of this chamber (which is so intensely malapportioned that the filibusterers could also represent a much smaller fraction of the actual United States public).

Given all of this, Elizabeth Warren should be not only a cherished ally of every Medicare for All advocate—since, public polling aside, support for the policy is still rather thin among the people who directly determine policy—she is the best candidate for implementing healthcare-is-a-human-right as real policy.

Sanders’s campaign has nonetheless cultivated belief not only that he is the only real Medicare for All candidate, but that Warren’s advocacy is in fact a reason to distrust and disdain her because it must, therefore, be proof that she’s a liar. That’s some real circular logic.

To the limited extent that there’s anything going on here besides people acting stupid and hateful, I think I have figured it out.

A friend of mine provided the insight this weekend when he suggested that telling people “I want to raise everyone’s taxes” is actually a feature of Sanders’s advocacy rather than a weakness. Logically, that doesn’t make sense if what you’re concerned about is policy, only policy, and nothing but policy.

It starts to make sense, however, if what you’re concerned about is demonstrating trustworthiness in the form of willingness to offend.

Same friend emphasized this point rather directly when he also gushed about how “Bernie just doesn’t give a fuck! It’s great!” i.e., “I don’t have to worry about him going wishy washy in office, because right now even as a candidate he’s telling people things they don’t want to hear, even when those things aren’t necessary for the policy he’s advocating!”

It might be useful, here, to consider a difference between the terms “purity test” and “litmus test.” Both get thrown around a lot, often derisively. But if we think about politics as a means of advocating desired policies, a litmus test makes complete sense; if I want policy x then naturally I will attach a lot of importance to committed advocacy for policy x by candidates.

“Purity test” means varying things to people, I’m sure, but again if we think about what it logically ought to mean, then it’s in fact an approach to politics fundamentally different from policy advocacy. A purity test, in this sense, is about looking for signals to trust someone as proof against “corruption” by opinions from “outsiders.”

If, in fact, you actually care less about specific policies than about providing the powers of an elected office to someone least likely to be deceiving you, then there’s a kind of sense behind this sort of purity test. In theory, up to a point.

Between theory and practice, this falls apart at multiple points. The whole foundation is shaky; what, after all, is the object of trust unless one attaches some actual value to specific policies. At most, it can only be a kind of mindless tribalism.

For any kind of progressive politics, this ought to be not only distasteful, but immediately recognizable as incompatible with the basic nature of progressive policy. Building movements and expanding coalitions is important for most political agendas. It’s outright critical for progressive agendas, in which tribal distrust is forever at odds with the societal trust necessary for collective action.

In this specific instance, it’s an appalling travesty that a supposedly progressive movement whose members love to flourish “solidarity” as a slogan cannot find a way to accept advocacy for their signature policy by more than one candidate as a success, rather than a dangerous Trojan Horse.

Especially when Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated not only more credible preparedness to implement Medicare for All as real policy, but has demonstrated more than her share of willingness to speak up and say things people don’t want to hear.

Compare the celebration of Bernie, for unnecessarily saying “yep I want higher taxes for the middle class,” with the anger at Warren for saying e.g. “Bernie told me once that he didn’t believe a woman would be able to win the presidency.” On one hand: “Bernie doesn’t give a fuck it’s great!!!” On the other hand: “Even if that happened Warren should have kept her damn mouth shut I am so mad at her!!!”

So, yeah. There is something going on here, for which there is some explanation beyond just people acting stupid and hateful, even if the explanation doesn’t really make sense.

But people acting stupid and hateful also plays a role. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I suppose that the best response I can make is to attempt to keep my own story straight, and see some humor in the contortions being attempted around me… along with the despair.

plus c’est la même chose

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