“Republicans in the House of Representatives are holding our economy hostage by continuing to insist on attaching controversial add-ons to a must-pass government-funding bill.” – North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Bismarck Tribune, Oct. 1, 2013
“Weirdly, by threatening to shut the government unless Obama killed the Affordable Care act, they [Republicans] got the opposite of what they sought the rest of the government is closed, and Obamacare is open for business. And, while Republicans and movement conservatives have spent the better part of a year demonizing Obama’s health reform, the more people become familiar with it, the more people will appreciate it…” – Robert Kuttner, Huffington Post, Oct. 7, 2013
“When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” – Campaign slogan of the Committee to Reelect President Richard M. Nixon (C.R.E.E.P.), 1972
Last February, I was enchanted by Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-ND) hilarious comment at the 69th Annual Congressional Dinner of the Washington [D.C.] Press Club Foundation (formerly Women’s National Press Club) that she felt like a “unicorn” in being invited there to speak. As a pro-choice woman and a freshman Democrat from a red state, she figured that the east coast media simply assumed she was not real, and that they had to see her in the flesh in order to believe.
However, Sen. Heitkamp’s North Dakota is more than just another red state. It is, of course, and always has been, remote geographically and consciously from the minds of other Americans; a supplier of raw materials and young people for the rest of country, but little more, as far as they are concerned. The recent sweet crude oil boom in the western part of the state, despite its enormous importance nationally and internationally, hasn’t really changed that perception.
Our fellow Americans are mistaken to take us so lightly.
North Dakota is the site of this country’s first state-owned enterprises competing successfully in the private sector: The State Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck and the Grain Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks. These government run entities are precise precursors to the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”).
While one might quibble that wheat producers and health care consumers are completely different cases, it does not alter the helplessness of individuals in the face of the forces of combined capital, that only a state or federal government can remedy.
This powerlessness is what prompted U.S. District Court Judge Charles Amidon to affirm the constitutionality of state run corporations, competing in the marketplace in his landmark 1919 decision in Fargo, North Dakota, that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court by a 9-0 vote in 1920:
“The state must be as free to change its remedies as the evils that cause human suffering are to change their forms..
If [the people of this state] may not use [their state government] as the common agency through which to combine their capital and carry on … basic industries … they must continue to deal as individuals with the vast combinations … and suffer the injustices that always exist where economic units so different in power have to deal the one with the other.”
Few perceive that the Affordable Care Act owes an intellectual debt to the Non-Partisan League (NPL), the political movement which began in 1915 within the unfriendly confines of the Republican Party, and now makes a slightly comfortable home in the Democratic/NPL of North Dakota. The Washington D.C. press corps and big city media are finding other plausible reasons for the success of the Affordable Care Act, but it is a stretch for their urban imaginations to reckon with a farmers movement like the NPL of yesteryear.
No matter. It is results that count. That is exactly what mattered to North Dakota farmers and ranchers when they formed a separate political entity and ran candidates in the Republican primaries of 1916 and 1918, and then beat the Democrats in November.
If that tactic seems similar to Tea Party tactics in 2010 and 2012, so be it. That is where the similarity ends. The Non-Partisan League was committed to a positive, progressive agenda; fair prices for farmers, and fair treatment for all citizens of North Dakota. Their political platform and legislation had as its goals the idea that “people are more important than profits.”
Based on their performance on the hustings and in Congress the past four years, the Tea Party platform and legislative agenda have proven to be entirely negative. Even Republican Party plutocrats in the House and Senate, who earlier saw Tea Party advocates as welcome allies in their efforts to conserve the privileges and power of the 2%, have changed their minds. They now see that these Tea Party fanatics want to “blow up everything,” even the basic stability of government itself, which the passing of a budget, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, presupposes. Most plutocrats of any political party believe that profits are more important than people, and behave accordingly, whether in 1915 or 2013. Though greedy and self-centered, they, nevertheless, will cut their losses with a movement that threatens their profits in a manner more drastic than a fair playing field for health care insurance. What has really bothered most conservatives about the Affordable Care Act, as it bothered earlier grain and railway barons about the North Dakota NPL programs, is that these state run entities represent genuine competition, not the kind of monopoly they all know and love. For all their talk about “free enterprise,” big businessmen prefer monopoly to competition, unless they are on the short end of the stick. Small business folks, of course, have no choice but to embrace competition, and they are not wrong to do so. They are simply mistaken if they view big businessmen as on their side.
Tea Party advocates are understandably fueled by anger, not unlike the anger which fueled North Dakota farmers in 1915 and which fuels the anger of Americans betrayed by Wall Street and a broken health care insurance program. But the Tea Party represents anger which has burned out of control. Their leaders, like Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Republican followers in the House of Representatives, like Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, embrace only chaos, narcissism and hatred of any form of accountability that responsible government requires. The Tea Party, and Republicans who have embraced their rhetoric, have had no real answers for real people as does the Affordable Care Act.
While the Tea Party has shown the power of the politics of resentment, their success is likely their undoing.
The operating federal government has been held hostage. The credit of the United States has been held hostage.
Republican congressmen and congresswomen, who are horrified at the lack of responsibility in the Tea Party program, have been held hostage and threatened with primary challenges to their renomination in 2014.
House Speaker John Boehner has been held hostage in a manner reminiscent of the campaign style of Richard Nixon’s C.R.E.E.P.: “If I don’t get my way, I will destroy you [and your economy in the bargain].”
The Tea Party tactics have begun to backfire. American citizens, who need government services, now see that they are being held hostage by a pampered, petulant and self righteous few, who have no respect for majority rule.
Plutocrats who saw in Tea Party intransigence a chance to defeat the Affordable Care Act, now see these allies as threatening the stability of the entire marketplace. A continuing Tea Party success in hamstringing the business of government could even affect their “business of business” on Wall Street, and that they will neither stand for, nor continue to enable with their campaign contributions.
Plutocrats also have underestimated the resolve and grit of President Obama. How they could discount a man who was seasoned in the political culture of Chicago, where the slogan is “Politics Ain’t Bean Bag” is beyond me, but they have gravely miscalculated his ability to pick fights he can win.
It should also be remembered that hope can trump anger if it is well organized and tenacious. One of the tenets of the North Dakota NPL, besides the mantra of “people are more important that profits,” was “We’ll Stick, We’ll Win!”
Senator Heidi Heitkamp has certainly proven the truth of this slogan in her own political career, as well as in her ability to unite the progressivism of the NPL idea with her unique populist appeal.
Democrats in the House and Senate have fallen in line with President Obama in sticking with and playing a winning hand with the Affordable Care Act, as Americans discover the opportunities it represents for them to dare to believe in a future for them and their children. As the rest of America begins to embrace an idea in the Affordable Care Act that we in North Dakota have embraced for close to a hundred years in the NPL agenda, maybe we have reason not to take ourselves as lightly as does the rest of the country.
Let the North Dakota unicorn of the 20th Century impale professional cynics and doubters of the 21st Century on a horn of certainty and optimism, rather than the devil’s horns of dilemma and despair!