How Change Happens: Vermont’s Human Rights Movement and the National Media

As Vermont is moving forward on the path to a universal health care system, and members of the Vermont Workers’ Center’s Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign are mobilizing in the Statehouse, the national media continue to wonder why Vermont has been able to lead the way on health care reform and  how this might reverberate across the country. As during an earlier spike of attention a few months ago, speculation is rampant and rarely productive. It seems genuinely hard for media outlets to understand how political change happens.

In a New York Times opinion piece, historian Molly Worthen credits a political party with putting Vermont, and possibly the rest of the country, on the path to universal, single-payer health care. This version of history got picked up by MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki, who interviewed a legislator about the transition to universal health care. There was no mention that this past week, around 50 campaign members congregated at the Statehouse to ask this legislator and his colleagues to take concrete next steps toward universal health care.

The media’s focus on powerful individuals and the political establishment is hardly surprising – our history books emphasize the role of political institutions and individual heroes (and, to a much lesser degree, heroines). A people’s history has not yet found its way into our collective consciousness.

Yet this is exactly what’s needed: a people’s history of health care reform, a history of Vermont’s grassroots people’s movement that changed what was considered politically possible, even in this progressive state. The 2011 breakthrough only came after many thousands organized themselves and became strong enough to push timid politicians with the radical vision of the Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign. To make this universal system a reality by 2017, it will take an even stronger movement to overcome rising opposition from industry interests. And that’s how universal, publicly financed health care will happen in the rest of the country too: people’s movements in other states are already underway, inspired by the Vermont campaign. State by state, they will be the ones making the health care dominos fall.