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Interning for a Centrist Democrat Pushed Me to Democratic Socialism

I saw how establishment Democratic ideology is painfully corrupt and at odds with progressive voter aspirations.

Rep. Don Beyer speaks at an American Federation of Government Employees meeting on February 13, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

In March 2017, a legislative assistant for Congressman Don Beyer (D-Virginia) summoned me and the other interns for a talk. “Can you all meet me in the boss’s office in five minutes?” she asked. After completing the mundane work we had been doing, answering constituent inquiries and concerns by phone mostly, we meandered to the sophomore Democrat’s office. It was during this formative meeting, two months into an unpaid internship, that the glaring contradictions between the policy aspirations of Democratic voters and the status quo hard lines pushed by party leadership became clear to me.

After the legislative assistant sat us down, she began to brief us on how Rep. Beyer had been receiving an uptick in the number of calls and correspondence in support of H.R. 676, or Medicare For All. She began to explain why the Congressman wasn’t a cosponsor for the single-payer proposal and suggested talking points we should regurgitate if a constituent asked for rationale: For one, the bill would, she said, repeal and replace Obamacare with what she described as an impractical and expensive policy. Secondly, the Congressman supported single-payer, she said, just not H.R. 676, because of “problems with the bill,” a phrase that was never expanded upon.

H.R 676 had no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled 115th Congress, anyway, especially with Donald Trump in the White House. But if the Congressman did support turning single-payer from pipe dream to reality, he should have backed the legislation without qualifications to advance the debate.

Something didn’t add up. I suspected that the bill’s “problems” were actually centered around the fact that “health professionals” have given Beyer more than $100,000 throughout his career. As the legislative assistant began to rationalize the Congressman’s positions, I held my tongue, thinking back on how some of her language reminded me of my conservative Virginia college, and its partial Koch Industry funding. Even with an undergraduate education from a conservative university, I saw the proven effectiveness of single-payer and wasn’t dissuaded by her rhetoric. Still, I “put personal politics aside,” as most rank-and-file Congressional aides are told to do, and simply stewed as my higher-up gave lackluster justifications for Beyer not supporting 676.

I can vividly recall being dumbfounded as a fellow intern from a prestigious Ivy League institution, who also studied health policy, nodded actively in agreement as the legislative assistant implied that the Medicare For All plan would repeal and replace Obamacare with an unachievable, unaffordable, and utopian health care policy. In reality, even with the ACA, the United States pays far more per capita to leave millions uninsured and has significantly diminished health outcomes compared to every industrialized country in the world with a single-payer program. I felt totally disillusioned and completely demoralized by this conservative lecture with liberal rebranding.

Shortly after my internship ended, I informally left the Democratic Party. I no longer gave the occasional donations or “voted blue no matter who.” I slowly realized that part of the fight for a just society includes confronting the contradictions within the Democratic Party and an economic arrangement that puts the profits of insurance corporations before the health of people.

In the months after my internship, I followed Rep. Beyer’s position on the Medicare-For-All debate. Despite the popularity of Medicare For All at the time, the Congressman stayed away from championing universal, single-payer health care and refused to budge on supporting 676. He continued to sidestep the debate in favor of his donors rather than wholeheartedly fighting for a health system that delivers economic, racial, and social justice.

Then, in late September 2017, Beyer began to “evolve,” as politicians commonly put it. What his staffers described as his “support” for 676 and single-payer began to waver into concrete support. I discovered why after viewing a video on Facebook in the middle of October. A video showed one of Beyer’s town hall meetings featuring members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) firmly asking the Congressman to cosponsor the single-payer legislation.

The video was powerful and watching this process moved me. Initially, his responses were tepid and familiar, heavily riddled with vague language focusing on “problems with the bill.” The talking points echoed those of party leadership and offered few solutions to expand coverage, reduce costs, and improve outcomes other than “protecting the ACA.” But a sea of red shirted Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America members pressured him to support the bill. Organizer after organizer shared their personal stories and confronted my former boss on his contradictory rhetoric. Shortly thereafter, on September 26, his staff added his name to the list of 676 cosponsors and he voiced his support for single-payer without any qualifications. Seeing the organizers change Beyer’s attitude in the course of an hour or so gave me hope. The town hall event demonstrated to me the power of collective action and the hollowness of working as an individual to create a more just and equitable society. I joined DSA immediately after watching the video.

It would be a lie to say that this experience alone drove me to a socialist organization. The 2016 primary had a profound impact on my increasingly skeptical opinion of the Democratic Party. Yet, working for Beyer gave me an intimate view of how establishment liberal ideology is painfully rudderless and corrupted, and how it works to cater to the interests of the capitalist class. To give a broad overview: the lawmaker is a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a more left-leaning group, and the New Democrat Coalition, a conservative association with corporate ties that wants to thwart most of the former’s economic agenda. This illustrates the inconsistencies that characterize many Democrats and their disconnection from the base’s support for pro-worker policies.

The interests of the corporate-linked New Democrats make it financially and politically challenging for them to advocate for progressive policies or fight for Medicare For All. By simultaneously representing capital and giving a symbolic nod to progressive values, Democrats like Beyer are toeing the line of appeasing donors while not truly representing what workers want and need.

Nevertheless, my experience with democratic socialist organizing is giving me hope. While electoral politics certainly serve immediate practical purposes, we must also embrace the goal of confronting our cruel and hopeless undemocratic economic system. That means organizing on a working-class identity, showing solidarity with the most vulnerable, and taking collective action. To borrow language from the most condescending of Washington centrists and accomplices to capital, that’s just how things have always worked.