“Why are you a Democrat, Ryan? I just don’t get it.”
That conversation happens a lot more than I care to admit and I can only give a two word answer: I remember. Of course, there’s a lot more to the answer than simply two words, but that’s the gist of it. It doesn’t have the same implications of the je me souviens of my Québécois forebears, but it’s all about remembering. Before I was in a relatively cushy job where I small-scale control the levers of capital, I waited tables. Heck, I documented some of the stuff that happened to me on this very blog! I remember days waiting tables at a chain restaurant in a college town, dreading going into work. Dreading going to work because, well, it turns out that people in a college town who go to a chain restaurant tend to be abusive if you don’t fit their worldview and don’t provide much in terms of financial remuneration for the verbal abuse.
Yes, the dreaded Ten Commandments coin tip. I worked 60+ hours a week for $2.13/hour, for a franchisee that would willfully not pay if you didn’t hit minimum wage (at that time, that would have been an additional $3.02/hr). Turns out it’s pretty hard to get by when you’re taking in about $200 per week. Basic math dictates that the bills are going to have a hard time being paid on a salary of word salad derogation and token representations of the Decalogue. Who’d have thunk? There’s an additional rub to this whole mess, though.
Have you ever been injured on the job? Do you remember that story from the 1990s of the woman who sued McDonald’s following being scalded by their superheated coffee? Well, here’s a combo platter for you. About a month after I began working at said chain restaurant in above named college town, I was severely burned by a faulty hot-water dispenser attached to a tea brewer. My right hand experienced blistering and it hurt like an angry mother. I was 22 and I had no idea what to do. My employer was useless. So I iced it. No health insurance; couldn’t go to the doctor. Obamacare was still the fevered dream of a liberal, so I couldn’t get coverage from under a parent’s plan. My hand blistered and slowly healed without medical attention; I have no idea what infections I could have exposed myself during that period of unsupervised recuperation. Of course, the bills needed to get paid, no such thing as paid time off when you’re working a low-skill job.
A couple weeks after the hot water incident, I developed a cold. Coughing here, there, everywhere. Again, I couldn’t go without the income, so I became patient zero in whatever petri dish that this restaurant was in March of 2007. This cold didn’t respond to a mass influx of OTC medications and an endless stream of citrus and evolved into pneumonia. Again, no doctor options since no insurance and the limited income also limited how much medication I could reasonably purchase. It sucked. I was sick for 4 weeks. 4 freaking weeks of hacking and cough, having a hard time breathing, and having to work for a crowd of people. By the way, have you tried doing a job interview while having a fever of 102 degrees?
It’s an experience, I’ll tell you what.
But that, in short form, is why I’m a Democrat. That’s why I support a living wage or some sort of basic income for every person, universal health care access, and strong labor rights with robust private-sector unions that collectively bargain for all employees. Because for a short period of my life, I learned what it was like to live adjacent to the margins, not truly on the margins, since I could rely on my education and privileged position in society to get me out of the table-waiting game. And while I had always thought of myself as a Democrat before, up until that point, I didn’t understand the implications. It was always an abstraction. Health care was an abstraction. Insurance was an abstraction. Everything was a goddamn abstraction from a book. Never real, never experienced. Until then.
That, my friends, that is why I am a Democrat. That is why I am proud to say that I support socialist causes and policies – I experienced just the lightest bit of living at the margin and it sucked. And I am not willing to let others have to live through that.