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March 30, 1999

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Who Speaks for the People?

by Townsend Walker

As a practical matter, no one speaks effectively for working people of the U.S. Indeed, the America of working class remains undiscovered, “a lost continent” afloat in corporate muck sanitized with the word “democracy.” But two issues among many demonstrate beyond rational argumentation the absolute dependency of democracy on the voice of the people -- and on the principle of political equality to make their voice heard. The justification for this sweeping statement is in the word democracy. Though the ancient Greeks invented the word we don’t have to be Greek to understand what they meant by it. Look it up in your dictionary. There you will find they combined two common words (one meaning “people,” the other “to rule”), resulting in the word democratia which literally means “the people rule.”

First: the issue of health care as a universal right in a democratic society. When the push for reform was at its height in the early 90s, polls indicated a substantial majority favoring a universal system on the Canadian model. But a newly elected President, while acknowledging the Canadian system to be the one of choice, deliberately cobbled a ludicrously complicated system based on private insurance. Congress’s refusal to approve his proposal was an invitation to Wall Street investors to proceed apace with managed competition, the people’s preference be damned. Today, a worried working class, including you the reader, pays more for less health care and speculates whether the less is an empty promise. Yes, there were a few in the U.S. Congress who argued soto voce for a universal health care system, but without effect, their voices buried under an avalanche of savage entrepreneurialism.

And second, the most blatant and hypocritical of all repudiations of democracy in the country that now poses as the foundation and chief promoter of democracy in the “free” world -- the shameless subjugation of the political process to the power of money and the quiescence of the masses in the face of this bastardization of the most basic and precious of all freedom -- the freedom to choose democracy over oligarchy. No rational, informed human being can deny, without lying in his teeth, that we have witnessed in this decade a display of political arrogance on a scale seldom seen in the annuals of American history. A twice-elected President and a United States Congress have refused to take money out of politics even as they gyrated hypocritically with false promises of campaign finance reform. Even as public acknowledgment of monied corruption became universal, corrupt politicians were hustling the hustings, and a discredited and impeached President was piously intoning “the promise of our future is limitless”! It was no exaggeration when a small-circulation publication (In These Times, Feb. 21, 1999) recently editorialized:

“Whichever way you cut it, the status quo, geared to the needs of large corporations and the super-rich, will remain undisturbed.”

The connection between these two issues universal health care and political control by the super-rich) hardly requires explanation. Health care is a cash cow for those who control it and are unwilling to forego profits for a system in which health care is enshrined as a human right consonant with the will of the people. Moreover, the elevation of health care to the status of a human right would mean not only the loss of a source of profit for the super-rich but the possibility of having to share s small portion of their vast accumulated wealth with society at large. In sum, the super-rich see universal health care as a Trojan horse within their private preserve -- a phenomenon to be resisted and banished at any cost. Those suffering today from lack of health care and those who will suffer tomorrow will continue to have no political power base until we decide en masse to turn the political process upside down. As Will Greider says in his book, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, “Nothing is likely to change until people decide to change it.” with these words the focus suddenly moves from health care to politics, inseparably linked to people through its derivation from the Greek word (polites) meaning people. Thus, health care, along with every other issues (environmentalism, etc.), is necessarily subordinated to the process (i.e., the political process) by which the problem posed by these issues will be resolved -- if they are resolved at all.

Today, it is a legitimate question of the highest order whether there is yet time to realize the promise of democracy in a country whose citizens have been nourished so long on political myths they cannot distinguished between democracy (rule of the people), oligarchy (rule by the few), and plutocracy (rule by the rich). There is, in fact, a sizable community of honorable, learned and responsible citizens among us who speak with abated breath of a noticeable slide toward fascism. Indeed, we are minded of Pastor Niemoeller’s warning to his German compatriots of the 1930s that Hitler’s bloodlust, earlier vented against Jews, Catholics and homosexuals, would eventually consume the whole nation in one way or another. And so it did. Whatever the actual situation today in the country we want to think of as the embodiment of the world’s greatest hope for democratic governance, it behooves us all to do all we can to that end. And if we succeed in that endeavor, surely one of the earliest signs of the reign of democracy will be a universal health care system, rationalized by the best among us. For, beyond any doubt, that is what most working Americans want -- those who, like the oligarchs and plutocrats, will have to deal with their own mortality sooner or later and attended, hopefully, by those who know best how to handle their physical and emotional needs.

That day will come only when America’s working class citizens accept responsibility to make it happen -- through their unions, churches and other civic, social and professional groups. Already scores of unions have founded the Labor Party and made its first priority the task of assuring every man, woman and child in the U.S. the benefits of a health care system based on need rather than profits. May their example set the stage for a groundswell for universal health care and thus demonstrate the power of a truly democratic society.

Townsend Walker of Huntsville, Alabama has been active for universal health care since his retirement twenty-three years ago, and now edits New Vision/New Voices on that connection.

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