Written with Khalil, Afrose and Tyler Zimmerman.
At 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?