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Socialized Medicine Has Won the Health Care Debate

Lindsey Graham and the Republicans tried to use the "S-word" to scare Americans about health care. It doesn't work anymore.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

“It’s coming down to a choice between Federalism vs Socialism,” Senator Lindsey Graham proclaimed on Twitter earlier this week. “I chose Federalism of #GrahamCassidy.” His tweet echoed his words at a press conference days earlier, where he framed his Affordable Care Act repeal bill as the only way “to stop a march toward socialism.”

It’s unclear if the Republican senator realized that he was cribbing from socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. In a pamphlet composed a century ago while in prison, Luxemburg wrote: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Graham, presumably, didn’t mean to liken his bill to barbarism. But increasingly, those are the terms in which Americans view the health care debate—as a choice between socialism and regression. Republicans have used “socialized medicine” as a bogeyman—and they’ve steadily lost ground on the issue. Despite Graham’s attempts to portray the idea of caring for sick people regardless of their income level as a “nightmare” scenario, just 7 percent of those polled thought Graham-Cassidy would help them.

The repeated rebukes of attempts to undo Obamacare have shown that the average American is no longer moved by the threat of the “S-word.” If we are on a slippery slope toward socialized medicine, it appears that Americans are just fine with that. For the left, there’s a lot to learn from the successful battles against going backward on health care—lessons about how Trump-era politics can be used to push “socialist” policies that move Democrats, and the American public, forward in unexpected ways.

Introduced after the Bernie Sanders Medicare for all bill made its debut with 16 co-sponsors in the Senate, the Graham-Cassidy bill looked all the worse by comparison. Both bills arrived at the end of a summer of activism, a summer that has treated us repeatedly to the sight of people in wheelchairs carted out of the Senate chanting, “No cuts to Medicaid! Save our liberty!” The health care movement has been led by the people directly affected—people with disabilities, in many cases, along with veterans of the AIDS movement. They understood the power of spectacle, initiating those dramatic clashes at the Capitol. They also know better than anyone the inequalities baked into the existing system. Their fighting skills were honed fighting for decades against those who say, implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t deserve care.

Of course, politicians have long been disconnected from the American public on the issue of health care. But the movement to defend Obamacare has drawn into stark relief the difference between what people want and what politicians want to offer. Republicans like Graham banked on the attachment Americans have to the class system we like to pretend doesn’t exist. They played on the idea, honed through decades of dog-whistles, that government programs are always giveaways for the undeserving poor and people of color. As one law professor and conservative columnist complained on Twitter, “Years from now, when your child is denied a liver transplant bc of transplant diversity goals, you’ll be sorry you allowed single-payer.”

In the U.S., we tend to either deny the existence of class or treat it like a set of characteristics divorced from power relations. A Make America Great Again baseball cap, a taste for Budweiser and NASCAR—those, rather than income level or accumulated wealth, are the signifiers of class that we understand. Meritocracy is supposed to be the thing we have instead of class; you can hear it in the endless bipartisan odes to the ability to work hard and achieve anything—including, apparently, a liver transplant if necessary.

Barack Obama and Ben Carson are both heroes of the meritocratic tale, though with a different partisan inflection. Even Sanders falls victim to the meritocratic narrative at times, with his refrain that “No one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” The implication that comes with Sanders’s qualifier is that there are some people who may, in fact, deserve to be living in poverty. If class is just about some personal preferences rather than structures that maintain inequality, then it’s fine to maintain a healthcare system that treats only those who can afford it. After all, if they just worked harder, they’d have earned that liver.

Graham’s single most tone-deaf argument to sell his bill was drawing an analogy to welfare reform. Welfare reform, of course, was sold to the country by Reagan, Gingrich, and Bill Clinton through fearmongering about undeserving black mothers and “young bucks.” Graham’s rhetoric about the size of the Medicaid budget leaned hard on this analogy, hoping that Americans resented Medicaid as much as they were taught to resent welfare.

Like welfare reform, Graham-Cassidy would have turned Medicaid and the subsidies in the ACA into block grants for the states to manage as they see fit. But the problem with health insurance is that it is designed to be used. The goal of welfare reform was to kick people off of welfare; the goal of healthcare reform was theoretically to get more people onto health insurance plans. Welfare reform increased poverty; Graham and Cassidy didn’t want to admit their bill would do the same. The analogy failed, though it told us a lot about what Republicans think of the people who use Medicaid.

The ham-handed Republican attempts to dismantle the health care system—the “socialism” warnings, the appeals to the selfishness of privileged white folks—have only reinforced the public’s support for government taking care of its citizens. It was telling how, in Monday night’s televised debate between Graham and Cassidy and Senators Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, Graham fell right into a trap, unintentionally proving his opponents’ point about what Americans want. When Sanders asked, “Do you know what the most popular health insurance program in America is? It’s not the private insurance industry,” Graham jumped in like an overeager schoolchild: “It’s Medicare,” he said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have badly misunderstood what makes Obamacare unpopular. What people don’t like are the inequities that still prevail in our health care system, not the fact that “government is too involved.” When Vox’s Sarah Kliff visited Whitley County, Kentucky, to talk to Trump voters who benefited from the ACA, she heard complaints from those buying private insurance with their subsidies that their deductibles were still too high for them to access care. Others, not surprisingly, were angry that the very poor got Medicaid, while they had to pay monthly premiums for care they rarely used. But that anger hasn’t turned them against the program. Medicaid expansion—the “socialized” part of the ACA—remains wildly popular, with 84 percent of those polled by Kaiser Family Foundation saying it’s important to keep the expansion.

The ACA’s means-testing sets up a hierarchy of plans that at times seem calculated to fuel resentment of those getting “free stuff.” It also requires hours of work—I write from personal experience, as a freelancer who has attempted to explain repeatedly that my income varies from month to month and year to year—to prove to the system that you are not getting away with something you haven’t qualified for.

The ways that people have tried to patch the gaps that remain in Obamacare, through charities and crowdfunding, have also highlighted its inequities. As Helaine Olen recently wrote in The Atlantic, charities, too, are often means-testing applicants, while crowdfunding introduces a new kind of means-testing—“means-testing for empathy,” as writer Patrick Blanchfield told me recently. Most GoFundMe or YouCaring campaigns for medical bills don’t go viral; only around 10 percent of them met their stated goals. For those who have a big social media audience, or whose particularly compelling story takes off, crowdfunding might work. But the glut of such campaigns leaves people weighing story against story, deciding who is going to get their donations. It’s health care by popularity contest.

By focusing on the not-good poll numbers for Obamacare, politicians and pundits have missed the whole point: The law didn’t go too far for Americans to get behind. It didn’t go far enough. And while single-payer opponents continue to evoke rationed care, long lines and wait times, and other problems that supposedly plague England or Canada, the public seems well aware that the reality for many Americans is far worse. By their very complaints, the pundits and politicians continually highlight the inequality in the system; the complainers are those who can afford the kind of care that comes with personal attention, privacy, shorter waits, and avoidance of rubbing elbows with undesirables.

To move forward, then, the single-payer movement should double down on what we learned through this fight: that expanding Medicaid made it harder, not easier, to claim that the program is a “giveaway” to undeserving poor. The willingness of people with disabilities to claim and hold the spotlight—as the New Republic’s Sarah Jones has written—has helped to challenge our preconceptions about who relies on Medicaid ,and to make politicians confront those who will not be served by a market-based program. And the willingness, finally, of politicians to fight publicly for single-payer—rather than mournfully shake their heads and say it will never happen—expands the range of policies that even establishment media is willing to discuss.

Most important, we have learned that the old fearmongering tropes about socialism are no longer enough to whip Republican votes for a major plank of their own platform. If anything, the successful fight should help progressives shed their fears of boldly advocating for what they know is right and working to change public sentiment without endlessly obsessing over potential political pitfalls.

It seems that barbarism, to Graham and his ilk, is the idea that they would lose their right to segregated, high-end care to some undeserving, poor person of color. To the rest of us, however, barbarism is a system that decides who deserves to live or die by the color of their skin, the money in their bank account, the hours that they work, or their ability to work at all. This is now an American consensus. And if socialism is the medicine our system needs, the country is ready to embrace it—even by name.