On Friday evening at 5pm, California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) announced he will not bring SB 562 to the floor of the Assembly. The California single-payer healthcare bill is thus effectively dead, at the hands of a Democrat. Just as he killed MediCal-for-all in California by burying the bill in committee, after it passed the State Senate, Rendon timed his announcement to coincide with the end of the work week — a well-known tactic for releasing news you really don’t want noticed.
The immediate and correct response is blind rage. And since this fits into a larger narrative around the centrist Democratic establishment fighting its progressive left wing, let’s try to work through some of the ways Democrats shamelessly thwart the aspirations of their base and work to oppose their own platform.
Because no doubt you’ve seen the #TrumpRegrets hashtag, and we’ve all had a mean-spirited chuckle at the cliché of idiot right-wingers voting against their own Affordable Care Act benefits. Tweets too numerous to count have been held up as examples of rural white voters celebrating the demise of “Obamacare,” while simultaneously demonstrating that these same voters had no idea their Medicare benefits were part of the overall ACA. Some weren’t even aware that the ACA is in fact Obamacare.
We on the left, obviously, are not stupid like this. We know Obamacare is the ACA, and we know that a single-payer, Medicare-for-all type system like that seen in every other industrialized country on Earth is the holy grail of progressive politics in the United States. It’s in the Democratic platform! Somewhere, I think. Or anyway, we vote for, not against, our own interests. A majority of Americans, including Republicans, want a single-payer healthcare system so surely it must in there (spoiler: it is not). But here we’re talking specifically about SB 562 and California, the Most Progressive State in the NationTM, and single payer is certainly at least in the California Democratic Party platform, right? (Yes, it really is.)
Thus we Californians have a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion, a Democratic super-majority in both state houses, single payer written into the party platform, and a single-payer bill that passed in the State Senate, yet no universal healthcare. How did this happen?
An analogy sprung to mind. It is far from perfect, but as I’m stuck in the blind-rage phase it won’t go away. So please bear with me for a moment.
Recall the character Penelope in Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife who waits faithfully for his return from the Trojan War. For the ten years Odysseus is away, Penelope is under siege by over 100 suitors who ravage Odysseus’ provisions and slaughter his livestock for elaborate daily feasts, all the while insisting Penelope must choose one of them to marry and thereby restore a king to the throne and order to the kingdom of Ithaca.
Penelope’s most famous delay tactic, as we’ll remember, is to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father. She promises to marry one of the suitors as soon as the shroud is complete, but every night she undoes the weaving that she had done during the day. She manages to stall for three years this way, until one of her serving girls discovers and exposes the ruse.
In The Odyssey we naturally identify with Odysseus because he is the protagonist and with Penelope because the suitors are written to be assholes, but there’s nothing inherently heroic or virtuous in Penelope’s false promise outside of the specific context of The Odyssey. She is weak, vastly outnumbered, and at the mercy of the suitors. She is the symbol of strong, faithful #Resistance. The Democratic Party is in an identical position: weak and vastly outnumbered. On the national level since 2008, under the leadership of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, Democrats have lost the White House, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, and over 1,000 legislative seats in state governments. So it’s easy to identify with the Democrats, the underdogs fighting the good fight against Trump and the Republicans on our behalf.
But within the party, too, the establishment Clintonite wing of the party is weak and vastly outnumbered: Bernie Sanders has an 83% approval rating among Democrats, and is the most popular politician in the country with all demographics. Sanders, not the establishment Democrats, represent the will of the majority of the party. And from this angle, we, the progressives, are in the position of the suitors: we’re inside the palace, demanding policies diametrically opposed to the donor class. And if you were Penelope in these circumstances, what would you do? Delay. You would make promises and appear to be working on the suitors’ behalf and you would fucking delay.
Which is exactly what we see from the Democrats. The time is not right for revolution, they say. The country isn’t ready for sweeping changes, poll numbers be damned. We need incremental reform, Democrats tell us, even as the Republicans swiftly erase a century’s worth of social and economic progress. Our country is so divided, this line of reasoning goes, that we need to reach across the aisle and compromise with the Republicans (who are simultaneously evil incarnate). Hillary Clinton gleefully proclaimed that single payer will “never, ever” happen to justify her support for the ACA. The same from Nancy Pelosi. But the ACA is great, they assure us, it’s “universal coverage” or whatever. It’s the best we can do for now with the Republicans running things and we the Democrats fought for it for you so shut up.
But in The People’s Republic of California the Democrats make the rules, they control the government at all levels, and they have no political cover from the Republicans. And this, then, is where situation can be seen most clearly. Because the neoliberal corporate establishment of the Democratic Party does, in fact, see the party base as Penelope’s suitors. We are the uninvited interlopers, trashing the place and eating all the food and demanding ever more free stuff. The establishment’s savior — Odysseus in this analogy but the donor class in reality — will be along soon to prop them up, if only they can keep us placated long enough.
As of Friday at 5pm, it appears SB 562 was the shroud California Democrats were weaving for us. Working toward single-payer, MediCal-for-all by day and biding their time until they had the chance to kill it by night. Because who could seriously, in the political sense, oppose it? Brown can’t veto it. Even if he could, Democrats have the numbers to easily override a veto. The only plausible option is, again, to delay, and you need only read Rendon’s statement to see it:
“As someone who has long been a supporter of single payer, I am encouraged by the conversation begun by Senate Bill 562.
“However, SB 562 was sent to the Assembly woefully incomplete. Even senators who voted for SB 562 noted there are potentially fatal flaws in the bill, including the fact it does not address many serious issues, such as financing, delivery of care, cost controls, or the realities of needed action by the Trump Administration and voters to make SB 562 a genuine piece of legislation.”
It’s not ready, the time isn’t quite right. We’re on your side and we want the same thing you do, but the threat of Trump and the Republican’s AHCA is so great that we can’t waste time working on anything that would neutralize that threat. (Side note: some of the issues raised here are real. They have already been addressed elsewhere, including by Spike Friedman in KNOCK.)
As for Rendon’s campaign financing, David Sirota reports:
“Since 2012, Rendon has taken in more than $82,000 from business groups and healthcare corporations that are listed in state documents opposed the measure, according to an International Business Times review of data amassed by the National Institute on Money In State Politics. In all, he has received more than $101,000 from pharmaceutical companies and another $50,000 from major health insurers.”
Adding insult to injury, Michael Sainato writes in Observer:
“However, given his ties to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, it’s not surprising that Speaker Rendon shut down the bill. In an election swung by fraudulent votes, his senior adviser, Eric Bauman, was recently elected by party insiders to chair the California Democratic Party Chair [sic]. Bauman received over $100,000 in 2016 lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry against Prop 61, which would have capped prescription drug prices in California.”
Once we get our heads right, from this perspective we see that the donor class has captured the Democratic Party, and the larger dysfunction of the party is perfectly rational. They are paid to lose. Donors back strong Republicans and weak Democrats, and the Democrats would rather lose than win with a progressive. The Democratic Party exists to thwart the progressive social, racial, economic, and environmental agenda of the left. To thwart, that is, the will of the majority of Americans. In California, they can’t lose elections very easily and they lack the political cover of a strong Republican foil, but fear not they can obviously still find ways to lose on policy. On the national level, though, they hit the sweet spot as the minority — not the opposition — party. Safe Republican districts have been gerrymandered across the country, and someone like Nancy Pelosi has been ensconced in the bluest of blue districts. There is no way to be rid of her except through a primary within a corrupted Democratic system.
So vote Democrat if you want, as currently the left has nowhere else to go, but don’t lie to yourself. Don’t hold on to any illusions about moral superiority to Trump voters or about voting in your own interests. You are not. With Democrats in power, you’re just waiting a little longer for the inevitable slaughter.