Letter from Italy

When the politically obvious isn't obvious at all: An exchange

Even you on the left, I think, fail to recognize (being born in the States) how uncivilized America, with its millions of citizens lacking health care, looks to other western people. I think by drilling the notion into American heads that much poorer capitalist nations give health care to everybody, you would get millions of votes (the same kind of popular mass vote as for FDR). Any politician should appreciate that. But in their dependence on corporate money, they still appreciate dollars more than votes.

Please, when you give this European letter to Democrats all over, remember that I helped give America finally that obvious goal of universal health care!


James O'Brien

Paolo De Falco


Dear Paolo,

You have no idea how scandalous this letter of yours will sound to some American ears. First, everything you say is true. The popular appeal of political campaigns built on national health care would be enormous. Promoted the right way--in clear, unapologetic terms that portray private healthcare companies as the profiteers and empire builders they are--such a platform would sweep the country.

Why doesn't it happen? Lots of reasons. The whole political culture of America after World War II has conspired against popular impulses like universal health care. The commie witch hunts and ceaseless red-baiting of the cold war years kept lefties, liberals, and small-d democrats in America from pursuing the sorts of measures their counterparts in other Western countries were undertaking. While Europe and Canada were creating programs like national health, American politicians were busy scaring the public about creeping socialism in all its guises. Then, too, racism has always been a useful lever for dividing America's have-nots when they get unruly. And our education system has done its part. As the late, great political critic Walter Karp once wrote, "What the public schools practice with remorseless proficiency...is the prevention of citizenship and the stifling of self-government. When 58 percent of the thirteen-year-olds tested by the National Assessment for Educational Progress think it is against the law to start a third party in America, we are dealing not with a sad educational failure but with a remarkably subtle success."

Personally, I believe a great many Americans are ready to shed those old clothes and swim off into uncharted waters. They feel lost and betrayed and their allegiance is up for grabs. The main barrier to reaching them with a message like yours is money. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why both of America's major parties vehemently oppose changing a system of campaign finance that costs them exorbitant and constantly escalating sums? This is an important question, so it needs defusing. The talking heads on TV flap their gums about it endlessly. It's always the same: "Politicians are greedy!" one will say. "No, no," his "opponent" then objects. "The real trouble is, the parties always get caught up in partisan bickering." And so on.

None of the commentators ever draws the obvious conclusion regarding money and politics: Democrats and Republicans don't want to change the present system precisely because it sets a high price for participating and thereby ensures that no idea distasteful to the parties' owners and managers will ever get a hearing in the court of public opinion. Careers in politics have to be prohibitively expensive, or the wrong sorts of people will get in the game. You can scoff at the perversity of this system all you like; the point is that it works very well for the people who control it.

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