Thoughts on a Health Care Forum

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Written with Khalil, Afrose and Tyler Zimmerman.

AustinHealthCare2At the end of August, a Health Care Forum was organized in Austin, TX, by the Democratic Party and a number of liberal organizations including MoveOn.org. With the forum the Democrats sought to “honor their commitment to grassroots organization” by bringing out Obama supporters and the media to hear “real voices for change” like Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who has been perceived as progressive for supporting a public option in the health care plan. This forum was a response to a town hall meeting with Doggett that was shut down by anti-reform protestors earlier in the month (the terms pro- and anti-“reform” are being used loosely here, as they are somewhat misleading about the character of the actual health care proposals on the table).

Close to 2,000 people attended the forum, filling to capacity the First United Methodist Church where the panelists spoke and a nearby AFL-CIO hall that was open for additional seating. There was a small union presence, mostly from the Texas State Employee Union (TSEU) which has been involved in some important health care battles among graduate students at the University of Texas. Unfortunately, the union’s organizing has centered around lobbying at the Capitol, a strategy which doesn’t stray far from how the AFL-CIO, with which TSEU is affiliated, has intervened in the health care debate. The Democrats brought in supporters from nearby cities like San Antonio and tightly controlled the forum, prohibiting Q&A or any disruptions.

A majority of people who came out supported some type of health care reform, with a general consensus that the current state of affairs was untenable and a clear failure. There was also a very visible and vocal minority of rightwing protestors against reform. The latter arrived more prepared with chants and placards. The protestors consisted of a mixed bag of “astro-turf” groups – associated with and/or receiving funding from inside the Republican Party – as well as rightwing libertarian types and unaffiliated individuals. It wasn’t clear whether larger organizations that have attended town hall meetings elsewhere – such as Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, or Americans for Prosperity – were actually present in Austin, but their influence could be felt. There was a lot of rhetoric about Obama’s secret socialist agenda, Obama = Hitler, “Show me the birth certificate,” and images of Obama dressed as the Joker from Batman, as well as other slogans like “My Body, My Choice” (ironic how the right takes a slogan usually reserved to the pro-choice left and animates it with an anti-choice politics).

It was immediately apparent that the anti-reform forces had a white populist character. Some wore “secession, not recession” T-shirts; others carried large white flags emblazoned with M-16s and the words “Come and Take It.” Their chants attacked the pro-reform attendees as “government slaves” and they decried “free handouts” and the tax-thieving hands of Obama and the federal government. The common thread running through the lot was that (white) civilization was under attack and it was up to those good citizens to defend against the perils (socialism? Enslaving the white race?) posed by a Black man in the White House.

Austin’s health care forum, and the others like it that occurred across the country throughout August, present important political and organizational problems facing the working classes and the left today. Aside from some talk that Obama needs to come out more strongly in favor of a public option, there were no noticeable voices opposing or even criticizing Obama’s health care proposals from the left. Surely there were some in attendance who fell in that category, but they were not an organized presence and were clearly outnumbered by the “Yes We Can” enthusiasm of Obama’s liberal supporters. This is a significant problem. Many working class people who don’t identify with the right know that health care is in crisis, and are skeptical and cynical about what changes Obama’s plan will bring them. The almost uncritical defense of Obama coming from liberals and progressives is contributing to a political vacuum where the only oppositional voices to his health care policy are coming from the right.

This vacuum has both a political and an organizational dimension. The energies galvanized during Obama’s election campaign last fall have since been demobilized through a “wait and see” strategy among progressives and union bureaucrats – in other words, a strategy that people should give Obama more time to bring change, that it’s too early in his presidency to pass judgment, and to exert pressure or raise criticism of Obama now is only feeding into the hands of the right. This means that an opportunity was not taken advantage of to build much needed fighting organizations out of the activity of millions last fall and thus those institutions are not present to confront the threats posed by a rising white populism.

What’s more, there were almost no people of color at Austin’s forum, and almost no young people. The liberals successfully brought out seniors on the basis of talking about Medicare as a model for reform. They failed to bring out young folks and people of color in part because they avoided like the plague any connections between access to health care and wider issues like unemployment and immigration, the privatization of education or the decimation and gentrification of East Austin, a majority Black and Latino area in the city, all issues which are intricately related to the health care crisis.

Where was the revolutionary left to help make such connections? While the liberals sang “God Bless America” to counter the rightwing patriotism and red-baiting of the anti-reform protestors, where were the organized forces to counter both with anti-racist, anti-jingoistic chants and perspectives of health care for all? In Austin and elsewhere, it appears that the left failed to actively intervene in the town halls – perhaps because some believe to do so would require supporting the Democrats? Or because they under-estimated the virulent racism of the rightwing protestors? We can speculate the causes. But the point of an intervention could have been to organize a third option in the polarized climate of the town halls, and to help build up the confidence and capacity of working class forces to push back the Right.

The absence of a Left opposition is one of the main factors contributing to the growth of white populism. With the Republican party in shambles, racist forces from below are beginning strike out on their own and build their own bases within the working class. This explains the use of anti-government slogans by the right at these town hall meetings.

As the health care debate moves on, some questions remain for discussion: on what terms could interventions have been made in these forums? How can we build a fighting campaign led by people of color that takes up as central the intersection of class and race in this health care crisis? What strategies are needed to avoid dependence on the Democrats and the trade union bureaucrats? What kind of united fronts can be built to fight the right?

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Health Care Forum”

  1. What Lauren mentions about the lack of a Left presence at these town halls is right on. When the town hall forums were in swing during August, it seemed as if most of the revolutionary Left downplayed the importance of the popular movement from the Right. It is unclear how much of the momentum is grassroots and how much is “astroturf” but if there is no radical alternative perspective present at these rallies, they may only grow stronger and attract more participants. Particularly in light of the very effective rhetoric of the Right. Imagine a young woman with feminist leanings attending a rally where the Right coopts “My Body, My Choice” for their own purposes. When there is no opposition to point out how opportunist the Right is (among other things), they can blur the lines between resistance to state power and using the state to wage war against working people of color.

    The Balance Sheet on Obama and the Left post by mlove highlights much of the debate around Obama within the Left and the importance of the millions of young people of color that Obama was able to mobilize during his campaign. In light of what he as a black man means to much of America (despite what he actually represents, the interests of the ruling classes) it was hard for me to see pictures of him with a Hitler mustache superimposed on his face. The forces that have mobilized against healthcare “reform” are clearly racist, and we have a president and Democratic party that shies from the mention of race and no organized presence from the revolutionary left.

    So as to not end on a depressing note, I do think that this moment offers many possibilities. Being on a campus and seeing the reaction to the first wave of budget cuts in places like the Bay Area and Seattle have been inspiring. All those folks who found that the idea of “real change” resonated with them and moved in order to support the man who promised it to them, all those folks are still here and see what’s happening. The healthcare debate opened up a can of worms. We’ll see where we go from here.

  2. I agree with Afrose, the Left dropped the ball on this one. Unfortunately our own circles have not yet “gathered enough forces” to make a decisive intervention. But it’s been depressing to see more established Left groups actively downplaying the white populist element of these right wing attacks on Obama. Sure many of these right wing groups are “astroturf” in the sense that they’re funded by millionaires but that doesn’t’ mean that they aren’t tapping into real grassroots, populist outrage…. and grassroots populist outrage is volatile, it can become more of an organized right wing insurgency if new organizations and coalitions start to form among various far-right single issue groups. If we don’t organize to put a stop to it now, we could see attacks on people of color, queer folks, and immigrants sooner than we might expect.

    It’s the same thing with the whole Gay Marriage debate. Many of us on the Left aren’t thrilled about the prospects of gay marriage because it threatens to assimilate vibrant queer communities into the straightjacket of the capitalist nuclear family. But at the same time, we gotta recognize that the Right is mobilizing behind the anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives, and many of the groups that are building their cadres through this type of work also into anti-immigrant white supremacist activity. We need to organize to confront this now. With both the health care debate and the gay marriage debate we need to figure out a concrete way to intervene where folks are at and to smash the right WITHOUT entering into a popular front to support the liberals.

  3. Great post and comments.

    1. I also see the continued polarization of the country along left and right axis. Although Obama is putting a cover on the left dimensions of the polarization, all cannot be blamed on him either. The reality is, as others have pointed out, some responsibility has to be placed at the left’s door. Regardless, continued polarization is possible given continued economic crisis or political crisis along the Afghanistan or Iraq war lines. Things might look radically different in terms of the point I am raising if any one or several of these problems for the rulers are resolved.

    2. Polarization poses opportunities for the revolutionary left and immense dangers. The dangers are the beginnings of these rallies. For now, I think they can be categorized as the right intimidating progressive forces and the left. I believe they have done an effective job with the help of Obama. The latter is a reference to millions of people giving Obama a chance during his presidency.

    While the right controls much of the university, government, and education space; I do believe it has less control in an organized and political sense on the ground. I understand this to mean that the country is not going to the right or left. It is up for grabs right now. With the right (in Republican or Democrat form) in governmental power, they are responsible for failings of the economy, war in Afghanistan etc which also lends to anti-State possibilities. Unfortunately, the right has taken up this fight as well leaving me to wonder if Anarchists or left-libertarians will pose alternative to state-led healthcare or free-market healthcare at these protests and try to enter local or regional level debates.

    For the revolutionary left, polarization is a symptom of immense crisis where the possibility of mild reforms solving the problems of the day are less and less likely. Instead, reforms which must be fought for at the street, workplace, and our communities become a reality. The interaction of struggle, revolutionary politics, and winning reforms opens up the chance to radical politics, new types of organizations etc which can challenge the old ways of doing politics. These moments do not come often in history.

    This still leaves the question of the precise or concrete relationship of reform and revolution. I hope we can take it up in the upcoming weeks…

    3. We also see the right’s willingness to use extra-parliamentary forces/ its grassroots to shape the debate with the help of Fox News and others of course. I believe it was Louis Proyect at The Unrepentant Marxist who pointed out that this is because the right has such a narrow base in this country. It has to draw out some spectacle of support in the public sphere. Meanwhile, the Democrats whose ever eroding base was the unions and remnants of the 1960s movements is terrified of mobilizing this base in case they get out of control. Instead, they do as much of their politics via backdoor.

    I do think different periods can radically recompose the Democrats where their behavior might change, but their trajectory over the last 35 years does not point to such a direction.

    4. In terms of race, I have a feeling many pocs are thinking that Obama cannot say what he really wants to say cuz of the position he is in. They are cutting him slack. I wonder when people will say “fine”if he can’t speak cuz of the position he is in, we gotta go out there and fight for him.” That will be something we have not seen in years in this country. Perhaps this is an overestimation of how much support Obama had and has. I know his numbers have been tumbling like nothing else this summer, but if all those people coming out to the streets when he got elected was not a dream, then I gotta wonder what that night meant and when they will come out to fight the racists and elites who are attacking “their president”.

    I also find it hard to believe that young pocs and other progressives are not taking note of what is happening at these town hall meetings. They are watching rowdy angry white people take the national stage. Can the right flirt with this and not create a round of left-reaction? Will pocs do the same in the upcoming months.

    Will

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