Originally published as a March 29, 2010 webcomic for Everyday Citizen
The health care reform bill just passed last week and it’s a good time to reflect on the struggles of the past few months. It was a long and drawn out process, with a lot of compromises and points where it seemed like the bill wouldn’t be passed. There were Tea Party protests, the loss of the 60 Democratic votes in the Senate with the surprising election of a Republican in Ted Kennedy’s old seat, and much misinformation about “death panels” and “socialism” were attached to this bill. I followed the journey of this health care reform bill for the past few months, and it was frequently exasperating, but it was also very much like a fascinating political soap opera for me. I had never followed the process of a major initiative this closely before and really learned a lot about the political process.
Many progressives were disappointed with Barack Obama during these past few months for not being more vigorous in fighting for the public option and for following a fairly centrist path in this first year of his administration. I was a bit disappointed at Obama’s seeming passivity during the early part of the health care debate, but I really wasn’t that surprised at his early centrist path. Several progressives had been writing that Obama’s presidency would take a more centrist path unless progressive grassroots activists agitate and push Obama and the country in a more progressive political direction.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s campaign platform was fairly center left. It was moderately liberal, but in areas like health care reform, financial reform, and climate change, his policies weren’t as progressive as Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, John Edwards or Joe Biden. Obama’s ideas centered on reforming the economic system, not changing it, so he wouldn’t challenge corporations to the extent that many progressives would like. In the health care reform debate, for instance, Obama wanted to avoid the conflict that President Clinton had in 1994 with health insurance companies that scuttled Clinton’s attempt at health care reform, so Obama early on negotiated with the insurance companies to neutralize them as a threat.
The push of the Tea Party activists and the pressure of a united Republican front scared the more centrist Democrats into scuttling the public option. Though Obama has progressive sympathies, he will continue to go down a more centrist path unless progressive activists make as much noise as their tea party counterparts. John Nichols wrote in the January 2009 edition of the Progressive Magazine:
It is reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama agrees with them on many fundamental issues. He has said as much.
It is equally reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama wants to do the right thing. But it is necessary for progressives to understand that, as with Roosevelt, they will have to make Obama do it.
In the December 2008 edition of The Progressive, Jim Hightower makes a similar point.
Like fresh poured concrete, the shape of Obama’s Presidency is going to set up quickly, and we can’t be lulled into thinking that casting a ballot is all that democracy requires of us. People who really want change can’t just crank back in their La-Z-Boys, trusting Obama to do the heavy lifting for us.
Wall Street, the war machine, corporate chieftains, Republican Congress critters, rightwing yackety-yackers, weak-kneed Democrats, and other powerful forces of business-as-usual policies will be all over him. They are the insiders, and intend to shape him in their mold.
We have to be the counterforce- an aggressive and vociferous Loyal Opposition pushing insistently and persistently from the outside. Obama was the candidate of change, but he’ll be the President of change only if we buck him up and back him up.
I think significant social change occurs when radicals agitate for change from outside the system and liberal reformers work for change inside the system. Jim Hightower made a good point that there are many outside powerful forces that will be fighting any attempts at change, and that the only thing that can countervail that is an active and involved progressive grassroots movement.
If we glance at history, it is only when a strong enough radical agitation takes place to change attitudes and assert constant pressure can liberal reformers enact reforms within the system. During the 1770s and 1780s, for instance, some of the Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, tried to pass legislation to gradually abolish slavery in all the states in the union, but the Quakers and other antislavery groups at the time were not influential enough to pressure the government for change. It was only the persistent efforts of radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Sarah and Angelina Grimke to lead protests and organize people to the abolitionist cause that pushed Abraham Lincoln and Republicans like Charles Sumner to abolish slavery.
Radical suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone worked from the convening of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution to get women the right to vote. Radicals like Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, and Eugene Debs led strikes among workers that pushed Progressives in government to enact laws to improve worker conditions, end child labor, and institute a 40 hour work week. In the 1960s and 1970s, Civil Rights activists, Feminist activists and Gay Rights activists led protests and acts of civil disobedience that lead to liberal legislation to protect the rights of women, minorities and the LGBT community.
Frederick Douglass commented on the philosophy of reform in a famous 1857 speech:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
In the past, I’ve had limited experiences in getting involved to try to enact some change for our society. In the 1990s, I was the secretary of the part-timers SEIU union at my work. I would up being secretary because no one else wanted to take the position, but I enjoyed the position and learned a lot.
I really didn’t do much except take notes of meetings, but I got to see up close some of the negotiations between our union leaders and the city officials, and saw how the union really worked to improve the conditions of the part time workers. The leaders of the unions were Bob Balmanno, Joan Coston, Juanita Harris, and Fran Shimozaki, and I really admired how they would take the time to listen to people’s grievances, talk to supervisors to try to solve problems, and negotiate for benefits. I was lucky to have been involved in the union during the tech boom, when the city’s budget was healthy and negotiations between the city and the union were more friendly. In these tough economic times, when many city budgets are suffering from massive deficits, I assume that meetings between unions and city governments are a lot more tense.
During these past few months, I decided to get more involved in the health care debates than just making cartoons and writing blogs. I was partly inspired by my anger at some of the tea party protests during August of last year, when angry opponents of health care reform were making a lot of noise in town hall meetings and were making racist comments about President Obama.
I was also inspired by reading some of the blogs at Everyday Citizen, particularly a blog by Pamela Jean and a blog by Gerald Britt on the importance of getting involved beyond just voting. And I was inspired by some of my artist and poet heroes who were also activists, like Diego Rivera, Ralph Fasanella, Grace Paley, and Muriel Rukeyser.
So in the past couple of months, I attended a vigil, a rally and volunteered in a phone bank. I emailed and called my Congresswoman and two Senators to thank them for their support of health care reform. I think the most enriching thing that I’ve gotten out of this involvement has been just to talk to individuals and hear their stories about why they support health care reform.
A lot of the stories were rather sad. A woman went through chemotherapy and struggled with her insurance company to make payments. A wife talked about the struggles she had with the insurance companies to cover her husband’s medical problems. A man talked about how his company offers the cheapest insurance that really doesn’t offer good coverage.
I also met social justice heroes who dedicate their lives for the betterment of the poor and the marginalized. I met Father Bill Leininger, who met Dorothy Day and marched with Cesar Chavez and has recently join in marches to support janitors working for Cisco and to support Wal-Mart employees. I met the Raging Grannie, a group of older women who fight for economic justice, peace issues and the rights of minorities and the LGBT community. I met members of the group West Valley for Change, a Democratic group that fights for progressive ideas in the Democratic Party in Silicon Valley.
Though I’ve been angry at some of the things that have emanated from the Tea Party movement, I have to admire them for their passion and their willingness to get involved and fight for what they believe in. They are doing what people in the Left should be doing. I read a recent interview by Noam Chomsky in the April 2010 that made me look at the Tea Party in a new way. Chomsky said in the interview:
The tea party thing is a real sign of the failure of the left. Those people, they’re a mixed group, but many of them- I would say probably most of them- are the people who ought to be organized by the left. These are people with real grievances. For the past 30 years- years of financialization and neo-liberalism- for the majority, wages have stagnated. Benefits, which were never very great, have declined. Working hours have shot way up. They’ve gone into debt to try to preserve the consumerist lifestyle that’s rammed down their throats by the advertising industry. So they’re in bad shape. Not Third World-style bad shape, but bad shape by the standards of the way a rich, industrial country is supposed to be.
Those are the things the left ought to be organizing around. Right now, people are very upset, and rightly, about the giveaway to the banks and the high unemployment. If you look at unemployment figures, which are always understated, in the manufacturing industry it’s back to the level of the Great Depression. And people are not going to get those jobs back. So they have a right to be mad, but the left is not offering them anything.
I’ve met a friend who is Tea Party person. I had a conflict with her over her views but I eventually reconciled with her and have to admit, in spite of our different political points of view, I admire her involvement in local politics. I think one of the great strengths in this American democracy is the clash of ideas that comes from a free and open debate. It’s important for those of us who are liberals and progressives to argue the merits of economic justice, environmental protection, peace, and for equal rights for minorities, women, and the LGBT community.
I end this blog with an excerpt from a speech that Bobby Kennedy made in Berkeley, California on October 22, 1966. He said:
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs. Plato said: “A life without criticism is not worth living.”
This is the seminal spirit of American democracy. It is this spirit which can be found among many of you. It is this which is the hope of our nation.
For it is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from.
We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich.
We dissent from the conditions and hatreds which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin.
We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another, and men must kill their fellow men.
We dissent from the sight of most of mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger, and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor.
We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle.
We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty.
We dissent from all those structures- of technology and of society itself- which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country.
These are among the objects of our dissent. Yet we must, as thinking men, distinguish between the right of dissent and the way we choose to exercise that right. It is not enough to justify or explain our actions by the fact that they are legal or constitutionally protected. The Constitution protects wisdom and ignorance, compassion and selfishness alike. But that dissent which consists simply of sporadic and dramatic acts sustained by neither continuing labor or research- that dissent which seeks to demolish while lacking both the desire and direction for rebuilding, that dissent which contemptuously or out of laziness, casts aside the practical weapons and instruments of change and progress- that kind of dissent is merely self-indulgence. It is satisfying perhaps to those who make it.
But it will not solve the problems of our society. It will not assist those seriously engaged in the difficult and frustrating work of the nation. And, when it is all over, it will not have brightened or enriched the life of a single portion of humanity in a single part of the globe.
All of us have the right to dissipate our energies and talent as we desire. But those who are serious about the future have the obligation to direct those energies and talents toward concrete objectives consistent with the ideals they profess. From those of you who take that course will come the fresh ideas and leadership, which are the compelling needs of America.
If you enjoy this cartoon, take a look at these links for more of my political cartoons at Everyday Citizen:
A Reunion Cartoon
A Cartoon on Government and the Market Economy
Bob the Nerd Vampire
Jasper Debates War
Jasper Finds His Way Home
Jasper Escapes the Detention Center
Jasper At A Detention Center
Jasper Meets a Poet
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
The Road To Health Care Reform Cartoon
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage