A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
For years, most Americans have been asleep at the wheel, politically speaking. But a new health care bill might change all that.
Save the historic first election of an African-American president, for decades it's seemed America's base of voters have been casting ballots down party lines and then tuned out for the years that followed. But this year, things feel a little different.
Since Donald Trump's election sent shockwaves through the American electorate, both the left and the right seem to have a more passionate and attentive interest in politics. While Internet message boards, Facebook groups and viral memes fuel Trump's support, liberals have signed up thousands of young Americans who want to begin a career in politics, and several massive demonstrations across the country have shown signs of a new era of political engagement. Town halls have become television spectacles, as have White House press briefings. Social media is opening direct channels to politicians.
And, as minority leader Nancy Pelosi said last week, the latest big news out of Washington D.C., Republicans attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is "going to provide a great civics lesson for America."
That civics lesson, it turns out, is something we desperately need as a country.
It should come as a shock to nobody that the average American voter is woefully ignorant of how our government works or who operates it: just 53 percent of Americans knew what party their representative was from in 2014, according to The Washington Post. In 2015, only 34 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government (legislative, judicial, and executive), according to Forbes. Only 30 percent could name one. 40 percent of Americans don't know Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war and not even half know the Senate oversees impeachments, a poll conducted by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni found.
But now that we have Trump in office and a historically disliked health care bill on the docket, all this could change. According to several polls, health care is one of those issues that Americans care about more than most. More important than that, though, is that it's an issue that's hard to mislead the public about. After all, no amount of political rhetoric or posturing can convince an American without health insurance that they have it.
The civics lesson is already in motion.
Last week, the House passed a version of the American Healthcare Act — also known as Trumpcare — which about 17 percent of Americans approved of, according to polls. Based on social media posts and talk I heard from friends and family, plenty of Americans thought the bill became law simply by getting out of the House of Representatives.
Shortly after, though, Senate Republicans admitted they were just going to "start from scratch" and write an entirely new bill. The Senate must then pass that bill, send it back to the House, and then pass whatever the House sends back to them in order to implement it. In doing so, they'll underscore a core tenet of our democracy: bills that make it out of one part of our legislature will, in most cases, undergo serious changes before they become law.
The process also illuminates just how important something like a Senate election is. After all — judging by the aforementioned numbers — most Americans don't even know the Senate has the power to impeach Trump or stop something like his health care bill from becoming law. And yet, in 2014, the last midterm election which was largely responsible for creating today's Senate, just 36 percent of Americans voters turned out for an election that very well may now determine whether they get health care.
It was also the lowest turnout in 70 years.
Will Trump's election and the latest health care bill change that? It's entirely possible.
Look no further than the first round of voting in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District race. After President Trump named Tom Price his health and human services secretary, Price vacated his seat in the sixth district. That opened the door for Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, to run against the field of Republicans in a district that has rarely ever come close to voting blue.
By a 4-point margin, a larger number of Democratic voters turned out for the election than Republican voters. That turnout disparity in favor of Democrats came despite the fact Republican primary voters turned out at levels more like a midterm election than a special election. The message? There were just a lot more people voting and interested in this race than usual.
Of course, in the context of other countries' elections, even those turnout numbers are still anemic. In France's most recent election, which drew global attention, 74 percent of eligible French voters cast a ballot. It was their lowest turnout since 1969, but would have been the highest turnout in a U.S. presidential election since 1896 had it happened here.
All this means that there is a lot of room for upward mobility when it comes to Americans' engagement in politics. The smaller the election, the more room for improvement: in New York City's 2013 mayoral election, which has huge implications for local policy, just 24 percent of registered voters showed up. For city council elections, where elected officials decide what to do with city, state and federal tax money, turnout is even lower.
Despite some of these rather discouraging numbers, news of this health care vote may succeed in turning the tide for good. It isn't just that Americans seem more concerned now than at any other point in my lifetime with what our government is doing, it's that they're more concerned with how they're doing it.
You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul
Cover photo: Shutterstock / Juli Hansen.