With the first nomination contest only two days away, the corporate media reaction to Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong campaign, while not reaching Jeremy Corbyn-level hysteria, has reached a noticeable panic—one marked by let’s-not-upset-the-base qualified criticism and exquisitely curated concern-trolling. The most cynical argument being advanced is that Sanders’ support for a single-payer health program is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, in contrast to the pragmatic incrementalism promised by Hillary Clinton.
Seth Ackerman over at Jacobin wrote a good breakdown Monday of these attacks, detailing why the gatekeeper left media’s handwringing over Sanders’ single-payer proposal is disingenuous ideology-policing rather than an objective analysis based on the actual policy merits of the plan. The arguments being made by critics—specifically Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias at Vox, and by the Washington Post—basically boil down to two objections: Sanders’ single-payer proposal is not “realistic” and too “vague.”
As well as debunking these two central claims, Ackerman notes the political convenience of pundits suddenly bashing single-payer who used to note its advantages. It’s smart and well worth a read as a policy primer, but there’s something lingering behind the anti-single payer arguments that goes beyond mere “base management” and pro-establishment bias.
Almost all of the outlets Ackerman references as pushing back on single payer are owned by large media corporations with sizable investments in private healthcare and its current neoliberal iteration, the Affordable Care Act. They have not just a political and ideological incentive to maintain private healthcare, but a tremendous financial one as well.
Washington Post Editorial Board
Owner and healthcare stakeholder: Jeff Bezos
After Sanders outlined his single-payer plan, the Washington Post issued an editorial (1/19/18) that ran through a laundry list of establishment gripes, the most telling of which was the idea that taxing the wealthy was “dubious”:
Put aside Mr. Sanders’ lack of political realism, or his dubious choice to tap the rich for huge amounts of revenue and spend it all, with nothing left for deficit reduction or the underfunded Social Security program.
Here we have two key features of an establishment hit job: First, deeply ideological assumptions casually asserted as self-evidently true, in this case that taxing the rich is “dubious”—a position that dovetails nicely with Bezos’ pocketbook and ideological disposition alike. It’s never explained why this is; it’s simply thrown out there as such by Serious Media outlet the Washington Post.
Then there’s the evergreen criticism of leftists that their policies are not “realistic,” that attempts to move too far to the left will alienate centrists and thus make passing laws impossible (though single-payer is routinely favored by a majority of Americans).
This is a gaslighting exercise meant to get people to argue against policies they believe are best, while embracing a logic that is infinitely regressive. If Sanders’ single-payer proposal is too radical, then certainly there’s something to the right of Clinton’s health platform that would render hers too radical as well. And something that would make that too radical, and so on.
This is why politics grounded in principle—rather than the current political mood—is pragmatic. No one is delusional enough to think Sanders is going to pass single payer on day one, but holding it as a party principle harms no one but those literal-minded enough to think candidate’s’ campaign positions are a guarantee of deliverables rather than an outline of goals.
The “realism” argument was repeated in another Washington Post story the day before (1/18/16), this one a nominally neutral reporting effort by Amber Phillips:
Most of Bernie Sanders’s Big Ideas Are Dead-On-Arrival in Congress. Do Democrats Care?
Notice the ideological assumptions posing as objective analysis:
Their most recent spat underscores the central division between the two candidates: Sanders is the candidate of grand proposals and political revolution—a word he spoke repeatedly Sunday night—while Clinton is more focused on pragmatism and building on what President Obama has already done.
In other words, Clinton is the candidate who is more realistic about what can be accomplished in today’s divided political landscape. Sanders is aiming for more progressive ideas that would be much tougher to pass and implement—if not downright impossible, such as single-payer healthcare.
No evidence is provided, nor is the actual substance of the two plans dissected. Establishment ideology-policing is based, above all, on a tautology: Sanders’ plan isn’t realistic because serious people say it’s not, and we’re serious people so shut up.
That a more corporate-friendly policy like ACA was met with steadfast resistance by the Republicans isn’t necessarily evidence that a more leftist one would get even more; it’s evidence many Republicans will reflexively oppose anything a Democrat (and in particular, Obama) lays out.
Investment in private healthcare:
Jeff Bezos’ skin in the health game is significant. The libertarian tech billionaire is a major backer of Juno Therapeutics; Quilance, a company that wants to take over the entire primary care space; and ZocDoc, which matches patients with doctors.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein
Owner and healthcare stakeholder: Comcast
The most prominent and scathing criticisms of Sanders’ health proposal came in a one-two punch from Vox’s resident wonks, Ezra Klein (1/17/16) and Matthew Yglesias (1/18/16), anticipating many of the Post‘s arguments:
Bernie Sanders’ Single-Payer Plan Isn’t a Plan at All
It’s Time to Start Taking Bernie Sanders Seriously
So let us, in these pages, shut out the political world for a moment . . . and ask, simply: What should be done? To help answer that question, we will examine the best healthcare systems in the world: those of Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany and the US Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
The old Klein not only embraced single payer, but made a normative argument rather than simply reading political tea leaves and internalizing the predictable defeatism of reductive wonkery. So what changed?
Investment in the healthcare space
Vox—in concert with Comcast’s other media property, MSNBC—is an integral part of the Democratic Party messaging apparatus. The vast majority of Comcast C-level employees backed Obama in 2012, and their technocratic ethos fits nicely into the White House’s neoliberal approach to healthcare. Indeed, Comcast, in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, developed the unofficial way to manage the byzantine ACA healthcare “marketplace,” with its “Understand Health Insurance” portal. Predictably, Klein and Yglesias frequently turn to this very foundation to prop up their own pro-ACA stance, presenting them as neutral observers rather than entrenched partners. From Klein’s latest:
“They assumed $10 trillion in health care savings over 10 years,” says Larry Levitt, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “That’s tremendously aggressive cost containment, even after you take the administrative savings into account.”
Presumably “non-profit” partnerships are given a pass when it comes to disclosing conflicts of interest, but the Kaiser Family Foundation is itself invested in a number of healthcare-focused portfolios, including Berkshire Hathaway, which has a stake in healthcare tech companies like Sanofi and DaVita. Kaiser also received sizable contributions from health insurance companies like Blue Shield California. This relevant fact remains unmentioned, laundered through a web of corporate/nonprofit relationships and obscured by a fog of objective-sounding punditese.
Comcast Ventures, the investment partner of Comcast (and the original seed investor of Vox before Comcast would go on to validate its own investment), is also an investor in a number of healthcare technology companies, with a portfolio that includes BodyMedia and Accolade. The face of Comcast Ventures, Michael Yang, mentions healthcare as his primary focus in both his Twitter bio and his LinkedIn profile, listing healthcare startups Talix and Healthline as his most prominent achievements.
(It might also be noted that the Gates Foundation, the wealth management instrument of the US’s wealthiest billionaire, has invested in both the Kaiser Family Foundation and Vox’s primary investor Comcast and is on its own a major player in the private healthcare space. In addition, Bill Gates himself still owns $13.6 billion in Microsoft stock, a company also heavily invested in the healthcare sector. Gates also served as “guest editor” of Vox’s technology vertical The Verge in February 2015, and is frequently lobbed softballs by Vox to promote his latest humanitarian efforts.)
None of this is to suggest that these writers are involved in an elaborate conspiracy to destroy single payer—but those willing to toe the line against redistributionist overhauls of our economy are certainly more likely to be given jobs and money by large corporate interests in the first place. Single payer, were it to become a reality, would be a radical and disruptive event that would cost many powerful people a lot of money. The political and business incentive to snuff out this possibility, as well as Sanders’ nascent campaign, are self-evident.
The confluence of conflicts is not a conspiracy; it’s something much more pernicious: routine. It’s baked into the cake, built into the investment structure of our corporate media, which are simply one part of a large maze of interests.
Can anyone imagine Comcast– or Bezos-owned publications circling the wagons for single payer as aggressively as they did against it? Such a scene would be unimaginable—yet here we are, meant to believe all of these objective, policy-driven pundits arrived at basically the same pro-status quo conclusions, entirely independent of the overwhelming material factors at work.
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.