Remember this. Resistance works.
I’m writing this three days after the last round of the Big Health Care Showdown. For seven years, Republican legislators in the U.S. have been screaming that they wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Yet despite having control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, despite arm-twisting and deceit and heavy-handed manipulation of legislative procedure (including introducing their final bill at ten p.m. for a vote at midnight), they failed.
There are a lot of reasons they failed. Even though they had seven years to prepare, the Republicans weren’t prepared with actual legislation. Their own party was divided: a large branch of the party thought the bills being proposed weren’t draconian enough. And, of course, the president is an arrogant, incompetent, willfully ignorant buffoon, who failed to do the difficult work of convincing legislators and citizens to accept the legislation, and didn’t even see the value of doing so.
But one of the biggest reasons the Affordable Care Act was saved was a massive outpouring of resistance from citizens, beseeching their representatives not to take health care from millions. The ACA was saved, in large part, by a flood of people contacting their Senators and Congresspeople: calling, texting, emailing, sending letters and postcards, protesting, lobbying, getting arrested, and organizing others to do all the above. Everyone familiar with how federal government works says contacting elected officials is effective, and when it happens on this scale, it’s hugely effective. Everyone familiar with federal government says the recent flood of civic engagement was a major reason a handful of Republican legislators broke ranks — and all Democratic legislators held firm.
I want us to remember this.
The next time we’re facing a big fight, I want us to remember that resistance works. We have a lot of fights ahead of us: we’ll be facing hostile, craven, backward legislation that caters to the worst side of humanity, to naked greed and xenophobic hatred and open hostility to facts. When this happens, I want us to remember this fight for health care — and this victory.
The next time we lose an important fight, I also want us to remember that resistance works. This doesn’t mean resistance always works: it means it can work. The next time we lose, I don’t want us to get despondent and pessimistic about how civic engagement is pointless. We won’t win every fight. Fighting is still effective.
I want us to remember this when we lose — and when we get saddled with a half-assed compromise we’re not happy with. Resistance works, but that doesn’t mean it always gets us everything we want. It means we can sometimes get part of what we want. It means we can push for everything we want, win a piece of it, lose a chunk of it, regroup — and keep pushing for the rest. We won’t win everything we want. Resistance still works. I want us to remember this when we lose, when we stalemate, when we’re facing another hard battle.
And I want us to remember it the next time we’re in power.
We were able to protect health care when the odds were stacked against us, when our opponents controlled the presidency and the legislature. Think of what we could accomplish when the people in power are on our side. (Or are something vaguely resembling on our side, anyway.) If we deluge our elected officials with a massive campaign of calls, texts, emails, letters, lobbying, protests, and more — when they’re already somewhat sympathetic to our position, and are counting on us for votes — think of what we could make happen.
The day Trump was elected, most experts agreed that the Affordable Care Act was dead. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a dead parrot. Dead as frosted hair, stonewashed jeans, leisure suits, Beanie Babies, cramming dozens of people into a phone booth, and vaudeville. Opponents of the ACA crowed over their victory; supporters of it crumbled in despair, strategized about which other fights might be winnable, and tried to figure out how the hell we were going to take care of the millions of people who were suddenly going to be deprived of health care. It was accepted wisdom: this fight was over, and we had lost.
But we were wrong.
Support for the Affordable Care Act came in lots of different forms. People who had never contacted their legislators picked up the phone. Seasoned activists orchestrated phone banks, text banks, protests. People with illnesses, disabilities, and pre-existing conditions revealed intensely personal stories about their medical histories. So-called “slacktivists” amplified the message on social media, encouraging their friends to make calls and send letters, and getting those friends to help spread the word. When some legislators stopped taking calls, people showed up en masse at their offices, to shame them on the news for ignoring their constituents. People who had called once kept on calling, texting, faxing, emailing, sending letters and postcards. People educated themselves and each other on strategies: how to call other numbers when the main one stopped working, how to use Resistbot to turn texts into faxes, how to get news media to show up at protests. People with phone anxiety asked for scripts to use when calling or texting; other people supplied those scripts. Disabled activists blocked or occupied their Senators’ offices, creating the unforgettable image of people in wheelchairs being dragged off by police. Thousands took to the streets, in big marches and small creative actions, getting on local and national news to let the rest of the country know that resistance was happening.
All of it helped. All of it made a difference.
We’re going to have a lot of big, bitter fights in the next few years. We’ll win some; we’ll lose some; we’ll get handed some crappy compromises. This will be true for the next few years, and for the rest of our lives. Fighting for justice is a lifelong struggle. And one of the things that keeps us going in that struggle is remembering our victories — and remembering that victories are possible. Let’s remember this one. It was big, it was unexpected, and it saved tens of thousands of lives. Don’t forget.