I grew up in Canada, but I was always proud to be American. I loved telling people I was born in California, the ocean and palm trees an exotic brag when you’re sloshing through slush on a Toronto playground.
Every Sunday evening at family dinner, I would listen to my professor father (in his New York accent) argue with my businessman grandfather (in his even thicker Brooklyn one) about American politics. Grandpa was a Republican, Dad a Democrat, two ex-pats with wildly different views. Their debates ran along the lines of “unencumbered free enterprise will make America great” (Grandpa) to “Socialism will free the people to realize their potential.” (Dad) and stakes were high in 1980 with Reagan poised to win. I couldn’t wait to grow up and vote my conscience, filling in my absentee ballot.
As I got older, the big brother culture machine to the south became a deeper fascination. European friends would ask, “What’s the difference between Canada and the U.S.?” and I would say some version of, “Well, they don’t have universal health care, they have virtually no arts funding, and their history of slavery hangs over them with terrible systemic racism.” Yet I dreamed of moving here one day and being part of the loud, roiling mix.
When I moved to California in 2005, all those issues I snickered at before were suddenly my problem. Oh those silly Americans, don’t they realize universal health care should be a human right? That’s an easy criticism when you’re getting fixed for free up north, but down here you actually have to read health insurance company literature and make an “informed choice” between rip-off and bad deal. It’s a terrifying proposition to suddenly pay $500 a month for something you used to get through your taxes without noticing. I was shocked at what Americans put up with in the name of “free choice.”
In 2008 I got married, had a baby and wow! Our premiums went up to $1,200 a month. I ask you seriously, who can afford this? I remember calling my sister in tears one day when Kaiser had raised our premiums for the second time that year. “We almost made it this month,” I sobbed. “I swear that $350 is literally going to break us!” She secretly sent off a check to me that day which got us through. Is that how the system is supposed to work? We needed some political oxygen in this country – and it was a huge relief to vote in Barack Obama.
When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, I may have been the first person on the Covered California phone lines the day they opened. It turned out my little family qualified for – guess what? – a $350 a month government subsidy. I felt a giant weight lift from my chest and said to my husband Richard, “Do you think this will make Americans realize what universal health care is like?” He didn’t think so, and was quick to point out that it’s a subsidy, not “government health care,” (as the right-wingers feared) and that the health insurance companies were the ones profiting here. That’s why Bernie is proposing Medicare for all.
When the Occupy movement started in 2011 it was hard for me to go to rallies, (though I did take Violet to a few) but I listened to the radio to stay in touch, and even wrote and recorded a rallying song called We’re the 99 with Richard that got played on the progressive Thom Hartmann Show.
I first heard Bernie Sanders on Hartmann’s ‘Brunch with Bernie’ town hall style segment where he would field questions from everyone and anyone – wounded veterans who couldn’t get proper care, alarmed grandmas wondering if it was true the post office might get shut down, outraged moms worrying about their sons’ safety because of the color of their skin. Bernie answered every question with honesty and concern. I was so impressed with the amount of legislation he had already put forward on so many issues, and his relentless ‘big picture’ analysis that the overarching problem is the stranglehold of the few over the many.
As a dual citizen not planning to move back to Canada, I have given a tremendous amount of thought to what America is and isn’t. My conclusion is that America wants to be a place where every citizen can expect to live free, pursue a joyful life and express their potential to the fullest. But you can’t do that when, as Bernie said back in 1972, “A handful of people own almost everything….and almost everybody owns nothing. A handful of people make the decisions and the vast majority of people have virtually no control over their lives.” That certainly feels true when you’re handing over half your paycheck to a health insurance company that puts their profits above your health.
This “handful of people” represents a very specific way of thinking that isn’t unique to America, but defines a way of living that some Americans seem to be confusing with the American Dream. Poor people routinely vote against their own interests with the idea that when they become wealthy, they don’t want to be punished with high taxes. Yet the universal health care Bernie’s proposing (to be paid for with taxes) would take the most cruel sting out of poverty. The right to live free is meaningless if you can’t live in the first place.
With this basic human dignity in place, desperation would decrease, mental health treatment would increase (fewer gun disasters?), a family previously paralyzed by paying for basic health needs would suddenly be able to focus on their children’s education, maybe even have time to get involved in the school and community. Better-educated, healthy kids would dream big dreams and come up with the next generation of American innovation that could very well save our planet, not to mention they’d learn the importance of wearing condoms, causing the abortion rate to plummet. Also, I know if our family had an extra $1,200 a month to spend, we wouldn’t hide it off shore and wait for dividends. We’d put it back into the economy.
When Republican candidates talk about repealing Obamacare, it makes me physically sick to my stomach. And the people cheering along, clueless that their standard of living would raise almost immediately with universal health care, make me so sad. These are people who would shovel their neighbor’s driveway in a heartbeat, people who band together in the face of superstorms or violent tragedies. Yet when it comes to this issue of health care, they get so upset at the idea of a level playing field.
Many years ago I got into a discussion about this with a woman from Flint, Michigan (of all places). She asked me if I got angry, living in Canada, that I worked much harder than some people, yet they got the same level of health care that I did. I told her we don’t think of it that way. We think of it as a basic government service, like the police force or the fire department, (today I could add ‘ and a water supply that won’t poison your kids!’) Her eyes went wide. “How did that happen?” she asked. The answer is that it was largely the strength and conviction of one person, Tommy Douglas (who set up the first universal health care in the province of Saskatchewan, which led to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson passing the Medical Care Act in 1966).
In America, that person might be Bernie Sanders.
People say, “Well, you’ve got your health, that’s the important thing.” I think that sentiment applies to this great country. So yes, I’m feeling the Bern. And P.S., for anyone afraid of higher taxes, have you seen the latest chart put out by Bernie’s team? It’s really not that scary, even for millionaires.