I am a slow learner. It is only in the last few days that I have begun to truly understand the importance of identity politics in the battle for health care reform in Tennessee.
Politics in Tennessee are identity politics. It is really basically simple. You are one of us or you or one of them. When any policy, any position becomes associated with sense of identity, with what it means to be one of us, that position, as long as it remains a matter of identity, is almost impossible to change. Insure Tennessee became a matter of identity. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not it was a good idea. It was for many people about who they were. It was about being one of us or one of them.
Listen to anyone who really opposed Insure Tennessee talk and very quickly you will realize that the power and essence of their appeal is in what they say about identity. The whole Speaker Harwell task force is really nothing but a statement of identity. “We don’t want their solution. We want our solution.”
I think we have misunderstood the challenge. It is much more than convincing people that closing the coverage gap is a good idea. Insure Tennessee had to go down as the most educated good idea that no one ever realized was a good idea in Tennessee political history. The genius behind the AFP and other like organizations is that they won the battle of identity and left us with a legislature that said it would never approve something that made it look like it was one of them.
It is the same process, the same dynamic that has made Donald Trump the Republican nominee. Us vs. Them. Be careful what side you pick.
The overwhelming evidence of the last two years is that if you lose the battle of identity you lose the battle. We have lost and lost substantially and unless we find a way to lessen the reflexive response to see closing the coverage gap as a threat to personal, political, and social identity we will lose again.
How exactly you do that should be a matter of great discussion and great thought. It is much more than a battle for a better idea. The other thing the last two years have taught me is that education has its limits. We tend to find some way to minimize or rationalize away any information that threatens our identity. How many people who support Donald Trump are totally unmoved by any criticism of him regardless of how based in fact it is?
The people I know who support Insure Tennessee support it because it is part of them being part of the kind of person they want to be. Perhaps it is because of a personal experience with someone in the gap. Perhaps they have recognized the moral urgency of the issue. Perhaps they have decided as people like Richard Briggs and Doug Overby did this is an issue past politics. I don’t know the answer but I believe that finding a way to win the battle for identity is essential to any chance to close the coverage gap.
In one sense we have been trying to fight a battle on a battlefield that we never really found. We thought it was simply showing that something like Insure Tennessee was a great way to do a great thing and it was so much more than that. Perhaps the key is in figuring out what made people like Richard Briggs and Doug Overby possible. I don’t know. But I think it is perhaps a pivotal issue in the battles ahead.