The First Priority for the Resurgent U.S. Socialist Movement? Single-Payer Healthcare

At DSA’s overflowing national convention, socialized medicine was front and center.

Miles Kampf-Lassin August 7, 2017

At the largest gathering of U.S. socialists since World War II, fists were raised high. (Photo by Micah Uetricht)

Are y’all ready to crush the pri­vate health insur­ance indus­try? Are you ready to make health­care a human right in America?”

As universal healthcare continues to grow in popularity nationwide, many in DSA see the potential of using the issue to recruit droves of new members to the socialist organization.

These ques­tions from Ari Mar­can­to­nio, a sin­gle-pay­er orga­niz­er for the East Bay chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), were met with rau­cous cheers at the organization’s nation­al con­ven­tion in Chica­go this weekend.

DSA mem­bers affirmed their com­mit­ment to mak­ing sin­gle-pay­er orga­niz­ing a nation­al pri­or­i­ty with a major­i­ty vote by the convention’s more than 700 del­e­gates. Billed as the largest gath­er­ing of U.S. social­ists since World War II, the con­ven­tion took place on the heels of DSA reach­ing more than 25,000 dues-pay­ing mem­bers — an all-time high (this author is a mem­ber of the group).

The organization’s growth has been dra­mat­ic: In May 2016, DSA had just 6,500 mem­bers, mean­ing the group has near­ly quadru­pled in size in just over a year.

Del­e­gates to the con­ven­tion also vot­ed for res­o­lu­tions back­ing the Fight for $15,’ sup­port­ing the boy­cott, divest­ment and sanc­tions cam­paign against Israel and endors­ing Black Youth Project 100’s Agen­da to Build Black Futures, among many others. 

Where recent years’ DSA con­ven­tions have been much small­er affairs, at times attend­ed by few­er than 200 mem­bers, this year saw more than 1,000 demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists assem­ble, prac­tic­ing the some­times messy process of self-gov­er­nance — and grab­bing nation­al media atten­tion along the way. Many of the atten­dees were young and new to the orga­ni­za­tion, inspired in large part by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run for pres­i­dent as an open demo­c­ra­t­ic socialist. 

Sanders made the demand for a uni­ver­sal, sin­gle-pay­er health­care sys­tem a cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign, and has con­tin­ued to ral­ly sup­port for such a pro­gram through­out the recent health­care debate in Con­gress over the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Polls show that more and more Amer­i­cans are turn­ing on to the idea of sin­gle pay­er, with 53 per­cent now in sup­port of get­ting health insur­ance from a sin­gle gov­ern­ment plan. Promi­nent Democ­rats are begin­ning to speak out in favor of such a pro­gram, and John Cony­ers’ (D‑Mich.) sin­gle-pay­er bill in the House, which he’s intro­duced every year since 2003, now has record support. 

This new­found appeal of sin­gle pay­er has cre­at­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty that DSA mem­bers hope to seize. Through­out the con­ven­tion, the ener­gy around orga­niz­ing for Medicare for All was palpable.

Jen James, a mem­ber of the social­ist-fem­i­nist work­ing group in the New York City chap­ter, told atten­dees that Medicare for All can be a tru­ly trans­for­ma­tion­al reform and give pow­er back to the work­ing class.”

James explained how fight­ing for uni­ver­sal health­care ben­e­fits the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of soci­ety while bridg­ing key issues — from oppos­ing the prison indus­tri­al com­plex to chal­leng­ing wealth and income inequal­i­ty. Stud­ies show that wealth is the great­est pre­dic­tor of good health­care out­comes,” said James. By fight­ing for uni­ver­sal health­care, we can focus our efforts on those who have the most to gain: sin­gle moth­ers, women of col­or and the work­ing poor.”

In New York, where James orga­nizes, mem­bers are advo­cat­ing for the New York Health Act, a bill that would pro­vide a uni­ver­sal, pub­licly-financed health­care sys­tem. And in the East Bay chap­ter, Mar­can­to­nio and hun­dreds of oth­er vol­un­teers are knock­ing on doors to build sup­port for the Healthy Cal­i­for­nia Act, which would also insti­tute sin­gle pay­er statewide.

These efforts on the state lev­el show how orga­niz­ing around sin­gle pay­er offers key oppor­tu­ni­ties for polit­i­cal mobilization.

I think sin­gle pay­er will be an issue that peo­ple across the entire orga­ni­za­tion take up, but it may look dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent states,” says Joseph Schwartz, new­ly re-elect­ed mem­ber of DSA’s nation­al polit­i­cal com­mit­tee. In places like Min­neso­ta, New York and Cal­i­for­nia, it is a real ques­tion of whether it can be passed and imple­ment­ed. But I do think in red states there will have to be a focus on defend­ing against cuts to Medicaid.” 

That doesn’t mean orga­niz­ing for uni­ver­sal health­care is being con­fined to states with Demo­c­ra­t­ic majori­ties, how­ev­er. Amy Zach­mey­er is a DSA mem­ber and sin­gle-pay­er orga­niz­er in Texas, one of the red­dest states in the nation and home to the country’s high­est unin­sured rate. She says her expe­ri­ence has shown that peo­ple are open to con­sid­er­ing rad­i­cal ideas when they are pre­sent­ed as a gen­uine break with the polit­i­cal establishment.

Fox News has inoc­u­lat­ed their view­ers against the Democ­rats,” Zach­mey­er says, so open­ly iden­ti­fy­ing as a social­ist and invit­ing peo­ple to join the fight for Medicare for All is not an alien­at­ing ask.” 

To build nation­al sup­port for the demand, Philadel­phia DSA mem­ber Dustin Guastel­la advo­cates orga­niz­ing for a fed­er­al Medicare for All sys­tem that would cov­er every Amer­i­can regard­less of what state they live in.

The fed­er­al­ized nature of the U.S. health­care sys­tem cre­ates bar­ri­ers for state-wide wins,” Guastel­la told con­ven­tion atten­dees. We need to raise the pro­file of this demand and force politi­cians to lis­ten to a durable polit­i­cal coali­tion built at the nation­al level.”

As uni­ver­sal health­care con­tin­ues to grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty nation­wide, many in DSA see the poten­tial of using the issue to recruit droves of new mem­bers to the social­ist organization.

We should be the orga­ni­za­tion­al home for the mil­lions of peo­ple who believe in sin­gle pay­er: health advo­cates, work­ers, Sander­sis­tas and social­ists,” says Guastella.

DSA nation­al direc­tor Maria Svart tells In These Times, Sin­gle pay­er is obvi­ous­ly an issue that res­onates and has real trac­tion right now. It’s both good in and of itself and it’s a good orga­niz­ing issue.”

Com­ing out of the con­ven­tion, DSA lead­ers and mem­ber­ship will now turn to the task of how best to advance their pri­or­i­ties, includ­ing sin­gle pay­er — and how to build social­ist pol­i­tics in the process.

One imme­di­ate area where the group can show their influ­ence is the upcom­ing 2018 elec­tions, where health­care is sure to come up as a promi­nent issue. By demand­ing that can­di­dates sup­port tak­ing insur­ance out of the pri­vate mar­ket and mak­ing it uni­ver­sal, DSA mem­bers can have a direct impact on this debate, shift­ing its terms toward a tru­ly rad­i­cal reform: the decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of health­care in the Unit­ed States. 

If this year’s con­ven­tion is any guide, the excite­ment behind sin­gle pay­er has the poten­tial to lead to a new wave of orga­niz­ing behind a goal that just a few short years ago seemed a near impossibility.

After the Medicare for All res­o­lu­tion passed, the chair announced that the DSA sup­ports social­ized med­i­cine in Amer­i­ca.” And anoth­er round of cheers erupt­ed through the con­ven­tion hall.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH