Six months into the administration of the United States’ first black president, the right-wing fringe has reclaimed the center of attention in US domestic politics, propelled by industry money and media interests. Health care reform happens to be the issue at stake, but any other issue would have served the purpose, as long as it guaranteed media coverage for right-wing fear-mongering and promoted the ongoing reframing of popular values (choice, security, people’s control) — mastered in the 1990s by Newt Gingrich — into Republican campaign slogans, spiked with racist undertones for good measure. In this context and to a backdrop of news about the return of militias — which kept a suspiciously low profile during the years of the Bush administration — I found the prospect of carrying out field research in Montana on the human right to health a little daunting. But reassuringly, Montana’s Human Right to Health Care campaign is run by an organization that is also Montana’s first and foremost expert in monitoring and fighting right-wing extremism: the Montana Human Rights Network.
With my counterpart from the Montana Human Rights Network, I set out this August to conduct focus groups in Lewis and Clark County, western Montana, to explore people’s health needs and their experiences with the local health care system. To our relief, we did not attract town hall size groups ready to vent their engineered hate, but we also did not fully escape the ugly reverberations of Fox News and Talk Radio. Some people with low incomes and very limited access to health care looked with disdain to the perceived health needs of others — particularly to those who had already been “othered” by decades of right-wing ideology (immigrants, the poor) — as an explanation for their own unmet needs. The community spirit of a frontier area sat in uneasy tension with the blaming game promoted on the airwaves from far away.
Yet we also heard plenty of other voices, from the poor to the privileged, who reported barriers to insurance coverage, a shortage of doctors, and a lack of respect for human beings in need, and who openly welcomed the notion of health care as a human right for all, regardless of ability to pay.
This reflects the other aspect of the national debate, in which the human right to health care has gained enormous traction over recent months. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal serves as a suitable indicator — hardly a week passes in which this organ of US capitalism doesn’t feature a rant against the human right to health care. But we only have to look at the town hall meetings themselves to gauge the growing support for rights-based health care: meetings in which the question of the right to health care was raised, affirmed, or in which it dominated entirely.
Those other voices also give insight into the other, non-clichéd reality of Montana. Montana is a state represented almost exclusively by Democrats, and its progressive history fuels vibrant grassroots activism on health care, from the Network’s Human Right to Health Care campaign to numerous active and committed single payer groups, which recently gave Senator Baucus a run for his hard-earned health industry money. There is no shortage of courageous and innovative initiatives either: a Montana State Senator, Christine Kaufmann, introduced a constitutional amendment for the right to health care, and a local Board of Health — driven by the commitment of a Helena city commissioner whose spirited support for the right to health care can be heard here — recognized health care as a human right and set up a residents’ task force to determine how to ensure universal access to health care locally. Our ongoing field research has been designed to support the pioneering work of this task force, which will continue its work for and with the people of Lewis and Clark County beyond the fanfare of the right-wing media circus.
Anja Rudiger, PhD, is director of the Human Right to Health Program, a joint initiative by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and the National Health Law Program (NHeLP) based in New York City.