The history of third parties in America is pretty dismal. The system is rigged against them, for one thing. But equally problematic is the lack of focus that leads to infighting and splits whenever a third party is created.
A great answer to this would be to create a third party that has a laser-like focus on a single issue, where there is little or no room for debate over what the party stands for.
As it happens, there is such an issue, and it has the potential to decimate the two major parties by pulling support from both their bases.
I’m talking about Social Security and its more recent offspring, Medicare, both under threat by the Democratic/Republican duopoly in Washington.
Social Security is without a doubt the most popular program ever created in Washington. Virtually every American pays into it and expects to rely on it in old age, or if he or she becomes disabled. There are currently 54 million people who are receiving Social Security benefits ( 39 million are 65 or older, and 8 million are disabled). And there are some 74 million Baby Boomers — people born between the years of 1946 and 1964, representing one-in-four of all Americans — who will be receiving it over the next several decades. Add to that number the many younger people who are ardent advocates of the program, not just because they expect to also depend upon it, but because they know it is providing already for their parents and grandparents, and you have a bloc of voters and potential voters the likes of which this nation has never seen.
The key to getting them all together is establishing a political party whose raison d’être is preserving, improving and expanding Social Security benefits.
Medicare is also an important part of this concept. Everyone who receives Social Security in retirement is also eligible for Medicare, as are those 65 and older who choose to wait a bit to earn higher Social Security benefits. Again, the number currently depending on Medicare is 50 million, but this will rise dramatically as the Baby Boom generation reaches 65. The Medicare program is under even graver threat than Social Security at the moment as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, both beholden to huge medical industry and insurance industry campaign donors who want to undermine the program, do the bidding of their paymasters.
It’s time for progressives, advocacy organizations of the elderly and the disabled, labor activists and everyone who is worried about halting and reversing the decline of American society and democratic governance to rally around defending these two critical programs created, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.
The Social Security Defense Movement envisioned here would organize a single-issue party with the following simple platform:
Defend Social Security benefits and ensure that they are adequate to provide for a decent retirement for all Americans!
No increase in the Social Security payroll taxes for current payers!
Eliminate the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes! This would mean that all income would be subject to the tax and the wealthy would finally pay their share!
Add a tax on so-called unearned income from investment! This would mean that people who live on profits from investments, interest income, etc., would pay into the Social Security fund, too. (Note: income in retirement could be exempted, so people drawing on their tax-deferred IRA or 402(k) money would not have to pay a Social Security tax on it.)
Tax all short-term stock and bond trades at 0.25%, with the revenue generated to be designated for bolstering the Social Security and Medicare funds!
Eliminate Medicare Parts B, C and D! Roll doctor and drug coverage into Part A making it a single, simple program covering all medical costs, and just throw out Part C, which simply provides a huge profitable business to the private insurance industry to cherry pick healthier elderly people, luring them into subsidized private plans and leaving government-run Medicare to pay for the sicker, more costly beneficiaries.
Lower the age of eligibility for Medicare, gradually if necessary, but quickly, so that all Americans will be covered by one government insurance program, fully funded by taxes, and bar private insurance companies from providing health insurance, with the government negotiating reimbursement rates for hospitals, drug companies, doctors and medical device companies. (Explanation: Right now, the 10% of Medicare beneficiaries who are the oldest use 90% of Medicare’s funds. Younger Medicare users in their 60s use are much less costly. As people are younger, their health care costs are even less, so it is actually a bargain to bring them into Medicare. They would be paying in much more than they would be costing. This explains why Canada’s universal Medicare program is such a bargain. Canadians pay 11% of GDP for in total for Medicare that covers everyone, while Americans pay 18% of GDP for health care and many millions are simply left out and get none.)
Eliminate the Veterans Administration and make all veterans eligible for Medicare immediately.
* Eliminate the two-tiered health care system created by Medicaid, and enroll all Medicaid eligible people in Medicare, lifting that financial burden entirely from the states.
The pure focus of a Social Security Defense Party on the issues of Social Security and Medicare might at first appear narrow and parochial, but as one considers the implications, it becomes clear that can be the core of a whole new progressive movement.
Just a couple of examples:
Protecting, guaranteeing and improving Social Security provides long-term security to workers who then no longer have to stay in exploitive jobs simply to save for their old age. The same goes for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 0. Nothing makes it more difficult for workers to adopt a militant stand in organizing a labor union or going on strike against intransigent management than the fear of losing a family’s health benefits. This is the whole reason that American companies have, seemingly against their own interests in reducing labor costs, consistently opposed a state-run health care system such as the one in Canada. Employers are happy to have the leverage they get by being able to withhold health benefits from strikers or union activists.
Making sure everyone has access to quality health care insures that the quality of that care stays high. Just check out the health care quality in countries like Sweden, Finland, Germany, Canada or France, where everyone has access to the same doctors and hospitals. The quality, and the outcomes, are higher than in the US, where the poor get shoddy, late and often criminally inadequate healthcare in crumbling facilities, while the wealthy get state-of-the-art care at absurdly high prices, with much of the money being wasted on marketing and amenities having nothing to do with actual care and treatment.
Besides getting millions of Americans to refocus on their common interests, such a single-issue party and movement would also inevitably lead to a mass collective rejection of the military industrial complex, with its $1.3-trillion annual expenditure on wars and war preparation. Any attempt to provide adequate funding for retirees, the disabled and for health care for all would inevitably have to confront, head-on, this massive waste of tax dollars and to see it for what it is: a vast transfer of national wealth to giant corporations and the people who own and run them, and away from human needs.
Easing the economic pressure on the elderly by strengthening Social Security and improving Medicare would also tend to make the elderly more politically progressive. People who are not scrimping in order to have enough money to pay the rent, buy enough to eat, and pay their health bills can afford to be more generous and altruistic about supporting funding for local schools, for example, whereas today, the elderly in many communities often become opponents of needed school funding because they see the local school taxes as making it impossible to pay for their prescriptions.
The best thing about a Social Security Defense Party is that it would draw heavily on the base of both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. Regardless of their political views on issues like prayer in schools, abortion, flag-burning, stem cell research, animal rights, climate change, gun ownership or the death penalty, polls show that the vast majority of Americans, left and right, support Social Security and Medicare. Most of them know that they are being betrayed on those two critical issues by their party leaders and elected representatives, Democratic and Republican. Independents, too, support both programs overwhelmingly. A party that speaks resolutely about defending and improving both programs, and that runs candidates who do the same, could potentially vacuum up supporters from both major parties, leaving them empty husks.
And that’s what they should be.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.