Politics for the People December Column on IVN

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REVIEW: Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America” Gives Americans a Much Needed History Lesson

Here’s a passage that brings historians’ public value to life: “The only way to come to understanding is by knowing the history that has shaped us,” writes Jon Meacham in his evocative, The Soul of America (p. 259).
What Meacham asserts is profound. What appears to be new in America’s politics is often anything but. A more likely description, Meacham contends, is that it’s the newest episode of ‘America’s eternal struggle.’
“I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before,” Meacham quotes a flummoxed Harry Truman. “But they it never does until people get knocked in the head by experience.” (p. 259)
So true: Live it and know it. But let’s wish it were otherwise. If Americans could actually learn from history and practice accordingly—especially now, living as we are, in the Age of Trump—we’d be so much better off as a nation.But they don’t. And that’s what makes this book so important: Meacham tells many Americans ‘what they never knew.’

If history were truly our guide, then each and every time we scream—“Trump! There he goes again! –we’d appreciate what may be the most poignant passage of Meacham’s book: “And yet and yet—there is always an ‘and yet’ in American history.” (p. 103, bolding added)

America’s script, Meacham argues, is a constant yin and yang—of taking two steps forward (sometimes one) and one step back (sometimes two). He describes it as “the war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest” (p. 7).

Each American president engages in that very same struggle. For example, LBJ exerted moral leadership when he signed The Civil Rights Act—knowing full well that he was likely signing over the South to the Republican Party. Richard Nixon showed a very different temperament—and paid a steep price—when he conspired in Watergate.

Then there was Andrew Jackson, the president who took a Hobbesian view of the presidency (that is, every single day is a war). Jackson, whom Meacham describes as “the most contradictory of men,” ”spoke passionately of the needs of the humble members of society…and made the case for a more democratic understanding of power.” But he (also) “massacred Native Americans in combat, executed enemy soldiers, and imposed martial law” (p. 29), while constantly blaming others and expressing self-pity with regularity.

I’ve come to see Woodrow Wilson—once my presidential hero—in that contradictory way, too. Wilson led America during the era of suffrage triumph and argued vociferously for what eventually became the United Nations. But he also squelched free speech through The Sedition Act (1918) and was adamant about keeping African Americans out of government (they don’t have ‘the intelligence,’ he surmised).

Thank goodness we had activists then (as we have today) that got into Wilson’s face and fought him every step of the way. Alice Paul (my new hero) is one example.

But neither Jackson nor Wilson—add Nixon to that list, too—was a one-off. “If we expect trumpets to sound unwavering notes,” Meacham observes, “we will be disappointed. The past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony” (p. 103).

Consider this: for all the great things FDR did for America, keep in mind that he interred Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans during WWII. And he wouldn’t support anti-lynching legislation—despite Eleanor’s constant urging—concerned that he’d lose Congressional votes for his New Deal.

Of course, many of us would trade Wilson or FDR for Donald Trump in a heartbeat. Trump—an extreme version of the losing side of what Jon Meacham calls, “the battle for our better angels”—is the reason he wrote this book: “I am writing now,” Meacham scribes, “not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does,” p. 13).

But staying true to the theme of this important book, Meacham doesn’t see Trump as unique. In many ways, he’s a 21st Century version of that damnable 20th Century figure, Senator Joe McCarthy.

It’s a valid comparison, too. “Our fate (as a society) is contingent upon which element—hope or fear—emerges triumphant,” Meacham writes (p. 7). Lincoln and Obama exuded hope. McCarthy and Trump peddled fear. That’s why—to better understand Trump—it’s advisable to learn more about McCarthy.

“He (McCarthy) exploited the privileges of power and prominence without regard to its responsibilities,” Meacham writes. “A freelance performer who grasped what many ordinary Americans feared,” McCarthy knew that “the country feared Communism…and he fed those fears…. A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject—all while keeping himself at center stage.” (p. 185)

Sound familiar? Well, there’s more. Even after McCarthy was disgraced publicly, polls showed that 34% of Americans still supported him (p. 201). And McCarthy’s primary advisor—Roy Cohn—later advised a young, New York real estate developer … named Donald Trump (p. 206).

What does Meacham’s work mean for independents? For an answer, I recommend reading the book’s conclusion, “The First Duty of an American Citizen” (p. 255-272). In it, he offers a recipe for response—and two of five ingredients speak directly to what it means to be Independent.

Respect facts and deploy reason: Being able to uncover facts, weigh facts, and come to a reasonable conclusion requires cognitive skills and stick-to-itiveness. It also requires the capacity to disassociate claims from claimants, especially claimants who masquerade as Pied Pipers. To do otherwise, Meacham writes, “is to preemptively surrender the capacity of the mind” (p. 268). The take-away message: think independently.

Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everybody on your side already agrees with one another,” Meacham observes (p. 268). Put another way, ‘following the party line’ has costs—not only in terms of constraining the idea pool, but by infecting the public domain with (what I call) the politics of affiliation. To wit: you must go along to get along, especially if you want to get ahead in the party. The take-away message: act independently.

The bottom line is that Jon Meacham’s book is an important read—especially today. Yes, today is probably another chapter in what Meacham calls our ‘eternal struggle,’ but it’s an especially ornery one. To address it effectively, we must learn from the past. But that’s no small order in a society where a lot of folks don’t read much or at all; don’t engage in multifaceted political dialogue much or at all; and get a good share of their news (if not all of it) from friends, social media, and 24-hour ‘news’ networks.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of depth, understanding, and perceptivity across America today. That makes it easy for the public to be duped, and duping opened the door for Donald Trump.

But duping doesn’t serve democracy—not the kind the Founding Fathers had in mind; not the kind you embrace; and not the kind America needs to be that “Shining City on the Hill” Reagan referenced during his valedictory (1989).

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that the character of our nation rests solely—even primarily—on the back of the person in The White House. Meacham, among others (Ralph Waldo Emerson, too), believes that it rests with the character of the people (p. 40).

Character. Leading for the public good.

The time is now. The stakes are high. There aren’t alternatives, Eternal Struggle or not.

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Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal

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On Sunday, December 2nd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, the author of An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Dr. Rosenthal is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Medical School.  Dr. Rosenthal practiced emergency medicine before joining the New York Times where she was a senior writer. She is currently editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News, an independent non-profit DC-based newsroom focusing on health and health policy.

In the introduction of the call, you can hear Dr. Rosenthal and P4P founder and host, Cathy Stewart, discuss Dr. Rosenthal’s journey from the emergency room to writing about healthcare reform, thinking she would one day be able to return to her calling as a doctor. Twenty years later, Dr. Rosenthal decided to write An American Sickness and told us that in working on the book she “…dug into each area of healthcare to see for myself really how it came to be that we put profit on the front burner and health on the back burner.”

Give a listen here or below:

 

Steve Hough of Florida Fair and Open Primaries kicked us off by asking what Dr. Rosenthal’s views were on the demand for the U.S. to move to a single-payer healthcare system. You can hear Dr. Rosenthal’s response and how she feels that the solution to our healthcare crisis is a political decision here or below.  On the role of the insurance industry, Dr. Rosenthal thinks “…much of what we get from the insurance world, or from a lot of the layers in our healthcare system, has nothing to do with health care, it adds layers of complexity and cost…”

 

Our next question came from Cynthia Carpathios of Independent Ohio. Cynthia asked about part two of Dr. Rosenthal’s book—Diagnosis and Treatment: Prescriptions for Taking Back Our Healthcare—specifically how she sees us changing the culture of healthcare and how can we transform our healthcare system into one where patient care is the primary concern. Listen here.

 

Harriet Hoffman of New York, a consultant who helps people understand the Medicare system and make the best, most cost-effective and access-friendly decisions, raised the push by some for ‘Medicare for All.’ She asked if Dr. Rosenthal thinks a ‘Medicare for All’ system would be viable or even desirable as it is now. Hear her answer or check it out below.

 

Dr. Jessie Fields pointed out that though the healthcare industry spends $3 trillion a year, our life expectancy is going down in the United States. Dr. Fields went on to talk about how the medical industry is the country’s biggest lobbying force, which requires political reform and the removal of profit incentives from healthcare. Despite all of this, Dr. Fields asked Dr. Rosenthal what glimmers of change she can see. An enlightening discussion followed where Dr. Rosenthal shared her view that “…there’s great hope for a kind of physician-patient alliance to bring change.”

 

Reverend Carl McCluster, an independent organizer in Connecticut, spoke of how many of his parishioners are suffering from high medical and drug costs. Reverend McCluster asked Dr. Rosenthal for three suggested steps that advocates could take to push back against the medical industry. Listen to how to fight back here.

 

Susan Massad, a retired physician and a clinician educator of over fifty years, worked with young physicians on their listening skills and their abilities to respond to patients. Susan asked if there are things that Dr. Rosenthal thinks patients should be doing that will amplify their voices and could be helpful to challenge the system. Hear the response.

 

Cathy and Dr. Rosenthal wrapped up the conversation on a note of hope for change and reform. “I tell everyone when I go talk to hospitals,” Dr. Rosenthal said, “just do something. Do something in whatever space you exist to start changing things because I think that’s how empowerment starts.”

 

You can listen to our entire conversation below:

 


For easy reference, from An American Sickness:

Dr. Rosenthal’s

Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market

  1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive option.
  2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
  3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
  4. As technologies age, prices can rise rather than fall.
  5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
  6. More competitors vying for business doesn’t mean better prices; it can drive prices up, not down.
  7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
  8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
  9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
  10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

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STAY TUNED
We will announce our next selection soon.

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Reminder: P4P Conference Call with Dr. Rosenthal TONIGHT!

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TONIGHT 

Join us on a conference call with
An American Sickness Author Elisabeth Rosenthal

Sunday, December 2nd
at 7 pm EST

Call in and Join the Conversation  

Phone number: 641-715-3605   

Passcode: 767775#

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Reader’s Forum — Lou Hinman and Jeff Aron

Lou Hinman 

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The runaway inflation in the cost of living in America is worst in precisely those sectors of the economy that the 99% can’t live without — higher education, housing, and healthcare. In An American Sickness, Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal describes in excruciating detail how American healthcare has been hijacked.

How did this happen?  How did we Americans get so divided that a plastic surgeon dares to bill $50,000 for 3 stitches – just one of the many examples that Dr. Rosenthal sites.  (I also read a story not long ago in the New York Times about an “out-of-network” surgeon who ambushed an unsuspecting patient, sewing him up after his operation, and then billing him for a quarter of a million dollars!)

Medicare has become a vast, publicly owned resource  – a huge accumulation of money, automatically withheld from the paychecks of working people for their entire working lives – that is ripe for systematic looting by private interests.  In exactly the same way, private insurance companies don’t complain about extortion by the drug companies, and the newly privatized “not-for-profit” hospitals and their incorporated medical practices, because they can pass the extortionate billing on to their tens of millions of subscribers – you and me.

The corruption of the American system of healthcare has become institutionalized.  Indeed, our healthcare system now fits Irving Goffman’s description of a “total institution” – an institution that, whatever its original or nominal purpose, has as it’s real priority perpetuating itself and benefiting its hangers-on.  Such total institutions are, as Dr. Rosenthal suggests, a sign of a culture in decline.

When President Eisenhower left office in 1961, he warned us about what he called the “military-industrial complex.” In the decades that followed, military production did, in fact, become a juggernaut of profit-making for private interests and, simultaneously, an institutionalized parasite on the productive resources of the American economy and the needs of the American people.  Healthcare in America has now become just such a parasite – the “medical-industrial complex!”

As Dr. Rosenthal astutely observes: “In healthcare, entrepreneurship outsmarts regulation every time.” In the independent political movement, we know this pattern very well.  We’ve learned, for example, that trying to stop the flow of money to Democrat and Republican politicians by campaign finance reform can’t succeed, because new regulations, written by those politicians, come with new loopholes.  The development of new corrupt practices is impossible to keep up with, in both politics and in healthcare, without addressing the question of political power.  We can’t reclaim either our government or our healthcare without creating a new political culture.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

Jeff Aron

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I won’t say that I “enjoyed” reading An American Sickness by Dr. Elizabeth Rosenthal. It corresponded too closely to experiences of my family and friends – not merely the illnesses and deaths but the difficult engagements with all aspects of a system that creates economic and existential insecurity which have nothing to do with “health.”

Whether based on personal interviews or other research, the stories Dr. Rosenthal shares help us to understand and are devastating critiques of the (mis)organization of healthcare in the United States. So many people are failed by this “system”. I kept wondering what those who supported it might say in its defense. More to the point, I wondered what we as a country would need to do to produce a system(s) other than what we have. What can we do about the overweening power of hospitals, insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals — all of which have enormous political leverage as well as economic incentive to keep things as they are? Would it be possible to build partnerships between those who currently profit from this state of affairs and those who are not served well by it? How might that be organized?

I really appreciated Dr. Rosenthal’s suggestions about what individuals can do. However, I feel similarly to Susan Massad and others who have written that something bolder — more grassroots and more challenging of the larger system of which healthcare is a part — needs to be undertaken.

As I read An American Sickness, from my location as an activist in the mental health arena who also has been a community organizer, I thought of areas of concern and contention in healthcare which might have been more fully explored, e.g., severe mental disorders, aging, and lack of access and education for marginalized groups. While addressing these may not have strengthened the very strong case Rosenthal makes, including these populations as resources would be powerful elements of a movement for change.

I also thought about my brother, my mother, my life partner — all of whom died of serious illnesses — the challenges we faced, the diversity of people we met, the pharmaceuticals that were prescribed, the offices, clinics and hospitals we entered — and how all of us were shaped (deformed) by the economic and political forces that organize the practice of medicine — and everything else in our society. We can and must do better.

Jeff Aron has been active in independent political efforts in New York City and nationally since the late ’70s. He is a passionate supporter of IndependentVoting.org


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Politics for the People

Conference Call

An American Sickness

With Author Elisabeth Rosenthal

Sunday, Dec. 2nd at 7 pm EST.

Call in number:  641-715-3605 

Passcode 767775#

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