Wendell Potter: A Bureaucrat Who Stood Between You and Your Doctor

Written by Sven Eberlein
This is Part II in a four-part series inspired by Bill Moyers’ interview with Wendell Potter, former Head of Corporate Communications at CIGNA insurance company.

The revelations in the interview went way beyond the health care debate. It was a glance into the workings of capitalism at its worst, within the framework of an industrial complex in which a small and powerful elite can rig the rules, manipulate words, and enrich itself at the expense of the people. In hopes of raising the Moyers/Potter interview above being just another blip in the 24 hour (Mc)News cycle, I’d like to dedicate Part II of my analysis to Wendell Potter and the deliberate demonization of the word Bureaucrat.

The interview hit a collective nerve, not because Mr. Potter was telling us something we didn’t on some level already know, but because we’re so used to being distracted, manipulated, sideswiped, and stonewalled by the corporate PR fortress that being told the truth felt like a shock to our system. It’s as if the corporate Matrix that feeds off a citizenry blissfully praying at the altar of a supposed free market cracked its window open for just a moment and let us all in on its tightly coveted dirty secret.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of the bureaucracy smear that is currently being served up hot by opponents of a public plan:

The premise is this: Nobody likes bureaucracy. The only time we use the word is usually in a negative context. We all prefer to think of ourselves as free and spontaneous beings rather than one in a billion, no more than a number on a screen. When was the last time anyone said, “wow, my new driver license arrived in the mail promptly and without errors, I love bureaucracy!”? Nobody likes to feel dependent or like another cog in the wheel, it’s only human. And even though deep down we know quite well that we couldn’t possibly sustain so many people living in such close quarters without some serious organization, we resent the fact that someone we don’t even know has the power to tell us what to do or not to do.

Enter the Wendell Potters and Frank Luntz’s of the world. They know how much we loathe the idea of bureaucracy, AND they know that subconsciously we still associate the term with government, and government only.

I pulled up my old American Heritage dictionary, 1976 edition, and this is what it says about bureaucracy:

1.a. Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus staffed with nonelective officials
b. The departments and their officials as a group.
2. Government marked by diffusion of authority among numerous offices and adherence to inflexible rules of operation.
3. An administrative system in which the need to follow complex procedures impedes effective action

See?! It’s all horrible, and it’s all government. Eureka, we’ve found the perfect bogeyman to derail a public health plan!

So, let’s get back to our interview to find out how the story unfolds after the corporate pr meisters and their government! enablers have had their backroom meeting.

BILL MOYERS: I have a memo written by Frank Luntz. He’s the Republican strategist who we discovered, in the spring, has written the script for opponents of health care reform. “First,” he says, “you have to pretend to support it. Then use phrases like, “government takeover,” “delayed care is denied care,” “consequences of rationing,” “bureaucrats, not doctors prescribing medicine.”

Then they show a clip of these government! workers:

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: The forthcoming plan from Democratic leaders will make health care more expensive, limit treatments, ration care, and put bureaucrats in charge of medical decisions rather than patients and doctors.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Americans need to realize that when someone says “government option,” what could really occur is a government takeover that soon could lead to government bureaucrats denying and delaying care, and telling Americans what kind of care they can have.

REP. TOM PRICE: We don’t want to put the government, we don’t want to put bureaucrats between a doctor and a patient.

bold words: emphasis mine

And here’s Wendell Potter’s response to the question of why those politicians would puppet messages like these:

WENDELL POTTER: Well, they are ideologically aligned with the industry. They want to believe that the free market system can and should work in this country, like it does in other industries. So they don’t understand from an insider’s perspective like I have, what that actually means, and the consequences of that to Americans.

They parrot those comments, without really realizing what the real situation is.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century the meaning of bureaucracy has evolved to reflect the changing reality of how our system REALLY works. Here’s what The Free Dictionary, one of the most frequently visited dictionaries on the internets, has to say:

a. Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials.
b. The departments and their officials as a group: promised to reorganize the federal bureaucracy.
a. Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures: The new department head did not know much about bureaucracy.
b. The administrative structure of a large or complex organization: a midlevel manager in a corporate bureaucracy.
3. An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action: innovative ideas that get bogged down in red tape and bureaucracy.

bold words: emphasis mine

Behold, it seems like we have arrived in an age where hierarchical authority isn’t just reserved for government anymore. A midlevel manager in a corporate bureaucracy? WTF, you mean ruggedly individual entrepreneurs and fiercely independent managers are pushing papers around and have their innovative ideas bogged down in red tape???

If you don’t believe me, go to Wikipedia, that most democratic of dictionaries that while maybe not reflecting John Boehner’s idea of bureaucracy gives you a pretty good look at what the contemporary meaning of the word is:

Bureaucracy is a concept in sociology and political science referring to the way that the administrative execution and enforcement of legal rules are socially organized. Four structural concepts are central to any definition of bureaucracy:

1. a well-defined division of administrative labour among persons and offices,
2. a personnel system with consistent patterns of recruitment and stable linear careers,
3. a hierarchy among offices, such that the authority and status are differentially distributed among actors, and
4. formal and informal networks that connect organizational actors to one another through flows of information and patterns of cooperation.

Examples of everyday bureaucracies include governments, armed forces, corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), hospitals, courts, ministries and schools.

bold words: emphasis mine

OMG, not only government, but corporations and…HOSPITALS?? You mean those places that Wendell Potter dealt with while sitting in his executive office in Philly?

And speaking of office, it so happens that that’s the simple meaning of the word bureau. That’s French for office, and to top it off, in German we call it Büro.

Again, here’s the wiki:

The term bureaucracy came into use shortly before the French Revolution of 1789, and from there rapidly spread to other countries. The Greek suffix – kratia or kratos – means “power” or “rule”.

So, the rule from the office. Which brings us all back to Wendell Potter and his former insurance -bureaucrat- executive buddies. You see, these people all sit in offices and make decisions about whether you should be lucky enough to have your doctor help you or not. In fact, sitting behind their desks and looking at paper or a spreadsheet with your record on it, they can decide whether they’ll even let you see a doctor. You know, there are some things money can’t buy, but for everything else there is you-know-what.

Ok, so according to the most up-to-date definition as well as by his own admission, we can safely say that Wendell Potter was a bureaucrat who stood between you and your doctor. Here’s the kicker though: Not all bureaucrats are equal. The traditional government bureaucrat, at least in theory, is a public servant, bound to administer resources and enforce rules entrusted to him/her by elected officials. The corporate bureaucrat, on the other hand, is bound by one principle only: To make his company’s shareholders happy, aka to maximize profit.

So we have in effect two sets of bureaucrats: The government bureaucrats who we all know to be bureaucrats and who are openly bureaucratic — what you see is what you get. Then we have the corporate bureaucrats and their government enablers, who hide behind the veil of freedom, choice and non-bureaucracy but who are really just bureaucrats with different masters — Wall Street. How about calling them shadow bureaucrats…?

Their marketing strategy is brilliantly twisted: Keep evoking the meme of the stuffy old government bureaucrat (which of course no longer applies anyway, see DMV & USPS) to distract from the fact that, as in this case, our health care system has been driven into the ground by corporate bureaucrats. It’s the ultimate case of doubling down, an old propaganda tool along the lines of telling people the big lie, because they won’t believe the small one.

I will leave you with a statement by former corporate bureaucrat Wendell Potter:

And that same thing happened, in the Nataline Sarkisyan case. You had a corporate bureaucrat making a decision on coverage. So, they are trying to make you worry. And fear a government bureaucrat being between you and your doctor. What you have now is a corporate bureaucrat between you and your doctor.

Coming next: Michael Moore: As American as Pie

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Sven Eberlein

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