Our politics has changed a lot over the last 52 years, from July 28, 1965 to July 28, 2017.
Early last Thursday morning, only the dramatic thumbs-down by Arizona Senator John McCain saved the Affordable Care Act. Forty-nine Republican Senators voted to get rid of ObamaCare. All forty-six Democrats, the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, plus three Republicans, voted to keep the Affordable Care Act in place.
Fifty-two years ago to the day, July 28, 1965, things were different. The Senate on that day approved Medicare by a vote of 70-24. New York was represented by a Democrat: Robert F. Kennedy, and a Republican: Jacob Javits. Both voted in favor. The 70 in favor included 13 Republicans and 57 Democrats. The 24 opposed included 17 Republicans and 7 Democrats.
Back then, Republicans (led by people like New York governors Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson A. Rockefeller, along with Dwight D. Eisenhower) were in favor of civil rights, labor unions, social security, well-funded public universities, and government-funded infrastructure. They wanted to run the country a little more efficiently than the Democrats who were known for machine politics, political patronage, and racial segregation (James Eastland was a leading Democratic senator, and Strom Thurmond had only a few months earlier resigned from the Democratic Party in protest of Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act).
People like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were already starting to move the Republican Party to the right, complaining that the federal government was taking too big a role in the country by providing medical care to the poor and requiring buses and restaurants to serve black people, but it would be another couple of decades before the extreme partisanship we see today would arise.
That same partisanship has warped our politics, our government, and our national identity. What was once assumed, that our politicians would do what they felt was best for the country, is no longer even expected. Powerful donors and special interests have hijacked the system, and the results are clear in front of us. A bill that virtually everyone, even the Senators voting for it, thought was terrible failed to pass by only one vote. A number of wavering Republican Senators, rightly concerned about the bill’s effects, quickly fell in line after a few phone calls from their wealthy donors. Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, for example, spoke out repeatedly about his refusal to support a bill that hurt his constituents, but the two constituents that he had time to talk to (major donors Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson) convinced him to change, and Heller ended up voting yes.
When members of Congress are more concerned with their reelection and primary challengers than the health of their constituents, something is wrong. The pattern that has played out in this healthcare debate, with the wellbeing of the people outweighed by the financial wellbeing of the wealthy, will almost certainly continue when this Congress takes on tax reform this fall. It will continue when dealing with health care, with taxes, with immigration reform, with trade policy, and with every possible issue until the core problem is addressed – we need comprehensive campaign finance reform. Until politicians can be held accountable by the people, the United States of America will continue to be a democracy in name only.