What happened to the Squad? | Opinion | Chicago Reader

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What happened to the Squad?

The collapse of the progressive cohort shows change won’t come from within the Democratic Party.

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Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the Reader.

I signed up for the COVID-19 vaccine on a public health website and got my two shots at a Salvation Army facility on the northwest side of Chicago. The site was efficiently and competently run. The experience provided a small glimpse into how a true national health-care system—like they have in other developed countries—might look and feel. No one demanded to see my insurance card or sent me a bill.

Of course, the reality of the U.S. health-care system bears no resemblance to the system that delivered vaccine shots. Millions of Americans can’t afford to see a doctor when they get sick, either because they have no insurance, or because their insurance is substandard and they can’t afford the thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket deductibles and copays. One in four Americans avoids necessary medical care due to cost, while two-thirds of U.S. bankruptcies are caused by medical bills.

Despite promises during the campaign to reform the system, the election of a Democrat to the White House in 2020 has not brought us closer to universal health care. The Democratic Party markets itself as a champion of the issue, but this is just propaganda. Behind the scenes, the party rakes in health-care industry cash and protects industry profits. For example, instead of just paying health-care bills directly, the government pays health insurance companies to issue policies, with no guarantee that the recipients will receive actual care when they get sick.

In the last election cycle, Democrats outpaced Republicans in collecting donations from the health-care sector. Democrats hauled in $286.5 million from health insurance companies, big pharma, and hospitals, compared to $165 million for Republicans. President Biden led the pack in individual recipients from the industry, collecting $60.8 million compared to $30.4 million for Trump.

In the House, 125 Democrats have signed on as cosponsors of a single payer bill, also known as Medicare for All, or M4A. But this bill, originally introduced in 2017, has never cleared a single committee, much less made it to the House floor for public debate or a vote. As the Huffington Post explained in a revealing article, the act of cosponsoring a populist bill like M4A in today’s Washington, D.C., doesn’t necessarily mean the lawmaker supports the bill. Oftentimes their sponsorship is just aspirational messaging, meaning they support the idea of universal health care, so long as there is no chance of the bill becoming law. The likelier single payer is to become law, the more some Democrats—who once viewed supporting it as a cost-free gesture—will have second thoughts about putting their names behind a bill that is so strongly opposed by major donors to the party.

Our health-care system—designed to maximize profit—barely functions in the best of times. Now in the pandemic, the wheels have come off. Millions of Americans have lost their employer-provided health insurance. Others, as the New York Times reported last month, have found their lives and finances upended by medical bills resulting from a bout with the virus. And even healthy Americans with good insurance are starting to see that a health-care system that discourages sick people from going to the doctor is highly problematic and puts us all in danger.

Consequently, M4A is more popular than ever, favored by 85 percent of Democratic voters, and about half of Republican voters. Yet Democratic party leadership still refuses to even hold hearings on the bill. Biden’s plan to deal with the crisis is to give more taxpayer money to health insurance company giveaway programs like COBRA and the ACA.

Early in the pandemic, President Trump promised to have the government pay everybody’s COVID bills. This promise quickly vanished after health insurance companies saw it as a major threat to their industry. If Americans saw our government paying COVID bills, they might demand the same for other illnesses. Then pretty soon we will have M4A and no one would need private insurance. To stave off the threat, insurance companies volunteered to cover COVID bills. But then, as the New York Times reported, the insurers gamed the system to protect their profits, first by manipulating billing codes to avoid coverage of COVID-related illnesses, and then by just declaring COVID over and ending the program. Meanwhile Congress has done nothing to protect working people buried in medical debt.

What happened to the Squad?

Just a few years ago, Democratic voters elected a group of progressives who promised to go to Washington, D.C., and start a political revolution. Led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of New York, the “Squad” promised to take on the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and fight for programs that benefit working people over the donor class. First on their list was M4A.

It is sad to report that in just a few short years, the Squad has collapsed into a puddle of excuses and Twitter spats. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has demanded all hands on deck to protect the party’s donors in this unique time of crisis. And the Squad has fallen in line.

As I wrote in a previous column, because of the Democrats’ slim majority in the House, just a handful of progressives had the power to demand a vote on M4A, if they chose to exercise that power on behalf of working people. AOC and her colleagues did not force a vote on M4A. Instead, they stood with Pelosi and the donors in keeping the bill off the floor of the House.

The Squad did finally coordinate their votes last month. But it was not to help working people. Rather, three out of six Squad members, including AOC, agreed to vote “present” to assure passage of a bill to increase funding for the Capitol police. All six members of the Squad told activist groups that they opposed the bill. AOC and the other abstainers spent a year chanting and tweeting that the police should be defunded. But then behind closed doors, they coordinated their votes so the bill could pass by a one-vote margin.

Even worse, the Squad have run interference for President Biden, discouraging their millions of followers on social media from demanding that he keep his campaign promises. Biden has already abandoned every promise he made to working people, including a $15 minimum wage, a public option to compete with the for-profit insurance industry, forgiveness of student loan debt, lowering of the Medicare eligibility age, and a promise to negotiate drug prices. Yet AOC asserted that Biden has exceeded her expectations while Representative Pramila Jayapal gave Biden an “A” grade for his performance thus far.

What passes for the left in the Democratic Party has mastered the art of performative resistance. They tweet out antiestablishment rhetoric. But behind closed doors, they play for Team Blue, which means they play for Team UnitedHealthcare, Team Humana, and Team Raytheon.

The collapse of the Squad shows that change will not come from inside the Democratic Party. The two corporate parties that control Washington, D.C., are rotten to the core. It is a fool’s errand to think that we can make the Democrats fight for working people while the party’s major donors are telling them to keep the status quo. It’s time for progressives to walk away from the Democratic Party and support a third party that is free of corporate influence.  v

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