Virginia, we all know, is a battleground in next month’s presidential election. It is like Manassas and Bull Run combined! Can I say that? Sure, I can say that, because I grew up in Fairfax County, just over the Manassas border in the part of Clifton that is technically Centreville. There are many battlegrounds here: job losses, health insurance, home foreclosures, environmental hazards, public schools, student debt, energy independence, women’s health, gay rights, defense industry budget cuts. Sometimes there are so many, and in so many different parts of the state, that I lose track of what or who might be the best medicine for the recent troubles of the Commonwealth.
Then I found Jill Stein. An internist from Lexington, Massachusetts who trained at Harvard Medical School, Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, says that politics is the mother of all illnesses. For her, the right to free health care and the right to live in a safe, clean place are human rights. A medical student and environmental health researcher myself, that did it for me. So why don’t I hear more about her candidacy in Virginia, the Mother of Presidents?
When Stein, who is on the Virginia ballot and on 85% of ballots nationwide, says bad policy makes people sick, she is paraphrasing Rudolf Virchow, the preeminent nineteenth century pathologist. Virchow thought physicians were natural political advocates for the poor. So I don’t see Stein entering this race as a spoiler; rather, she is doing her job, and in a way most people would like to see their doctors doing their jobs. Certainly many doctors conceive of their practices in this way, whether they involve research politics or clinical politics or, well, the body politic.
A very large block of Virginia voters is very interested in the body politic as the house of the organs of change. Usually I hear us called the “religious left.” “Progressive” Democratic candidates like Tim Kaine (and, earlier, Tom Perriello) identify strongly as Catholics. They framed themselves as candidates as advocates of a communitarian ethic to change the body politic with a social policy agenda built on faith and love. Their angle used to feel nearly revolutionary to me as a Catholic Democrat– growing up I was used to socializing with many friendly, kind, and socially engaged fellow congregants who espoused an incoherent political philosophy I found socially unconscionable. (I cannot tell you the cognitive dissonance I experienced learning how to perform transvaginal ultrasounds those same weeks when Ken Cuccinelli, who I have never met but went to the same church I went to as a kid, was dabbling in women’s health policy.) In that context of liking my family’s friends, I really liked the idea that we could rebuild national consensus on that congenial, loving impulse. And I voted accordingly–for moderate-to-progressive Democrats. They weren’t quite pushing left-wing politics as religious liberation or social medicine, but it was the closest thing I could find at the time.
And it is no longer enough.
We need something more like the overall small “c” catholic project. Change the culture by changing the policy, and make heal us as a unit. It is sort of like the difference between giving the kiss of Peace at Mass to a new visitor and bringing the 85 or whatever percent of American Catholics who have stopped going to Mass back to Mass. We both want the same thing in the end, but there’s a difference in the level of intervention, the style of approach. In the religious left I see a lot of potential for an interfaith coalition that can achieve grand policy reformation: Medicare-for-All, mass transit construction, stimulus workers’ programs, green jobs, tax structure overhaul, real corporate regulation, student loan forgiveness, ending the injustices of the drug war and mass incarceration, ending the death penalty, starting carbon taxing that might force energy independence and stave climate change. These are broad-sweeping, cost-saving, conscience-relieving kinds of ideas. Stein does not operate out of an explicit religious framework but appeals to our old-time civic religion to revive the body in a similar manner. Her political medicine is one of spiritual uplift in its respect for human dignity.
To me, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was an opening the religious left needed to reach its apotheosis, and I voted for him out of pragmatism like I voted for John Kerry in 2004 (I was 17 in 2000). That sweeping vision of economic liberation through social democratic policy remains religious fugue for now, however, because Barack Obama will not be the one to enact it. And it is not crazy, or impossible, just urgent. President Obama’s administration reminds us why, rather viscerally I’d say. His administration has legitimized and expanded drone warfare; continued the drug war; illegally assassinated American citizens; waffled on free trade; evaded a stance on the right to collective bargaining; refused to entertain Medicare-for-All; proverbially under-bus-threw appointees in the name of austerity or political expediency. I cannot condone a second Obama administration on those terms, especially after learning last year that he has more individual agency in some of them (e.g. “kill list”) than I previously understood. That I added the caveat “adminstration” before enumerating my concerns was key: In doing so I am mimicking the not entirely unreasonable thought process of the vast majority of progressive-leaning people I know. For Barack’s sins blame right-wing obstructionism, the incoherence of Occupy. Deep down, we insist, President Obama agrees with us. In his heart Obama knows what is right.
Well, in my brain I know Stein called Mitt Romney out as an empty suit in a Massachusetts gubernatorial debate in 2002. In my musculature I almost tripped on Stein’s pantsuit at the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, where she spent hours talking to participants. Whatever my recent preoccupations about ruining President Obama’s “chances”–at winning? at what after?–I am ultimately pretty sure the President will win Virginia’s electoral votes anyway. Even if he doesn’t, the Virginia political ethos will triumph with him: Obama’s America is this “religious left,” a lot of great talk and little discernible practice.
Yes, I am throwing my vote away without even the decency to arrange a “vote swap.” Incidentally Virginia may be the best state for third-party voters in 2012, thanks to the multipartisan effort to put Constitutional Party nominee Virgil Goode, favorite son of what some joke is the People’s Republic of Charlottesville, on the ballot. You can read elsewhere about why America needs third parties, even in “purple” or “swing” states, as I write from a more personal place. Medical students are not encouraged to make risky decisions, which can kill people, or hurt a final grade, or both. Jill Stein took a risk to run for president, one I worry physicians from my generation will feel too afraid to make. We are, and will be, under too much pressure to vote for the lesser of two evils in the home that some loan relief and some pharmaceutical regulation and some medicine funding period will remain in play.
If more physicians or medical students or health professionals like me consider voting for Stein, wherever we’re living, I am sure she will secure enough votes to get 5% of the base. That means full federal funding for Greens next cycle, and more advancement of their Green New Deal platform. This is not “spoiler” alert, but sound organizing. It’s weird that more doctors don’t come out in support of the doctor who best articulates what makes America sick–thousands of doctors agree with Stein! The majority of doctors support single-payer! Doctors don’t like to see bad economics make their patients sick !(And, if you’re the kind of doctor to be concerned with that, it makes caring for them more expensive!) So hers is the medicine I’d like to learn.
President Obama’s health care policy team talks a lot about prevention, like prevention of the public health funding disaster that would be a Romney-Ryan administration. They are not wrong in that impulse, and I support the Affordable Care Act for now, though I don’t think ACOs will solve the cost crisis and know people won’t be able to afford the mandate and am aggravated pharmaceutical company intervention blocked the public option, &c. &c. &c. See? The Affordable Care Act will reward networks of ostensibly cost-cutting accountable care organizations (ACOs), but I am ultimately accountable to my patients, not to the organizations themselves. To save the most people and the most money is going to require more radical intervention than either the Democrats or the Republicans are prepared to provide. Are you for the palliative—really, a band-aid bleeding through—or for mass prevention that will prevent the root cause of the illness?
So I voted for Stein absentee. Shoot me down in Petersburg, or meet me for a détente at Appomattox. In my heart I don’t know if I was right. As they say in medical journals, though, in my head I am at least ninety-five percent confident, enough for statistical significance. It’s enough to reject the status quo of the null for the alternative hypothesis.
Maureen Miller is an MD-MPH student and writer based in New York and Boston. A founding editor of Rap Genius, she is also the author of the Amazon.com Kindle Single A Taste of My Own Medicine. The opinions here are her own.