Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ellen Schwartz, who lives in Brattleboro and is president of the Vermont Workers’ Center.On Town Meeting Day, 115,000 Vermont residents came out to support Bernie Sanders, propelling him to a resounding Democratic primary victory in every Vermont municipality. Nationally, Bernie’s campaign message of tackling inequality by taking on the “billionaire class” is resonating with voters from Michigan to Colorado, as is his political platform of fighting for universal public goods like higher education and health care, a $15 minimum wage, and racial, gender and environmental justice.
Unsurprisingly, Bernie’s insurgent progressive vision is facing serious pushback from the Democratic Party establishment, which has focused its energy on attacking his plan for a universal health care system that treats health care as a human right. From CNN to The New York Times, we’re told that Bernie’s proposals just aren’t economically feasible, that it would be too great an economic shock to treat health care as a public good as so many other developed nations do.
If this argument sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same one Gov. Peter Shumlin used last winter when he abandoned Vermont’s move toward public financing for universal health care — which by his own estimates would increase net incomes for 93 percent of Vermont families by reducing their overall health care costs. Why would a governor unilaterally drop a plan that benefits nine out of 10 people in our state?
Despite the confusion about health care in the public narrative, the outpouring of support for Bernie’s campaign shows that the public is ready to take profit and inequity out of health care.
From Washington to Montpelier, the political elite understand all too well that equitable financing for universal health care requires raising revenue from those who can afford it through progressive taxes on income and wealth. For politicians who count big corporations and the wealthy among their advisers, this presents a choice: raise taxes on powerful political insiders or continue with the agenda of “austerity,” which is cutting or privatizing public goods and driving record inequality.
We know which choice our current governor has made. But what about those candidates riding Bernie’s coattails who are currently running for statewide office? Will they have the political courage to address the crisis of inequality by following through with equitable financing for Vermont’s universal health care system?
One way or another, when the current candidates take office in 2017, it’s likely that many of us will still be struggling to meet our health care needs as we wade through the insurance-based system, with its differential tiers of coverage, deductibles, co-pays, and excluded care. Despite the confusion about health care in the public narrative, the outpouring of support for Bernie’s campaign shows that the public is ready to take profit and inequity out of health care.
What will it take to bring Bernie’s political revolution home to Vermont? People respond to Bernie’s campaign because he lays out true aspirations — rather than the continued litany of settling for what is deemed politically possible. It’s no coincidence that his platform echoes demands advanced by independent social movements like Fight for $15, Not1More Deportation, and Healthcare Is a Human Right, and by activists for racial justice and climate justice. It’s also no coincidence that he mentions the “millionaires and billionaires” in every speech. He is clear that his vision puts him at odds with those who profit from the status quo.
Whether Bernie is able to move his agenda within the Democratic Party remains to be seen, but I hope that his campaign ignites candidates in Vermont to have the courage to pull back the curtain on the austerity myth and say what so many people already know: that what stands between us and livable wages, universal health care, affordable child care, racial justice, gender justice, and a planet inhabitable for the future is, quite simply, political will.