The passage of the health care bill, one would think, would breathe new enthusiasm, a “yes we can” spirit, into the movement for progressive change. To a large degree, that has happened. Most people are fired up.
Yet some are saying the bill is a setback. I couldn’t disagree more.
First of all, while it is undeniable that the bill doesn’t provide universal care or eliminate the insurance industry from health care provision, is this the only or even the main criteria that we should use to appraise the new law of the land?
The answer is emphatically “No.”
The bill does provide health care coverage to millions – many of whom live on the edge. And that is nothing to turn our noses up at. As a trade union leader once said to me in reference to a past presidential election, “It may make only an inch of difference if so-and-so is elected, but you know what? A lot of people live on that inch.” That’s a fact that is easily forgotten.
Moreover, it isn’t helpful, in fact it is harmful, to make an assessment of what was achieved in the health care struggle removed from the actual class struggle on the ground at this particular moment. I may think a national health service is the best solution to the health care crisis, but I would be a fool, not to mention a poor communist, if my desire for it left me adamantly opposing or mocking struggles for more modest health care measures.
To properly gauge the significance of the health care bill, my desire for a more radical solution can’t be the sole or main determinant of my attitude toward it. It is obligatory to situate it within the context of the existing balance of class and social forces at this moment. It was in this matrix that this battle was fought out and its outcome determined – not in some frictionless political universe that exists only in our heads. This approach, however, appears to be missing from the analysis of many of the sharpest critics of the health care bill.
Third, this bill even with its limitations goes against the grain of the political and ideological logic that has been dominant for nearly three decades. This logic, the offspring of right-wing extremism and neo-liberalism, holds that government is “the problem” and “free and unregulated markets” are the magical solution to every social ill – when it comes to social welfare, the less government the better. In passing the health care bill, that logic (though clearly not to the degree that we would have liked) was successfully challenged and a positive role of government was reaffirmed.
Perhaps most importantly, the bill and the multi-tiered struggle surrounding its passage changed the political dynamics and mood in the country. The terrain of struggle shifted in a more favorable direction.
On one hand, the Republican right, despite its claims to have come out on top and its promises to repeal the legislation first chance it gets, lost ground. Its protestations, ranging from racist to homophobic to nativist to simply wildly hysterical, poorly position it going forward this year. The American people in their majority aren’t buying this bill of goods. The more they hear about the new law, the more they will like it.
On the other hand, the president and the movement supporting health care gained in confidence, grew in stature, deepened unity (anti-racist unity in particular), found new energy, and reclaimed the initiative. What the extreme right hoped would be the administration’s Waterloo turned into a victory that, if built upon, will favorably impact on the elections this fall and on the president’s overall legislative agenda.
To employ a sports metaphor, on the heels of the election debacle in Massachusetts, the president and other supporters of health care legislation were on the ropes, absorbing blows from their opponents (and some of their friends), and exploring ways to retreat, but in the end they cleared their head, counterpunched, took the initiative, and now find themselves controlling the fight – not entirely, but enough so that there is ground for optimism.
No doubt, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk will claim that they are in the driver’s seat, that the American people want nothing to do with “creeping socialism” and “big government.”
No doubt congressional Republicans will talk tough. And no doubt the tea party activists will insist that they are going to “take back the country.”
But no one should be intimidated by such talk. The ball is back in the people’s court. The volubility and strident tone of the right wing in Washington and elsewhere is testimony to the fact that they understand that they lost this round and are going into the next round at a disadvantage.
Of course, the labor and people’s movements should resist overconfidence in the wake of victory. The health care struggle was only one battle in a much longer war that will determine what kind of country we are.
The vision of this wide, loose coalition is inclusive, egalitarian, multi-racial, multi-cultural, deeply democratic, empowering, respectful of difference, and peaceful. Our opponents have another vision that goes in the opposite direction. If the former vision is to become the American vision and reality, the task is to further build a broad-based movement. But, not any kind of movement.
Only a particular kind of movement possessing a particular kind of strategic vision has the capacity to challenge the array of forces on the other side of the class struggle at this juncture.
At its core are the multi-racial working class (and its organized sector), the racially and nationally oppressed people, women, and youth. But gathered in and around it are many other social movements, including undocumented immigrants, and political forces, including the Obama administration and sections of the Democratic Party.
Yes, sections of the Democratic Party! Until a large section of the mass constituency of the Democratic Party, as a result of its own experience primarily, is ready to build a new party with a pronounced anti-corporate vision, the broader people’s movement will have a tactical relationship to the Democrats, if it has any political sense. Slogans like “Break with the Democrats” may sound radical and may look good on one’s resume, but at this moment it is a recipe for marginalization.
In the meantime, we should deepen our participation in immediate struggles (the struggle for jobs in particular), continue to build this broad popular movement, and encourage the new forms of political independence in the labor movement and elsewhere springing up before our eyes.