I should be ecstatic, but instead I feel cheated.
On Election Day, the voters of North Carolina’s Eleventh Congressional District elected Madison Cawthorn to the U.S. House of Representatives. Cawthorn, like me, is a guy in a wheelchair. And he’s only twenty-five years old, which will make him the youngest member of Congress!
One of the harshest truths my disability experience has taught me is that the almighty free market usually doesn’t give a flying crap about ensuring my well-being.
Cawthorn will get a lot of attention because he’s young and handsome and in a wheelchair. He’s a good orator, too. That’s why I should be ecstatic. I should be celebrating Cawthorn’s rise as a major breakthrough for disabled folks. Here’s a new voice in Congress to speak for us. And he knows what it’s like to navigate through life in a wheelchair because he’s been doing it every day for several years.
But the Eleventh District used to be represented by Mark Meadows, who gave up his seat to become the latest chief of staff for the squatter currently still occupying the White House. It stands to reason that his successor would have to be as much of an over-the-top reactionary as he is. And that describes Cawthorn all the way. His campaign website declares, “I’m ready to take on the liberals in Congress.”
So a moment in history that should make me buoyant with hope and elation has me filled with dread. Damnit! I really wish I could root for Cawthorn. But as much as I want to be in his corner, I just can’t. If Cawthorn carries his campaign image and agenda to Congress, it would be better for disabled folks if he wasn’t there at all.
Cawthorn is so obsessed with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that it makes me wonder if there was a girl in his high school who looked like her but wouldn’t give him the time of day. He has often attacked her and three other progressive women in Congress, sometimes collectively known as The Squad. On his campaign website, he says, “I decided to run for Congress because I don’t want to raise a family in a country run by leftwing socialists. We need leaders who will stand up and fight AOC, The Squad, and the radical left-wing mob.”
“My generation,” Cawthorn continues, “is looking for results socialism can’t provide. Socialism only produces shared misery.” In his victory speech on election night, Cawthorn said, “The days of AOC and the far left misleading the next generation of Americans are numbered. Tonight, the voters of western North Carolina chose to stand for freedom and a new generation of leadership in Washington.”
Cawthorn portrays himself as the antidote for what he sees as the poisonous political agenda of legislators like Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s definitely the vanguard for her party right now,” he said in an interview, “and that’s something I want to be for the Republican Party.”
As some readers may recall, Cawthorn was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in August. Now I readily admit that I didn’t watch a nanosecond of that convention as it unfolded. I love you to death, dear readers, and I will do just about anything for you. I’ll swallow swords and wrestle alligators if it pleases you. But I have to draw the line somewhere. If you want to know what diabolical things went on there, you’ll have to ask someone else. Please forgive me.
But fortunately (or maybe not), we live in an era where videos are available on the Internet. So I have watched Cawthorn’s RNC speech several times, without having to sit through any of the rest of the cavalcade of evil clowns.
In this speech, Cawthorn talked about the terrible car accident in which he was involved at the age of eighteen that made him a paraplegic. He said he was given a 1 percent chance of survival. His first public outing in a wheelchair, he said, was to a professional baseball game: “Before my accident I was six-foot-three. I stood out in a crowd. But as I wheeled through the stadium, I felt invisible.”
Cawthorn likes to portray himself as a “fighter.” But for what and whom will he fight?
In an appearance on the Fox Business channel, Cawthorn said he wants to be the “face” of health-care reform for the GOP. “One of the biggest failings of the Republican Party for the past few decades is just that we have not had a real plan when it comes to health care,” he said, adding that his vision for equitable access to health care amounts to “utilizing the free market and opening up competition.”
Cawthorn’s campaign website proclaims, “The problem is not that the free market has failed in health care. The problem is that it has never really been tried.”
And so I picture young Congressman Cawthorn shilling for the greedy health-insurance industry by spewing the absurd notion that health insurers are champing at the bit to design packages that cover the many medical expenses of people with disabilities for a low monthly premium, if only given the chance. I fear that because he sits in a wheelchair, it will give him a false credibility as an expert who has heavily consumed health-care services.
This makes me feel an urgent obligation to not only refuse to embrace Cawthorn as a wheelchair brother but to make it clear, as loudly as I can, that he doesn’t speak for me.
One of the harshest truths my disability experience has taught me is that the almighty free market usually doesn’t give a flying crap about ensuring my well-being. Ensuring my well-being cuts too deep into its profits. Having a disability is too expensive.
For example, I have what might be considered to be health-care services administered to me every day by the members of my pit crew. That’s what I call the people I’ve hired to assist me in my home. What they do for me isn’t skilled nursing care or anything like that, but it is nonetheless essential to my well-being.
They help me get dressed, get in and out of bed, take a shower, and so on. And their services don’t cost me anything, except for some of my tax dollars, because their wages and this program are paid for by Medicaid and other public funds. Private insurance never has and never will offer a product that provides me with that amount of indispensable assistance, especially for free. There’s no money in it for them and that’s the only reason the industry does anything. When I look to the private, for-profit market for this kind of help, that’s when I feel invisible.
In his GOP convention speech, Cawthorn said he recovered from his accident, “thanks to the power of prayer, a very loving community, and many skilled doctors.” But he didn’t say anything about health insurance.
I’m glad Cawthorn was able to bounce back. But I’m guessing he must’ve been fortunate enough to have some mighty good coverage to pay for his expensive rehabilitation. Because if he didn’t, he would have had to turn to Medicaid for help, like millions of disabled Americans.
Without Medicaid to pay for people like my pit crew, so many disabled people who rely on others to assist us in our homes would be stranded. We wouldn’t be able to get in and out of bed every day, no matter how hard we prayed or how many skilled doctors were around us or how much the people in our communities loved us. It takes way more than that. A lot of us would probably end up in nursing homes. And Medicaid would still have to pay for that.
But isn’t all this the socialism that Cawthorn so fervently decries? In his Republican convention speech, he said, “Republicans, under President Trump’s leadership, want to rebuild, restore, and renew . . . . Join us as we, the party of freedom, double down on ensuring the American dream for all people.”
But over the last four years, Republicans (and in particular the squatter) have repeatedly tried to eviscerate Medicaid. They’ve failed largely because disability activists have screamed bloody murder about it.
So what happens when the Republicans go after Medicaid again, which they surely will do, no matter who’s in charge? They’ll probably try to play the same game they play when they trot out someone like Ben Carson to prove they’re not the least bit racist. It’s a strange game of racial rummy, where one Ben Carson is supposed to trump a thousand Black Lives Matter voices. The rules are permanently rigged in favor of the dealer.
No doubt Republican leaders will try to prevail upon Cawthorn to play the same role. When other disabled people are raising hell, will Cawthorn roll out and be the benevolent face of cutting the hell out of Medicaid?
If so, having him in Congress will only make things worse for disabled people.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.