(CNN)Pleading for passage of his version of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Lindsey Graham is the one who, unintentionally, has telegraphed the lasting impact of the 2016 Democratic presidential contest.”It’s either this,” he said of the Graham-Cassidy bill in a radio interview with Breitbart News, or “we’re going to Obamacare and Berniecare.” The significance of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act of 2017, and his role in CNN’s national health care debate Monday, signals the embrace of transformational policies by millions of people.
Transformational politics is not simply a set of rhetorical flourishes that promise a pony, as some Democratic Party insiders have sniffed derisively. Transformational politics resets our social and political priorities by marrying economics and public policy with a willingness to challenge the conventional ways that society and government exercise power. Nelson Mandela summed up transformative politics succinctly: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
For example, I would have thought it impossible in July 2015, when Sanders’ presidential campaign was registering in the low-double digits in the polls, that 16 Democratic senators would stand with him two years later as he introduced a sweeping single-payer “Medicare For All” bill.
Recent polling shows a majority of voters supporting “Medicare for All,” which expands coverage, compared with an overwhelming majority of voters opposed to Graham-Cassidy, which would take away health care for millions of people.
Before 2016, “Medicare for All” was not central to the Democratic Party’s agenda. True, Rep. John Conyers had championed a single-payer bill in the House since 2003, but it was only supported by some members of the Progressive Caucus. When Sanders introduced his Senate version in 2013, he had not a single co-sponsor. Single-payer was considered a politically impossible idea.
Fast-forward to 2016, where Sanders’ campaign had a singular characteristic: From the outset, it embraced transformational politics.
Helping people envision things that can improve their lives, even when mainstream rhetoric tells them those big changes are impossible, works only when it syncs with people’s beliefs, making them clearer than they were before.
This has great value to our society because it can encourage people who gave up on politics and have forsaken civic engagement to re-engage. Once the mind is unshackled and encouraged to think beyond a small policy box, our circuitry can be rewired in other arenas. Free college tuition and rebuilding the infrastructure, for example, become obvious, affordable choices. On race, we can even consider the notion of reparations for slavery — an important issue heretofore chained to the fringes of considered debate.
Over many months during the 2016 campaign, Sanders told people they had an inalienable right to cradle-to-grave affordable health care. Then he showed the math, juxtaposing the great efficiency of Medicare compared with the colossal waste of billions by the insurance industry. Finally, he put his finger on the corrupt political system blocking people from attaining such a right, and charted a path of action.
The shift wrought by transformational politics is on parade in the amount of Democratic support for Sanders’ bill. A number of the co-sponsors — Sens. Kirstin Gillibrand, Jeff Merkley, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — are generating buzz as potential 2020 presidential aspirants; they likely see support for “Medicare for All” as necessary to connect with the grass-roots activists who are so crucial in primaries. And over in the House, the Conyers bill now has more than 100 co-sponsors, a significant majority of the overall Democratic Caucus.
Transformational politics can even elicit a flicker from unexpected corners. Two billionaires, Warren Buffet and Mark Cuban, have in recent months opined that, as I argued back in January, single-payer is the most rational solution for business. While they and other business leaders may have held such beliefs in the past, the emerging transformational shift clearly helped to encourage them to speak up.
As I have written before, single-payer is a no-brainer for CEOs in particular: It would allow them to save money, give workers a raise, have more money to put into research and development, and boost international competitiveness.
To be sure, “Medicare for All” is not likely to happen overnight. Republicans currently control the levers of government, and could potentially expand their majority in the Senate in 2018 — and, then, try yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act when the Democratic Party is even weaker.
That is precisely the point the Sanders movement has been trying to make: Establishment economics and policies that benefit elites are bad politics, not to mention damaging to the lives of millions of people. The Democratic Party will be stronger if it embraces a transformational vision.