The stories we tell about politics have consequences, shaping how people and groups act in the future. Tales of courageous politicians, however uplifting, can overlook how citizens influenced them.
After the dramatic failure of the health care vote in the Senate, attention flowed to the three Republicans who broke with their party — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona — each a protagonist in this drama.
What actually happened shows how much citizens mattered in the health care fight and provides lessons for democracy in the Trump era.
On health care, Collins did not start where she ended and she shifted after considerable grassroots action.
Moreover, confronting Collins meant challenging the most popular elected official in the state, who was used to highly laudatory press.
Using guidelines from the Indivisibles Guide, a document developed by former congressional staff that sparked people to form local chapters, Maine people repeatedly asked Collins to hold a town hall. She never did.
Constituents found her anyway, and spoke to her and her staff in Maine and Washington, D.C. All sides benefited from a Maine political culture that prizes civility. While confrontations could be intense, they were also courteous.
And so, coming out of a Bangor radio station one snowy February day, Collins faced something virtually unprecedented for her — public pressure. After one woman politely told her, “I would like to request a public access town hall, please,” the senator walked to her car.
Still recovering from a broken ankle, Collins’ pace was slow as she moved past the silent protesters. Health care was on their minds with one sign simply reading “Unpaid Local,” countering a comment the senator had made to the Washington Post. With increasingly numbers of concerned Mainers contacting her offices, Collins had said, “I think it’s really unfortunate that some of these paid activists are scaring people about what’s going to happen.”
After initially implying there was nothing anyone should be scared about, later Collins clearly acknowledged the real harm GOP plans would exert on patients, providers and hospitals, saying they would “jeopardize the very existence of our rural hospitals and our nursing homes” and endanger the health care of “vulnerable citizens or disabled children or low-income seniors.” Collins also became a fierce critic of the secretive and strange process used to design and consider legislation to change or repeal the Affordable Care Act. Then Collins was lauded for breaking with her party in opposing this deeply unpopular and damaging legislation.
While praise is warranted, it took concerted work from Collins’ constituents to move her to from what one protester described as “playing both sides of the coin.”
Mainers went to Collins’ state offices to talk to staff and the senator and held rallies, sit-ins and press conferences. Some traveled to Washington, D.C. Although actions varied through the twists and turns of the legislative process, week after week people visited, wrote and called.
In person and in print, Democrats, independents and Republicans told their personal stories about how Republican proposals would hurt their families. Health care providers, the Maine Medical Association and Maine hospitals pointed to the harms from Medicaid cuts and other provisions.
To her credit, Collins listened, becoming a clear voice identifying problems with GOP bills.
Maine people then focused on thanking Collins. But when it was unclear how she stood on the “skinny repeal” people again began to call to ask her to oppose it.
No doubt, Collins was far more receptive to learning from experts and constituents than Maine’s 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who avoided constituents, voted for Trumpcare and mischaracterized the bill’s impact.
But Collins was an admirable political figure not because she was immune from pressure but because she was responsive to constituents and serious about the impacts of public policy. While party leaders surely pressured Collins, Trump and Senate Republicans needed her more than she needed them. After all, their proposals were unpopular and would have harmed Maine, and Collins’ independent reputation is one of her political assets.
Americans may love a good profile in courage tale but the myth of the politician above politics undermines democratic citizenship as much as corrosive cynicism depresses people’s sense they make a difference.
Recognizing how and how much activated citizens mattered in stopping Trumpcare should spur more political action on many issues, including protecting health coverage from Trump’s sabotage and eventually expanding it to all.