The day may come when America chooses to join the rest of the modern world in providing universal health care for its citizens, but that day is not today, nor will it be tomorrow, or any day while the 115th Congress of the United States is in session. With a daunting Senate map facing Democrats, and Donald Trump in the White House, the reality of a single-payer system taking effect in the United States is three years away, at the absolute least. Why then, was Bernie Sanders able to find fifteen co-sponsors for a bill that had previously never had the support of more than one? Why was Medicare for All more popular than ever at a time when the most progressive American health care policy ever to take effect was surviving challenge after challenge? The truth lies less in the wonky specifics and more in the broader idea of what the legislation represents. Bernie’s health care bill is representative of the shift overtaking the Democratic Party and geared towards discovering who is on board with that shift rather than serving as a bill intended voted on and passed in the near future.
With the repeal and replacement of Obamacare temporarily on the backburner, Bernie Sanders seized the moment and introduced his Medicare for All bill, a standard throughout his years in the Senate and House. In the past, when he announced this legislation, he did so alone. During his years in the House, Democrat John Conyers stood by him while mainstream Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry laughed off the idea as unrealistic or out of line with the desires of the American people. Even now, the current leaders of the Democratic Party, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, held off on standing with Sanders and other leading Democrats, choosing instead to focus on ‘strengthening the Affordable Care Act’. Many supporters of Hillary Clinton, another detractor of single-payer health care, accused Sanders of distracting the Left from the defense of Obamacare, claiming that his introduction of Medicare for All sparked the introduction of the Cassidy-Graham bill that would have repealed Obamacare. In truth, Cassidy-Graham had been in the works for months, and Sanders was simply presenting an alternative to the status quo rather than undermining President Obama’s signature achievement.
The purpose of the health care bill is far broader than its actual effect as policy. Sanders has had his desired effect: he has forced a legitimate debate and the specifics of single-payer, an idea that was once waved away and laughed at. Newspapers, television channels, and think-tanks have all been forced to confront an issue that was once on the fringes of our political discourse and judge it on its merits. Credit must be given to the more mainstream Democrats that stood with Sanders, for without them, this introduction of Medicare for All would have gone similarly to the others: unnoticed. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and others who have toed the line between leftism and centrism made a calculation that supporting single-payer was right. While it is admirable for Harris to claim that her support was based on the fact that it was, “the right thing to do”, we must be a tad cynical and consider what caused all these Democrats to feel politically comfortable supporting a bill that their leaders and donors currently oppose in all forms. Their calculation is simply the acknowledgement of a truth in American politics: the Democratic Party is done hearing about what is unrealistic and is beginning to dream bigger.
A shift towards the left has been overtaking the Democratic Party every day since November 8th, 2016, but the Medicare for All introduction is the first acknowledgement of that shift. There has been a great realization of the changing base of the party from many in the mainstream who were originally resistant to Sanders’ policy. Hillary Clinton made a calculation of her own, believing that appealing to rich, moderate, pro-business Republicans would be more useful than working towards the Democratic Socialists and other leftists group that stand farther left than the mainstream Democratic Party. Of course, Hillary chose wrong, and after the election of Tom Perez as Democratic National Committee chair, it appeared that national Democrats would not learn from their mistakes. Thankfully, the willingness of Tammy Baldwin, Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal, and others to drift farther left proves that Hillary’s failure was not in vain. The Democratic Party is facing an identity crisis in the wake of Trump, but with single-payer as a start, there may be hope for a true progressive platform that can be painted in stark opposition to the Republicans. Rather than viewing the parties as two sides of the same coin, the Democrats must make the case for why their ideas are superior, and single-payer’s introduction proves that the Democratic Party is prepared to take a true progressive stand.
Most important to note is that the new left stands for ideas rather than ideologues. If these Democrats are being politically expedient and attempting to up their 2020 nomination chances by supporting a Progressive cause that is hopeless at the moment, they are sorely mistaken. Progressive Democrats and those on the left will not be fooled by those who take one single progressive position or feign a stance to woo certain blocks of voters. Support of Medicare-for-All is simply the beginning of a foundation for a progressive platform. Progressives will fight for the candidate that shares their views. It does not matter whether that person is black or white, male or female or experienced or raw. The only determination will be who stands for worker’s rights, environmental rights, public education, and other progressive priorities that were marginalized throughout the Hillary Clinton campaign. If Democrats are prepared to stand for the left, the whole left, then they will reap the support of millions of people that stand for basic rights for all people. If Democrats are prepared to stand for people rather than corporations and donors, they will see their support grow tenfold. The widespread support of Medicare for All proves that many Democrats are prepared to take that leap. Progressives around the country can only hope that this is just the beginning.