Medicare for All Protest in 2017
Credit: Molly Adams/Flickr

Anyone who didn’t see the election of Donald Trump coming, and I include myself in this, probably has to do some kind of reckoning with their failure of imagination or analysis. I know I definitely gave the American people too much credit. They had elected Barack Obama twice, and I didn’t think they’d turn around and vote for a man like Trump. I still struggle to understand how the same nation could elect both leaders in succession.

Here and there, I see hints that help explain this. I found a couple in Dave Weigel’s latest piece on the elections in Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District. One of the Democratic candidates, labor lawyer Brent Welder, is backed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the woman who just upset Rep. Joe Crowley in a Bronx/Queens Democratic primary. Welder is running an aggressively progressive campaign, including a pledge to bring Medicare-for-All. He hasn’t called for the abolition of ICE, but it looks like he’s getting tagged with that by association.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, the problem in translating a Bronx agenda into the heartland was evident as the candidates met voters in the blistering heat. As they watched Democrats march by in Lenexa’s annual parade, a trio of women who lived at a nearby retirement home recalled voting for [former Rep. Dennis] Moore but worried about the ideas coming from today’s Democrats. Expanding Medicare, they said, meant less coverage for them. Abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they said, would mean no immigration enforcement whatsoever.

“Can you imagine if they got rid of that?” asked Carol Paramore, 80. “It wouldn’t be safe. You wouldn’t be able to sit here and watch a parade.”

With all appropriate caveats that this is just the anecdotal opinion of three women, you can see how the use of shorthand slogans works or doesn’t work. Medicare-for-All has some advantages over alternatives like “universal health care,” “socialized medicine,” “national health care system,” or “single-payer health care.” It’s clearer in what it means. Medicare already exists and is popular. It sounds more fair than redistributive. It doesn’t evoke some unprecedented takeover of the health care system by Washington bureaucrats or carry the Cold War baggage of “socialism.” But for someone who already has Medicare, the slogan Medicare-for-All can easily be translated as Less-Medicare-for-Me.

For many voters, that alone is enough to oppose the proposal.

The new slogan “Abolish ICE” is interesting because I’m really not sure how many people know what ICE is or what precisely they do. In that sense, it’s much different from “Medicare-for-All.” Polling shows that people are overwhelmingly opposed to the child separation policy, but they don’t necessarily make any connection to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. To them, the president’s retort that abolishing ICE would mean no border enforcement at all makes sense.

Which brings me to the second anecdote from the article:

…Republican voters are paying close attention to the Democrats’ new issues — and are ready to paint the party as out of touch.

“I’m from Kansas City, Kansas, which was invaded by illegals in 1993,” said Michael Kalny, 65, a Republican precinct committeeman in the city of Shawnee. “Go see what type of community you’ve got there now — all Hispanic. That’s just one city. It’s happening across the country.”

I don’t know the history of Latino immigration in and around Kansas City, so I can’t say whether it’s true that there was a major influx starting in 1993 or to what degree the new people were undocumented. But I don’t doubt that there are parts of the city and outlying suburbs that were mostly white in the early 1990s and are heavily Latino today. That this is perceived as an unhappy development by a lot of people we would not ordinarily describe as white nationalists or openly racist is probably one of the top two or three explanations for Donald Trump’s political success.

For these folks, Trump is winning the argument over the border.

In a new Washington Post-Schar School poll, conducted from June 27 through July 2, voters in key “battleground” House districts viewed the president negatively, with just 42 percent approving of his performance. Seventy-two percent of battleground district voters said they were bothered “by photos and stories about children being separated from their parents” by immigration enforcement.

Yet while those voters said that they trusted Democrats on immigration, Trump enjoyed a 17-point lead on the question of border security, and a 16-point lead on “ensuring immigration does not hurt American workers” — an indication of potential Democratic difficulty ahead.

It seems clear to me that “Abolish ICE” is a problematic slogan that is too ambiguous to rally support but simple enough to focus opposition. Some people may not want to hear that, or they may just be inclined to write off the potential support of anyone who doesn’t understand or embrace the slogan. Either way, it’s not going to do the job people hope it will do.

Medicare-for-All is more defensible, and it’s certainly better than the alternatives I’ve seen, but I think we overestimate the universal appeal of egalitarian ideas and how easily our nice-sounding and well-meaning slogans can be turned against us. The Republicans spent decades trying to cut and slash Medicare and then attacked Obamacare for finding savings in the program. I think Democrats are often caught off guard by that kind of breathtaking hypocrisy, but it makes sense if you realize that the GOP will always look to identify the selfish motive in every voter. Nothing makes this clearer than the idea that Medicare-for-All means Less-Medicare-for-You.

Selfishness doesn’t always win out. Racial fear and tribalism don’t always win out. But they’re all powerful forces that can be tapped with immense political effectiveness. When Democrats craft their slogans and messages, they need to keep in mind that “Stronger Together” doesn’t address these selfish motives in the same way that “Make America Great Again” does, and that aspirational language doesn’t necessarily win out against a simple appeal to nostalgia or avarice.

One reason the Democrats want to talk about health care in the Supreme Court debate is because they’re looking for an issue that touches everyone rather than asks them to look out for someone else. This shows that they’re learning, however slowly, that they must compete for votes in a country that is meaner and more self-interested than we hoped.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at