Ady Barkan, Activist and DNC Speaker, on Biden and ‘Medicare for All’

Ady Barkan, the progressive activist who became a vocal champion for single payer health care after receiving a diagnosis of the terminal neurodegenerative disease A.L.S. in 2016, is scheduled to deliver a highly anticipated speech Tuesday evening at the Democratic National Convention.

Mr. Barkan, one of the few progressives to have a speaking spot this week, has a knack for blending his personal story with a call to action. He endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the presidential primary and has called for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to support “Medicare for all,” which Mr. Biden has rejected.

In an email exchange with The Times this week, Mr. Barkan explained why he’s supporting Mr. Biden in the general election and where he sees the push for single payer health care going in a moderate Democratic administration. Mr. Barkan’s political group, Be a Hero, has made flipping the Senate its top priority this November, and has targeted races in Arizona and Maine while also pushing for the elimination of the filibuster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I want to start with your address to the D.N.C. I know you’ve been an advocate for Medicare for all. What will your message be to the Democratic Party, particularly as it relates to health care?

I want to convey two ideas: that defeating [President] Trump is essential, even if you don’t love Joe Biden, and that none of our struggles will be over after this election. We need to keep on keepin’ on.

On health care, I support Medicare for all, and Joe Biden obviously doesn’t. Many Democratic voters agree with me, as evidenced by the overwhelming support in the exit polls during the primaries. And the pandemic and depression have proven how dangerous it is to tie insurance to employment. But we obviously have work to do to convince the leadership of the Democratic Party to shift its perspective on this.

So, my message is that we have to keep on fighting so that everyone can get the health care they need, regardless of their employment status or ability to pay.

ImageMr. Barkan at a protest in Washington in 2018. He has been helping Democrats regain control of Congress.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

That was my next question. If I am not mistaken, Joe Biden did not meet with you early during the primary, as other candidates did. He talked with you after the nomination was wrapped up. He remains opposed to Medicare for all, but you have endorsed him.

Do you have confidence that the Democratic Party under Joe Biden is movable on Medicare for all? Do you worry that the party leadership will embrace you, but reject the policies you advocate?

I definitely don’t want to be co-opted! Obviously, we can’t accomplish anything good with Republicans in control. So I see my role, and the role of the progressive movement, as trying to get more and better Democrats elected to office, and then pushing hard to get them to promote justice and equity when they get there.

I think we have seen the Democratic Party become much more progressive over the past decade, and we can keep building on that success. I am hopeful that we can leverage our power in the House to pass strong legislation, pressure the Senate to act, including by getting rid of the filibuster, and put transformative bills on President Biden’s desk.

One thing I know some progressive groups worry about is that people will go “back to normal” if President Trump is removed from office, and that the energy and money that have fueled some progressive victories in the last four years will dry up. Does that worry you?

I think that is a critical concern. But I am hopeful that the progressive movement is much more powerful and sophisticated than we were in 2009, when [former President Barack] Obama took office. We saw that without movement energy then, not nearly enough was accomplished.

Climate change, immigration reform, workers rights, gun control, even a public option health insurance. None of this happened, because of the filibuster and because the progressive movement didn’t pressure Obama to act quickly.

I don’t think that we will make the same mistake. The movement for Black lives, for example, understands very clearly that it is Democratic mayors and city councils that are funding and protecting the police state. And, everyone understands that President Biden will need to be pushed to be the transformative president America needs.

So, yeah. I am worried that people will go back to normal. But I am hopeful that they won’t.

Looking back, are there lessons progressives should take from this year’s primary?

That is a hard question. I do think that the pandemic proves the need for the political revolution that Bernie Sanders offered and the big structural changes that Elizabeth Warren laid out in such detail. I do think that had the pandemic come a few months earlier, we would have gotten a different result in the primary.

But, Franklin Roosevelt did not run as a progressive reformer in 1932. Lyndon Johnson was a Southern segregationist for the first two decades of his career, until he began to transform himself in the late ’50s. Even Abraham Lincoln was a moderate compromise candidate for the Republican Party in 1860. And yet, all three presided over bursts of social, legal and political revolutions because the American people demanded them. I hope that the same can be true of President Biden.

So many of your answers are optimistic. What informs this hope? Both politically and personally?

I look at the freedom fighters past and present. People have endured such tremendous suffering, overcome such enormous structural obstacles. The human spirit is inspiringly robust.

Hope is not a state of mind. It is a state of action. It is in the praxis of resistance, solidarity and love that we can find a path to a brighter world. That is how I get through the darkness.

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