Losers is a continuing series of stories based on failed presidential campaigns, examining the ideas worth exploring from the candidates who almost made it to the White House and even those who never stood a chance.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
2,304 MILES FROM HOME
The last time I was in Los Angeles, Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination for president. Well, not the last time, but the time before that. Sanders had just held a rally in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with musical guests Sam Roberts and Fishbone. I drove eight hours down the Pacific coast to a dingy hotel room in LA, pressing at the buttons of an old Sony tube television, to find out that Bernie had lost to Hillary Clinton before the polls were set to open in California the next day.
This time around, another Bernie Sanders concert event was causing a feud between Public Enemy rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav. One had chosen to endorse Sanders and perform at a downtown Los Angeles event while the other was less-than-thrilled that the band’s name was being used to promote a politician. “Sanders claims to represent everyman not the man yet his grossly irresponsible handling of Chuck’s endorsement threatens to divide Public Enemy…” read a letter that was sent to the Sanders campaign. “Bernie, his name is Flavor Flav and he does NOT approve your message!”
As a horde of Sanders fans waited patiently for the show to begin they all let out an audible grunt when the musical guest was announced as Public Enemy Radio. Only half the band, along with the original DJ, would perform that night and if Bernie Sanders could tell such a lie about a musical guest at his rally, just imagine the heinous sins he would inflict on American healthcare.
Just as well, Chuck D went on to perform in front of a massive crowd at the LA Convention Center, Flavor Flav was kicked out of the band and — for the second time in four years — Bernie Sanders lost.
California was the first state to report a case of COVID-19 when Lance and I flew into Los Angeles from Atlanta. At the time it didn’t feel like a disease could possibly be made political. There was little headline space reserved, quite yet, for the 33 percent of Americans who say they put off basic medical care because of the cost. The chyron at the bottom of the cable news broadcast wasn’t pointing out that only 14 percent of employers who provide benefits cover all their employees’ costs. America wasn’t sick yet. At least not in a way that made the news. Bernie Sanders was still filling stadiums.
If you spend enough time following Sanders around the country, there’s a certain feeling you get accustomed to. The riled-up energy of bottled-momentum. It never feels like he’s losing until you see the returns on election night and when he wins it’s hardly a surprise because 17,000 screaming democratic socialists looks terribly convincing to certain Americans and just plain terrifying to others.
For a week or so the national press appeared deeply troubled that Bernie Sanders might win. So much so that ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked for a show of hands while moderating a debate to determine how many candidates were concerned about socialism.
Sanders was miles ahead of Joe Biden when Anderson Cooper asked him how he felt about Cuba in an interview on 60 Minutes. “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” Sanders said and he might have gotten away with it if he’d stopped there. “But, you know, it’s unfair to simply say ‘everything is bad’.”
That statement, read anywhere else in the world, would have been shrugged off, but this was America and Bernie Sanders was applying for the country’s top job.
“It seems that even when criticizing leftist regimes, Sanders just can’t help pointing out their positive qualities or excusing their abuses with a shrug and a “nobody’s perfect,” explained Vox’s Alex Ward.
It was a stupid thing to say as an American presidential candidate. Though, it may be worth noting that social programs don’t lead to mass murder nearly as often as Sanders was asked to defend the brutal regimes that implemented social programs. During the course of the campaign, reporters might also have asked whether Sanders supports the government of the United Kingdom and the socialized medicine it offers.
In defense of reporters like George Stephanopoulos, Anderson Cooper and Alex Ward, these questions were asked of Sanders because the country as a whole has a collective phobia. Americans have been well-primed by political media — for over a hundred years — to think of a candidate like Bernie Sanders as a would-be dictator. It’s hard to believe that Ward or Cooper or Stephanopoulos actually thought Sanders might murder millions of Americans if he were elected, but a learned response is none-the-less difficult to shake.
As a candidate for president in a country that has learned to reel in horror at the word socialism the same way Pavlov’s dog salivates to a bell, Sanders should have known better than to have a nuanced opinion on the subject. Expecting an American audience to greet socialism with open arms is like trying to explain that the swastika is a Hindu symbol of good fortune. Whatever the word really means in other parts of the world, it no longer holds that meaning in the United States. Candidates ought to know better than to dig themselves into that kind of hole.
Yet Bernie Sanders is notoriously stubborn. Reporters know the stubborn side of him and the honest ones will admit they resent him for it, but if audiences salivate at questions of socialism the national press might do best to stop ringing the bell.
After all, when Bernie Sanders wanted to show what healthcare could be like in America, he didn’t go to Cuba or Venezuela. He came to my home town of Windsor. In Canada.
Bernie Sanders had loaded a bus with a dozen diabetics and planned to cross the border at Detroit to buy insulin. The New York Times, called it, “a bus trip across the border to dramatize high prices in the U.S.” and the people on the bus conveyed their own feelings to the Times, noting that the trip to Canada was the most press this issue had ever gotten.
What’s most striking about the coverage of this event, from America’s greatest newspaper — the standard for journalism everywhere, is not that it reads like the minute by minute surveillance footage inside the Walkerville Pharmacy, but that the reporter seems to suggest this was all rather convenient for Bernie Sanders. That the campaign had staged a trip to Canada for a “something of a stunt” featuring “the people with diabetes.”
What The New York Times missed, The Detroit Free Press‘ Kathleen Gray seemed to understand. Taking a bus to another country was indeed done to prove a point, but that photo-op was afforded to Sanders only because the dozen Americans who accompanied him would otherwise have to spend their life’s savings on medication that could save their lives.
In front of a small crowd of Canadians and a large group of reporters, a mother, Kathy Sego, was gasping for breath and crying into the microphone as she told the story of her son, Hunter, a 22 year-old college student who risked his life rationing insulin to save his family money.
“I ate less,” Hunter Sego told the crowd. “I did whatever I could. That way, my family didn’t have to keep sacrificing for me.”
There was a tense feeling of shame that cut through the crowd and dulled any excitement the Canadians had when the bus first arrived. For most of the locals this was a celebrity sighting. Some even suggested Sanders should run in Canada if he lost.
“How can that be, that in the United States of America, that I am paying so much for insulin?” said Kathy Sego, after buying six months worth of insulin out-of-pocket for $1000. “What’s so incredible to me is that’s still less than what I pay for one month in the United States.”
The Americans spoke of how they are routinely discouraged from going to Canada for this type of thing. It’s not safe, they were told by their insurance providers, to consume Canadian insulin. It hasn’t been FDA approved, they were told, despite the fact that the same manufacturer sells the same product with a slightly different name in America at ten times the cost.
As the passengers on the bus told their stories, one after another, the Canadians got visibly uncomfortable, shuffling in place as we began to realize that we were rarely ever this grateful about a trip to the pharmacy. Some of us even began to shout, “Stay in Canada! Don’t go back!”
I am biased on this issue, if only because — as a Canadian with a diabetic in the family — it took Americans crossing the border to buy insulin for me to find out how much it costs.
The coverage and the contrast of these events and the fixation on the Times’ interpretation of this story is also important, because the press has played a major role in keeping universal healthcare out of America.
Let’s be clear, the Canadian system is not perfect. It’s just better than the American alternative. Though ad-men and women throughout history have done a great job of convincing Americans otherwise.
We know as much because of Wendell Potter, the former vice president of health insurance company Cinga, who found his conscience this summer in the wake of a pandemic and confessed to lying about the Canadian healthcare system.
“Our industry PR & lobbying group, AHIP, supplied my colleagues and me with cherry-picked data and anecdotes to make people think Canadians wait endlessly for their care,” Potter said in his confession. “It’s a lie and I’ll always regret the disservice I did to folks on both sides of the border.”
Like all great lies, Potter’s targeted statements contained some elements of truth. Canadians do wait longer for non-essential care. Many Canadians do cross the border for quick access to care, but the fact that Canadians have the option to go to America for treatment is an added luxury. Its like having a full pantry at home — paid for by every family member — but also having the option to raid your neighbors fridge at a cost. We use the American system as a luxury frill that’s just across the river, but our experience of healthcare is worlds apart.
The overwhelming majority of Americans are covered by the current system. Of 330 million Americans only about 27 million — roughly the size of Canada — are entirely without coverage. This makes the issue easier to ignore. If most Americans are satisfied, there’s little reason to change, but another number shows the true difference.
Two thirds of Americans who file for bankruptcy say it’s because of their medical bills and losing a job could put you further in the hole. “Those laid off in Canada,” as Potter pointed out in his confession, “don’t face the worry of losing their health insurance.”
Which brings us back to that Bernie Sanders concert in Los Angeles, where we met 24 year-old Iridian Magallon and others like her who are uninsured. Magallon is one of millions of Americans who work just below the forty-hour-a-week threshold that is considered full-time employment. A threshold she would have to cross to be covered by her employer under the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. But because she is employed, she also doesn’t qualify for government-funded insurance.
“Right now, I was denied by Medi-Cal.” She said, referring to California’s government-funded Medicare system. “I work almost full time, the difference is, I work 39 hours. My job is not officially full time, so I’m denied insurance.”
It’s a loophole in the system known as Obamacare that many Americans are trapped in. The law requires companies who employ 50 to 99 people to provide coverage for their employees, but after the employer mandate came into effect, the number of jobs that qualified as part-time mysteriously began to rise.
Experts disagree as to whether the Affordable Care Act is really connected to this rise or whether the rise of part-time jobs is really significant at all. But while economists debate the issue, people like Magallon have to budget just to see a doctor or avoid being treated at all.
“I have nephews and I want to have children,” she told us. That was the reason she showed up to a Sanders rally that night. “I hope that they will be able to reap the benefits too.”
Then there were people like Sean Humphries, one of 156 million Americans who are covered by their employer. At least until he was let go just as a slew of medical bills came his way.
“I got cancer and had to get half a million dollars worth of surgery,” He told us. “They knew my premiums would go up. My boss told me, ‘we spend more money on your insurance than anybody else at this office.’ A month later, a new CFO came in and I was fired.”
While his insurance covered part of the surgery, he was now left to recover unemployed and uninsured. As a result, Humphries decided to do what many in the country have done. He turned to the internet and the generosity of friends and strangers to help him pay the price of having cancer in America. In 2018 alone, crowdfunding campaigns raised more than $650 million for healthcare costs. “I had to put up a GoFundMe for my recovery because I haven’t been able to work,” he explained.
Having lost his job, Humphries was eventually offered coverage by Medi-Cal, but that coverage would only last as long as he remained poor and unemployed. “Realistically, I’d love to have more time to recover,” he said. “But I’m going to have to knuckle down and get a job. I’m sure it’ll be fine, I’m a hustler, but this is also a market that disadvantages people.”
The way Humphries discovered he had qualified for Medi-Cal was by calling his original insurance company. He said that after calling Blue Shield for a policy, his representative asked why on earth he’d want one from them when he can take Medi-Cal.
“I would’ve preferred to be on Medi-Cal the whole time I was employed,” he said. “The alternative sucks. They put you in a situation where you don’t know how to navigate your insurance because there are so many weird rules about co-pays and preexisting conditions and they obfuscate the process to discourage people from getting treatment. We’re just worn out all the time and running on a rat wheel and it’s not going to change over night, but we’ve got to take this seriously.”
Humphries and Magallon are far from alone in the way they experience healthcare in America. They’re stories have been told for decades. They are the millions of individuals whose lives are suddenly trapped in a broken loop they can’t escape. With their medical care tied to their work, their employers get to choose what kind of coverage they receive. Far from socialist, it’s a servile system that leaves hard working Americans at the mercy of the people they work for.
To borrow from reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele, “they are not poor enough to qualify for state or federal health assistance programs. They are not affluent enough to afford the cost of private medical insurance,” and many of them were Bernie Sanders’ core supporters.
In their 1992 book America: What Went Wrong, Bartlett and Steele spoke to Roy Mahon Jr., a combine salesman, who worked his way up to manager at his company in Garden City, Kansas. They asked Mahon about his experience with the employer-based healthcare system more than thirty years ago.
Mahon was at work one day when his legs gave way and he was rushed to the hospital. He had suffered an aneurysm and doctors had to amputate his left leg. Taking time to recover after losing his leg, Mahon went home assuming most of his bills were covered. The company offered decent benefits and a pension plan.
“The next thing I knew I got a telephone call from my former boss who said the company went belly up. They were bankrupt and everything was gone,” Mahon told Bartlett and Steele. “That was it. I was left hanging with $65,000 to $75,000 in hospital bills.”
Thirty years ago, Mahon was forced to make the same decision millions of Americans still have to make today between success and good health. Kansas Medicaid was able to help cover part of his bills, but he was still left with tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the loss of his leg.
“I had to cash in my IRA to survive,” He said. “I sold one of my cars. I sold my house to get what I could get out of it because I had to have funds to live on. I had to get these bills down. But consequently I have absolutely no credit whatsoever… Financially, I’m at the bottom. If I went down to buy a house today, they would laugh at me.”
It didn’t used to be this way. A few decades before Mahon lost his leg, Blue Cross and Blue Shield were the country’s first non-profit health insurance providers. They offered plans that were as low as $6 a year for 21 days of hospital care. Over time, for-profit insurance companies began to emerge, applying the Blue Cross and Blue Shield model and the charities had to adapt to keep up.
A few months before his Los Angeles rally, Bernie Sanders shrugged his shoulders at Joe Rogan, pointing out that the first time he announced he was dropping out, healthcare stocks went up. Money and greed, Sanders tells us, is the reason insurance companies and the rest of the medical industry are willing to accept the current system.
That’s the easy part. We can all understand why private companies would be motivated by money. Most of us are motivated to get out of bed every day for the promise of money. The harder question to ask is why so many Americans are wiling to accept a healthcare system that forces their fellow Americans to choose between health and bankruptcy.
The answer, is Flavor Flav. In his cease and desist letter to the Sanders campaign, the hip hop legend took issue with the way the event was advertised. “The planned performance will only be Chuck D of Public Enemy it will not be a performance by Public Enemy” the letter read. “Those who truly know what Public Enemy stands for know what time it is, there is no Public Enemy without Flavor Flav.”
As Chuck D later pointed out, “It’s not about Bernie with Flav… he don’t know the difference between Barry Sanders or Bernie Sanders.” So Flovor Flav’s response to Sanders was not a disagreement about policy, but marketing. It was also emblematic of most voters’ perceptions of the campaign.
The majority of Americans want universal coverage. Even among Republicans, a 2019 Hill-HarrisX survey found that 53 percent said they wanted some form of government funded health insurance. If most of America was afraid to vote for Bernie Sanders, it was because of the way he was presented, as a socialist, not because of what he was offering.
“You can get labeled a lot of things for not liking certain candidates or for liking certain candidates,” said Adrian Robison, another young voter we met in LA. “People will say you’re a socialist and when I think of that word I think of the USSR.”
At 37, Robison had only been around for nine years of the Cold War, yet he still had an instinctive fear of the specter of socialism. Though, not enough to stop him from taking a photo with a dictator. Stopping mid-speech, he jolt across to room toward a Kim Jung Un look alike and handed me his phone to snap a pic.
Partly as a result of Bernie Sanders first campaign, Robison and other Americans are beginning to challenge the perception that community-funded cancer treatment and government-run prison camps go hand in hand.
“I understand why historically socialism is bad and it has a bad connotation,” he told us, “but I think two things can be true at the same time. You can want healthcare for all, but still want a democratic process.”
Robison sits just outside of the generation that is learning to disconnect the dots between the clinic and the gulag. Recent surveys show that an overwhelming number of young Americans, age 18-24, view socialism in a positive light. Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, not enough of this generation showed up to the polls to help him win, but the growing positive view of government-run healthcare is a sign that America is returning to its pre-Red Scare roots.
The first public healthcare system in America was proposed by President Theodore Roosevelt; the asthmatic Republican hero figure etched into the face of Mount Rushmore. In 1912, during his third run for president, at the head of his own National Progressive Party, the platform Roosevelt put together would sound deeply socialist today. It called for, “the protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.”
So how did the country change its mind about universal healthcare? Set aside the era you’ve heard of in history class, when Joseph McCarthy banned books like The Selected Works of Thomas Jefferson. It’s not McCarthyism or the Red Scare that started a crusade against healthcare in America. The biggest influence on American’s negative opinion of socialism came years before McCarthy in the form of well-marketed fear printed in hundreds of newspapers.
The term socialized medicine was first used in the from an anti-healthcare campaign born out of California. Early in twentieth century, the country’s first political consulting firm was founded by a couple named Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. Their company, Campaigns, Inc., ran marketing campaigns for monopolies like Standard Oil, individual candidates, as well as issue based political campaigns.
“Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business,” writes Jill Lepore for The New Yorker. “‘Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc.”
Their first attack on healthcare came in 1945 when Campaigns, Inc. was paid by the California Medical Association to smear a public healthcare proposal. Whitaker and Baxter used their extensive media connections and paid nearly five hundred newspapers who relied on their advertising dollars to associate government run healthcare with Nazis. They sent out pamphlets, mailed post cards and did anything they could to get the message out.
“That system was born in Germany,” read the post cards they sent to a million voters, “[It] is part and parcel of what our boys are fighting overseas. Let’s not adopt it here.”
After defeating the California plan the couple set their sights on President Harry Truman who made a similar proposal for the whole nation. This time, the American Medical Association used up to $5 million of it’s members dues to hire Campaigns, Inc to use the same tactics on a national level. They coined the term “socialized medicine” as an attack on Truman’s plan.
After a three years of a nation wide disinformation campaign, President Truman — the man who launched the Cold War to stop the spread of communism — was shocked and confused. He said that, “nothing in this bill that came any closer to socialism than the payments the American Medical Association makes to the advertising firm of Whitaker and Baxter to misrepresent my health program.”
In the next few decades, the American Medical Association continued its attacks on socialized medicine and went on to launch Operation Coffee Cup. A strange plot for a doctors association to get involved with, the plan was slated to turn housewives into anti-communist crusaders. To help them paint access to healthcare as the evil seeds of socialism, the AMA enlisted the help of future president Ronald Reagan. A B-list actor at the time, Reagan was paid to record a smooth talking LP called Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine.
Doctors’ wives were expected to invite their friends and “put on the coffeepot” in order to listen to Reagan’s warnings about the dangers of a pre-paid doctors appointment. The ladies were then instructed to write letters to Congress demanding that lawmakers put and end to affordable medicine lest it turn into socialism overnight.
Though Reagan went on to make massive cuts to Medicare and other social programs in his first term as president, he also said something uncharacteristically socialist in his speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention. “No one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds,” Reagan told a cheering crowd of Republicans.
Conservatives today who defend Reagan’s healthcare legacy even claim that the former president supported universal coverage for the poor and the vulnerable and opposed giving any assistance to the rich. Though his presidency didn’t quite play out that way, it’s worth asking why more Republicans today don’t publicly defend what one of their most revered presidents once did.
The difference comes down to fear says Barbra Dove, yet another of Bernie’s impassioned supporters. Fear is what has been the basic drive behind the message. Socialized medicine is foreign, it’s Nazi, it’s communist, it will fundamentally change America in the worst possible way. Worst of all, you lose while others gain.
“There is this illusion that change is bad and a fear of losing what you’ve got,” Dove told us, trying to see things from the perspective of those with whom she disagrees. “I’ve got what I need and I don’t want to change that, and I get it, but that’s really not a good excuse for letting somebody die.”
What we heard from voters from Iowa to California is that the socialist model already exists in America. It was a comment that always came with a long pause offering us a chance to consider how that could be true. It exists, they said, for seniors covered by Medicare and it exists for the poorest of the poor covered by Medicaid.
It also exists in the form of the socialist-modeled health insurance system that the federal government exempts from its Affordable Care Act regulations. This model is known as a healthcare ministry set up by Christian collectives like Medi-Share.
Since 1993, Medi-Share has been pooling money, roughly $300 per member per month, to pay for other people’s medical expenses. The group claims to have served over 400,000 members.
“In short,” the people at Medi-Share write in a blog post, “the free-market is evolving, and communities are being brought closer by collective exchanges of goods, services, experiences, and more. Which then begs the question: Can this concept be applied to healthcare?”
Their website tells dozens of stories of Americans who received what the group calls Extra Blessings. Those blessings went to people like Dana Molyneaux who was in need of uterine fibroid surgery.
“I went ahead and had the surgery done and we wound up taking out a medical loan. We just took a leap of faith and hoped that we would receive the Extra Blessings,” says Molyneaux. “Our medical bills were almost $10,000. We got that entire amount back.”
More than a million Americans who might otherwise be suspicious of socialized medicine because of a fear it might lead to communism are voluntarily joining organizations which pool resources to pay bills that aren’t their own.
Granted, many who agree to join a Christian health ministry share a common opposition to medical procedures like abortion. Yet these forms of coverage are voluntary, so the common Christian value that drives members to pay each others extraordinarily expensive bills must be compassion rather than fear. As the people at Medi-Share suggest, it’s worth considering whether that sharing ethic can be applied on a larger scale.
Under the current system, Americans are left with the most unbelievably heartbreaking stories about having to decide whether they could afford to keep living in America. Stories that make people like Bernie Sanders look good. Stories that seem like they were fabricated by his campaign because this couldn’t possibly be what people have to go through in America.
Like the story of Kevin Bates, a hospital worker from Chicago, Illinois whose mother-in-law works two jobs, at Blue Cross and Home Depot, to cover the cost of insulin for her husband. Kevin Bates whose wife Jacqueline, a hospice nurse, passed away from a blood clot six months into her pregnancy.
“They did an emergency c section to try and save both of them,” Bates writes, explaining the story of why he supports Bernie Sanders. “Jac didn’t even get to know she had a daughter, she wanted it to be a surprise.”
Born too early — in February instead of June — Charlotte Bates was sent to the NICU. Far too premature, her organs were not yet fully functioning and she couldn’t even breath on her own. Doctors told Bates that the best he could hope for was that his daughter would be on dialysis and need assistance breathing for the rest of her life. Not long after, Charlotte died and Kevin Bates had lost his wife and his child.
“On top of everything in my life being taken away, my wife I’ve been with for 16 years, my daughter, every plan we’ve ever had,” Bates writes. “I’m getting a bill for about $25,000.”
That $25,000 bill came after factoring in his family’s insurance coverage. With co-pays to his insurance plan, his daughters NICU stay costs $4,000 a day. So Kevin Bates, like Sean Humphries and many others, started a GoFundMe to cover the $10,000 he had to pay for the NICU. He was able to raise $27,435 because those around him chose compassion over fear.
“Medicare For All is extremely important,” Bates writes. “It’s important for kids in the NICU. It’s important for the parents in the NICU who have to watch their child and do the grim calculations of “I would pay anything to save them, but I’ve already gone through my life’s savings and what am I supposed to do now?”
Candidates for president do a whole lot to gain political points. They exploit the lives and stories of politically convenient people all the time. Riding a bus into Canada to help people buy insulin, telling heart wrenching stories of babies dying in intensive care, are all very politically convenient for a candidate like Bernie Sanders, but they shouldn’t be. None of these stories should have to be told by a guy whose trying to get elected.
“We need to have an ethic of ‘it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us,” Dove suggested to us as we waited for Sanders to take the stage. “Including the people with who we disagree.”