Revised/March 12, 2004
It is a national disgrace that the United States is unique among the industrial nations for depriving millions of its people of their human right to health care. To those uninsured and underinsured people and their families, this deprivation is literally a matter of life and death. That's why this issue, alone among all domestic political issues, really comes home to people. I'm convinced that it is a motivation sufficient to empower large numbers of them to go to the polls to seek electoral redress of an intolerable grievance.
The number of Americans in the ranks of the uninsured and underinsured is approaching 100 million. There are additional millions of potential supporters among compassionate people and among those who, although they are insured, have to wage a constant struggle to wrest adequate health care from tight-fisted insurance companies and employers.
Political mobilization of even 10% of those numbers would create a powerful political movement having at least three times the membership of the National Rifle Association (some 4 million strong). The votes are out there--they just need to be harvested through a sensible organizing and empowerment campaign. A U.S. national health insurance plan can be patterned after the best features of single-payer health-care systems that are operating successfully in Canada and elsewhere. Such systems are much more efficient than the fake 'universal health care' plans proposed by the Clintons and Senator Bradley, which would perpetuate the unnecessary and wasteful intermediation of private insurance companies.
Political candidates for the House, Senate, and Presidency would be motivated to embrace this plan by the sheer electoral potency of the single-payer voting bloc. For example, it was encouraging to note how readily President Bush embraced a ban on the naval bombardment of Vieques. His move was clearly motivated by the prospect of swaying a million or two Latino voters, not by the force of compassion. The much greater political clout of our voting bloc could convince many attractive major-party political candidates (more likely Democrats than Republicans) to run for election or reelection by espousing both national health care and a living wage.
Organizing this political movement will require solving some practical problems, such as identifying and contacting many Americans who are uninsured and underinsured. But it seems likely that, once they and their leaders are empowered and the organizational task is defined and understood, the movement will snowball through networking. We can get started by setting up tables at peopleís clinics and hospital emergency rooms, by going to disadvantaged neighborhoods and knocking on doors, and by working with leaders of the disadvantaged and with leaders of minority groups. A key thrust should be to register voters.
Beyond accomplishing its immediate objectives, the health-care movement will be an entering wedge toward spawning an important spin-off, the awakening of millions of Americans to the generic problem of corporate domination. These participants--in the course of their empowerment, such as grappling with the powerful health-care industry and its Harry-and-Louise ads--will begin to broaden their perspectives and organize to help the public interest regain control of our political system from corporate interests.
Preaching to the choir is fine--and makes us feel good--but going after the votes is indispensable. Indeed, thatís the only way that past successful movements for social justice have triumphed. For some time Iíve felt like a voice in the wilderness, being frustrated and disappointed by sensing a fundamental "disconnect" between the activists we work with and the people who personally confront the tragic deprivation--other than at the emergency room--of a modicum of health care. My tentative conclusion is that there are currently two worlds apart, the world of us compassionate activists, who so far only seem to talk to each other, and the real world, where most of the affected people are, and to whom the health issue happens to be a life-and-death matter. And the all-too-obvious fact to some of us--but strangely and disappointingly, one not yet evident to many social activists--is that it is the latter world that holds the decisive votes that will be essential to reach the goal of health care insurance for all Americans.
So in formulating a winning strategy, I think it would be useful to ascertain why there is this disconnect, and then figure out what we can do to remedy it. Some likely reasons why the disadvantaged people havenít yet participated in our movement is because:
1) they are very busy trying to sustain life,
2) they have yet to be "empowered" by having some contact with people who have recognized and acted upon the need to help mobilize them into a political movement, and
3) we are not yet working with leaders of these disadvantaged communities.
It might be helpful to put together some focus groups where activists and the disadvantaged get together to discuss these matters and to derive some insights. Toward that end, some psychologists and sociologists could be enlisted to design such focus groups and also provide their insights toward figuring out where the activists and the disadvantaged are coming from--and going to--on this issue.
The time is ripe to form a political movement striving for an attractive, economical alternative to replace our wasteful, expensive, and chaotic U.S. health care system, which is a band-aid approach that squanders an unprecedented 15% of our GDP on a commodification of what should be a human right for everyone. Your comments and suggestions are invited.Robert Cohen