I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.
Imagine you have a brother and he’s an alcoholic. He has his moments, but you keep your distance from him. You don’t mind him for the occasional family gathering or holiday. You still love him. But you don’t want to be around him. This is how I lovingly describe my current relationship with the United States. The United States is my alcoholic brother. And although I will always love him, I don’t want to be near him at the moment.
I know that’s harsh, but I really feel my home country is not in a good place these days. That’s not a socioeconomic statement (although that’s on the decline as well), but rather a cultural one.
I realize it’s going to be impossible to write sentences like the ones above without coming across as a raging prick, so let me try to soften the blow to my American readers with an analogy:
You know when you move out of your parents’ house and live on your own, how you start hanging out with your friends’ families and you realize that actually, your family was a little screwed up? As it turns out, stuff you always assumed was normal your entire childhood was pretty weird and may have actually fucked you up a little bit. You know, dad thinking it was funny to wear a Santa Claus hat in his underwear every Christmas or the fact that you and your sister slept in the same bed until you were 22, or that your mother routinely cried over a bottle of wine while listening to Elton John.
The point is we don’t really get perspective on what’s close to us until we spend time away from it. Just like you didn’t realize the weird quirks and nuances of your family until you left and spent time with others, the same is true for country and culture. You often don’t see what’s messed up about your country and culture until you step outside it.
And so even though this article is going to come across as fairly scathing, I want my American readers to know this: some of the stuff we do, some of the stuff that we always assumed was normal, it’s kind of screwed up. And that’s OK. Because that’s true with every culture. It’s just easier to spot it in others (e.g., the French) so we don’t always notice it in ourselves.
So as you read this article, know that I’m saying everything with tough love, the same tough love with which I’d sit down and lecture an alcoholic family member. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some awesome things about you (BRO, THAT’S AWESOME!!!). And it doesn’t mean I’m some saint either because god knows I’m pretty screwed up (I’m American, after all). There are just a few things you need to hear. And as a friend, I’m going to tell them to you.
And to my foreign readers, get your necks ready, because this is going to be a nod-a-thon.
A Little “What the Hell Does This Guy Know?” Background
I’ve lived in half a dozen states in the US, primarily in the deep south and the northeast. I have visited 45 of the US’s 50 states. I also lived abroad for several years, primarily in South America and Asia (with various stints in Europe). I speak three languages. I’m married to a foreigner. So I feel like I have a good perspective on the US from both the inside and outside.
(Note: I realize all the things on this list are generalizations and I realize there are always exceptions. I get it. You don’t have to send 55 emails telling me that you and your best friend are exceptions. If you really get that offended from some guy’s blog post, you may want to double-check your life priorities.)
OK, we’re ready now. 10 things Americans don’t know about America.
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Few People Are Impressed by Us
Unless you’re speaking with a real estate agent or a prostitute, chances are they’re not going to be excited that you’re American. It’s not some badge of honor we get to parade around. Yes, we had Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, but unless you actually are Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison (which is unlikely), then most people around the world are simply not going to care. There are exceptions of course. And those exceptions are called English and Australian people. Whoopdie-fucking-doo.
As Americans, we’re brought up our entire lives being taught that we’re the best, we did everything first and that the rest of the world follows our lead. Not only is this not true, but people get irritated when you bring it to their country with you. So don’t.
Few People Hate Us
Despite the occasional eye-rolling, and complete inability to understand why anyone would vote for George W. Bush (twice), people from other countries don’t hate us either. In fact—and I know this is a really sobering realization for us—most people in the world don’t really think or care about us.
I know, that sounds absurd, especially with CNN and Fox News showing the same 20 angry Arab men on repeat for ten years straight. But unless we’re invading someone’s country or threatening to invade someone’s country (which is likely), then there’s a 99.99% chance they don’t care about us. Just like we rarely think about the people in Bolivia or Mongolia, most people don’t think about us much. They have jobs, kids, house payments—you know, those things called lives—to worry about. Kind of like us.
Americans tend to assume that the rest of the world either loves us or hates us (this is actually a good litmus test to tell if someone is conservative or liberal). The fact is, most people feel neither. Most people don’t think much about us.
Remember that immature girl in high school, how every little thing that happened to her meant that someone either hated her or was obsessed with her, who thought every teacher who ever gave her a bad grade was being totally unfair and everything good that happened to her was because of how amazing she was? Yeah, we’re that immature high school girl.
We Know Nothing About the Rest of the World
For all of our talk about being global leaders and how everyone follows us, we don’t seem to know much about our supposed “followers.” They often have completely different takes on history than we do.
Here were some brain-stumpers for me: the Vietnamese were more concerned with independence (not us), Hitler was primarily defeated by the Soviet Union (not us), and the American Revolution was partly “won” because the British invested more of their resources in fighting France (not us). Notice a running theme here?
(Hint: It’s not all about us. The world is more complicated.)
We did not invent democracy. We didn’t even invent modern democracy. There were parliamentary systems in England and other parts of Europe over a hundred years before we created a government.
In a recent survey of over 2,000 American adults, more than half of the respondents were not able to identify Afghanistan as the country that provided Al-Qaeda with safe haven prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, despite America having waged a war in Afghanistan due to this fact for nearly two decades. Almost half the respondents also didn’t know which continent Malawi is in (Do you?). Yet, somehow we’re positive that everyone else looks up to us.
We Are Poor at Expressing Gratitude and Affection
There’s a saying about English speakers. We say “Go fuck yourself,” when we really mean “I like you,” and we say “I like you,” when we really mean “Go fuck yourself.”
Outside of getting shit-housed drunk and screaming “I LOVE YOU, MAN!”, open displays of affection in American culture are tepid and rare. Latin and some European cultures describe us as “cold” and “passionless,” and for good reason. In our social lives, we don’t say what we mean and we don’t mean what we say.
In our culture, appreciation and affection are implied rather than stated outright. Two guy friends call each other names to reinforce their friendship. Men and women tease and make fun of each other to imply interest. Feelings are almost never shared openly and freely. Consumer culture has cheapened our language of gratitude. Something like, “It’s so good to see you” is empty now because it’s expected and heard from everybody.
In dating, when I find a woman attractive, I almost always walk right up to her and tell her that a) I wanted to meet her, and b) she’s beautiful. In America, women usually get incredibly nervous and confused when I do this. They’ll make jokes to defuse the situation or sometimes ask me if I’m part of a TV show or something playing a prank. Even when they’re interested and go on dates with me, they get a bit disoriented when I’m so blunt with my interest. Whereas in almost every other culture, approaching women this way is met with a confident smile and a “Thank you.”
The Quality of Life for the Average American Is Not That Great
Supposedly, Pablo Escobar once said, “I’m not a rich man; I’m a poor man with a lot of money.”
The United States is not a rich country, it’s a poor country with a lot of money. If you’re extremely talented or intelligent, the US is probably the best place in the world to live. The system is stacked heavily to allow people of talent and advantage to rise to the top quickly.
The problem with the US is that everyone thinks they are of talent and advantage. As John Steinbeck famously said, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
It’s this culture of self-delusion that allows America to continue to innovate and churn out more new industries than anyone else in the world. But this shared delusion also unfortunately perpetuates large social inequalities and keeps the quality of life for the average citizen lower than in many other developed countries. It’s the price we pay to maintain our growth and economic dominance.
To me, being wealthy is having the freedom to maximize one’s life experiences. In those terms, despite the average American having more material wealth than citizens of most other countries (more cars, bigger houses, nicer televisions), their overall quality of life suffers. American people on average work more hours with less vacation while still being saddled with debt that has been on the rise for decades. That’s a lot of time spent working and buying crap and little time or disposable income for relationships, activities, or new experiences.
The Rest of the World Is Not a Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared to Us
In 2010, I got into a taxi in Bangkok to take me to a new six-story cineplex. It was accessible by metro, but I chose a taxi instead. On the seat in front of me was a sign with a wifi password. Wait, what? I asked the driver if he had wifi in his taxi. He flashed a huge smile. The squat Thai man, with his pidgin English, explained that he had installed it himself. He then turned on his new sound system and disco lights. His taxi instantly became a cheesy nightclub on wheels… with free wifi.
If there’s one constant in my travels over the past few years, it has been that almost every place I’ve visited (especially in Asia and South America) is much nicer and safer than I expected it to be. Singapore is pristine. Hong Kong makes Manhattan look like a suburb. My neighborhood in Colombia is nicer than the one in Boston I lived in (and cheaper).
As Americans, we have this naïve assumption that people all over the world are struggling and way behind us. They’re not.
Singapore has the fastest internet connection in the world (the US is not in the top 25). The fastest mobile internet can be found in South Korea. Hong Kong consistently tops the global ranking for urban public transport systems. Norwegians—along with Swedes, Luxembourgers, the Dutch and Finns—make more money. The biggest and most advanced plane in the world was first flown out of Singapore. The tallest buildings in the world are now in Dubai and Shanghai (and soon to be Saudi Arabia). Meanwhile, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
What’s so surprising about the world is how unsurprising most of it is. I spent a week with some local guys in Cambodia. You know what their biggest concerns were? Paying for school, getting to work on time, and what their friends were saying about them. In Brazil, people have debt problems, hate getting stuck in traffic, and complain about their overbearing mothers. Every country thinks they have the worst drivers. Every country thinks their weather is unpredictable. The world becomes, err… predictable.
Not only are we emotionally insecure as a culture, but I’ve come to realize how paranoid we are about our physical security. You don’t have to watch Fox News or CNN for more than 10 minutes to hear about how our drinking water is going to kill us, our neighbor is going to rape our children, some terrorist in Yemen is going to kill us because we didn’t torture him, Mexicans are going to kill us, or some virus from a bird is going to kill us. There’s a reason we have more guns than people.
In the US, security trumps everything, even liberty. We’re paranoid.
I’ve probably been to 10 countries now that friends and family back home told me explicitly not to go to because someone was going to kill me, kidnap me, stab me, rob me, rape me, sell me into the sex trade, give me HIV, or whatever else. None of that has happened. I’ve never been robbed and I’ve walked through some of the shittiest parts of Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
In fact, the experience has been the opposite. In countries like Russia, Colombia, or Guatemala, people were so honest and open with me, it actually scared me. Some stranger in a bar would invite me to his house for a barbecue with his family, a random person on the street would offer to show me around and give me directions to a store I was trying to find. My American instincts were always, “Wait, this guy is going to try to rob me or kill me,” but they never did. They were just insanely friendly.
We’re Status-Obsessed and Seek Attention
I’ve noticed that the way we Americans communicate is usually designed to create a lot of attention and hype. Again, I think this is a product of our consumer culture: the belief that something isn’t worthwhile or important unless it’s perceived to be the best (BEST EVER!!!) or unless it gets a lot of attention (see: every reality television show ever made).
This is why Americans have a peculiar habit of thinking everything is “totally awesome,” and even the most mundane activities are “the best thing ever!” It’s the unconscious drive we share for importance and significance, this unmentioned belief, socially beaten into us since birth that if we’re not the best at something, then we don’t matter.
We’re status-obsessed. Our culture is built around achievement, production, and being exceptional. Therefore, comparing ourselves and attempting to out-do one another has infiltrated our social relationships as well. Who can slam the most beers first? Who can get reservations at the best restaurant? Who knows the promoter to the club? Who dated a girl on the cheerleading squad?
Socializing becomes objectified and turned into a competition. And if you’re not winning, the implication is that you are not important and no one will like you.
We Are Less Healthy Than We Think
Unless you have cancer or something equally dire, the health care system in the US sucks. The World Health Organization ranked the US 37th in the world for health care, despite the fact that we spend the most per capita by a large margin.
The hospitals are nicer in Asia (with European-educated doctors and nurses) and cost a tenth as much. Something as routine as a vaccination costs multiple hundreds of dollars in the US and less than $10 in Colombia. And before you make fun of Colombian hospitals, Colombia is 22nd in the world on that WHO list, 15 spots higher than us.
A routine STD test that can run you over $200 in the US is free in many countries to anyone, citizen or not. My health insurance the past year? $65 a month. Why? Because I live outside of the US. An American guy I met living in Buenos Aires got knee surgery on his ACL that would have cost $10,000 in the US… for free.
But this isn’t really getting into the real problems of our health. Our food is killing us. I’m not going to go crazy with the details, but we eat chemically-laced crap because it’s cheaper and tastes better (profit, profit). Our portion sizes are absurd (more profit). And we’re by far the most prescribed nation in the world AND our drugs cost five to ten times more than they do even in Canada (ohhhhhhh, profit, you sexy bitch).
In terms of life expectancy, despite being the richest country in the world, we come in at a paltry 40th—right behind Turkey, and slightly ahead of Ecuador, Poland, and Cuba. Enjoy your Big Mac.
We Mistake Comfort for Happiness
The United States is a country built on the exaltation of economic growth and personal ingenuity. Small businesses and constant growth are celebrated and supported above all else—above affordable health care, above respectable education, above everything.
Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.
Comfort sells more easily than happiness. Comfort is easy. It requires no effort and no work. Happiness takes effort. It requires being proactive, confronting fears, facing difficult situations, and having unpleasant conversations.
Comfort equals sales. We’ve been sold comfort for generations, and for generations we bought bigger houses, separated further and further out into the suburbs, along with bigger TV’s, more movies, and take-out. The American public is becoming docile and complacent. We’re obese and entitled. When we travel, we look for giant hotels that will insulate us and pamper us rather than for legitimate cultural experiences that may challenge our perspectives or help us grow as individuals.
Depression and anxiety disorders are soaring within the US. Our inability to confront anything unpleasant around us has not only created a national sense of entitlement, but it’s disconnected us from what actually drives happiness: relationships, unique experiences, feeling self-validated, achieving personal goals. It’s easier to watch a NASCAR race on television and tweet about it than to actually get out and try something new with a friend.
Unfortunately, a by-product of our massive commercial success is that we’re able to avoid the necessary emotional struggles of life and instead indulge in easy, superficial pleasures.
Throughout history, every dominant civilization eventually collapsed because it became TOO successful. What made it powerful and unique grows out of proportion and consumes its society.
I think this is true for American society. We’re complacent, entitled and unhealthy. My generation is the first generation of Americans who will be worse off than their parents, economically, physically, and emotionally. And this is not due to a lack of resources, to a lack of education or to a lack of ingenuity. It’s corruption and complacency. The corruption from the massive industries that control our government’s policies, and the fat complacency of the people who sit around and let it happen.
There are things I love about my country. I don’t hate the US and I have chosen to put my roots down here after years of globetrotting. But I think the greatest flaw of American culture is our blind self-absorption. In the past, it only hurt other countries. But now it’s starting to hurt ourselves.
So this is my unsolicited lecture to my alcoholic brother—my own flavor of arrogance and self-absorption, even if slightly more informed—in hopes he’ll give up his wayward ways. I imagine it’ll fall on deaf ears, but it’s the most I can do for now. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some funny cat pictures to look at.
A recent Washington Post headline says: “In America, talk turns to something not spoken of for 150 years: Civil war.” The story references, among others, Stanford University historian Victor Davis Hanson, who asked in a National Review essay last summer: “How, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?” Another Washington Post story reports how Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King recently posted a meme warning that red states have “8 trillion bullets” in the event of a civil war. And a poll conducted last June by Rasmussen Reports found that 31 percent of probable US voters surveyed believe “it’s likely that the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years.”
Is that legitimately where we stand today in the era of Donald Trump, particularly in the wake of the ramped-up rhetoric stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow, or is Civil War talk just crazy hyperbole? BU Today put three questions to Nina Silber, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and American studies and the current president of the Society of Civil War Historians. Silber has done extensive research on the Civil War over more than two decades and has written several books on the subject, including Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992), Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005), and most recently, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). Along with her teaching and research, she has worked on numerous public history projects, including museum exhibitions at the Gettysburg National Military Park and film projects on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
So if anyone would have a knowledgeable perspective on the question of whether we are headed for civil war, it’s Silber. Read her answers about the proliferation of headlines referencing the possibility of another civil war.
BU Today: Democrats are demanding documents from President Trump, his family, and many associated with him. The political divide seems to be getting worse. Is it irrational to say this could be the beginning of a civil war?
Silber: I wouldn’t identify this most recent development [the demanding of documents] as the “beginning of a civil war” since I’m not sure that reflects anything other than the political divide we’ve already witnessed for the last several years and the fact that Democrats are taking steps they could not have taken before they regained control of the House. More ominous, I think, are indications of political violence and the willingness to enact political violence. This could be seen, for example, in the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, when the shooter spoke explicitly about targeting Jews who expressed sympathy for immigrants, or the recent case of the Coast Guard officer who was making plans to kill Democrats and journalists. I can imagine a future in which we deal with even more incidents of, or plans for, political violence—and that’s definitely a disturbing development. I’m troubled, too, by the role the president plays in contributing to this atmosphere.
But it would have to be something else to call this a “civil war.” That would indicate a willingness on the part of masses of people to engage in violence against their political enemies. That happened in the 1860s, in part because people had come to see their political opponents in extreme, even demonic, ways and found it impossible to find any middle ground. Maybe our politics and culture are moving in that direction, but I don’t see it yet.
The political map these days shows so much red in the middle, sandwiched by blue on the coasts. How is that different from the North vs South divide of the Civil War?
The electoral map, at least from the most recent presidential election, does show blue coasts and a red middle. But I think that’s also a deceptive picture since we know that in many states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, there are deep internal divisions. In other words, it’s not the case that Florida, Pennsylvania, and others are overwhelmingly Republican. The same could be said for a number of “blue” states too. The geographic divide today is less clear-cut, less along solidly sectional lines.
In 1860, the presidential contest reflected the way the political parties had divided and had become completely sectionalized. Many Southerners could not even vote for the Republican Party (which proclaimed opposition to the expansion of slavery) and the Democratic Party ran one candidate in Northern states (Stephen Douglas) and a different candidate in Southern states (John Breckinridge). Fundamentally, the split in the Democratic Party was over slavery: Southern Democrats were calling for a federal slave code (to regulate and permit slavery everywhere in the country) and Northern Democrats opposed this. As a result, the political divide reflected the division in the country between states that permitted slavery and states where it had been outlawed.
Some historians have been saying there was a similar political divide in 1860 to what we’re seeing today. Do you agree?
There may be a few historians who think the divide is similar, but I think most would say we’re looking at different patterns in our political divisions, although the tendency toward heated and extreme political rhetoric might be similar. The inability to find a political middle ground, certainly in the federal government, seems also to be similar.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently put out a bunch of limp potential slogans for their would-be takeover of Congress in 2018, and Twitter summarily took them to the woodshed for it. One glance at the options presented and you can tell that tell that the committee spent hundreds of man-hours and enormous sums of money just to throw RESIST & PERSIST into an online poll. You would think that after losing to Donald Trump, and then getting subsequently beaten in five special elections after the fact, that the Democratic party would re-evaluate both its ideals and its leadership. Instead, they decided to put their mental energy into bumper stickers.
Democrats have been relatively clueless since the day I was born. Lewis Black once said that America is ruled by a party of bad ideas and a party of no ideas, and that more or less holds true in 2017. Given the demonstrable evils of the Republican party, Democrats SHOULD win back Congress in 2018. A literal cadaver ought to be able to siphon votes away from those shitbags. But then again, Democrats should have beaten Trump as well, which means that the political hopes of a majority of Americans currently resides in the hands of a party that has all the strategic acumen of Elmer Fudd and, even worse, still doesn’t realize its shortcomings.
For all of the Democrats’ obliviousness, they’re still a far superior option to the party that wants to burn poor people for fossil fuels, and I don’t wanna be one of those Weird Twitter assholes who spends all day calling Hillary a bitch. But every day that Trump remains in power does lasting, perhaps irreversible damage to both the country and the greater solar system, and his only opposition remains the only group of people ON EARTH who could have possibly blown an election against him. If the past year wasn’t an obvious sign that the DNC needs to change how it does business, then what would be? Do we all have to die first?
the New York Times gave column space to former Clinton operative Mark Penn, who stupidly argued that the Democrats need to be the party of the mythical American center, the exact same strategy that backfired on Clinton last fall. One of my GQ colleagues said that Democrats care wayyyyy too much about Republicans, and this op-ed goes a long way toward proving it. This dribble of think-tank strategery comes after Georgia Congressional candidate and eight-year-old boy Jon Ossoff lost a special election after—you guessed it—positioning himself as a centrist. In fact, Ossoff decided against loudly denouncing Trump on the campaign trail.
It really is stunning how Democrats continually try to hit Trump in his least vulnerable spots. “Hey, you folks who love the way Trump talks shit on Twitter: I promise you that I won’t do that!” Meanwhile, Trump rose to power by ginning up the fervor of a supposedly small voting bloc that believed (wrongly) that its needs were being ignored. God forbid Democrats take any lessons away from that. No, instead we get more whinging about working class white voters (God, enough of these motherfuckers!) and all their bullshit angst over crime and immigration. You think Democrats will be able to address that angst better than the golf blob currently occupying the White House? Who in hell is this party really serving if they’re so horny for the redneck vote?
Yet, it’s hardly surprising that big-name Democrats would still see value in this kind of empty heartland pandering. Say what you will about Republicans, but at least their leadership genuinely represents their constituency. That’s the party of rich guys, and it’s RUN by rich guys. Those two entities are simpatico. Meanwhile, the Democratic party is still run by cocktail party vets like Pelosi while trying to serve people with whom Pelosi has little to nothing in common: poor people, minorities, etc. I genuinely liked Hillary Clinton as a candidate, but on the campaign trail she basically acted like a robot that was trying to learn empathy by observing humans. “Oh, I see you humans call these tears. These tears mean that you are sad!” They are, as constituted, the party of lip service.
That’s not good enough. Democrats fail again and again because (A) They want to reach the broadest possible audience, which means they reach no one at all, and (B) Leadership runs the party but is not OF it. Even firebrands like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are still relatively genteel white people from New England. They LOOK like Republicans, as do the Silicon Valley buttheads currently ruminating on ways to DISRUPT liberal politics. Why do you think people loved Barack Obama so much? Because Democratic voters actually felt like he was one of them (even if Obama was still too centrist and too damn deferential to monsters like Mitch McConnell). There’s no reason for Obama to be an anomaly among Democratic leadership. They have willed this disconnect into perpetuity.
My friend Jeb Lund once said that the reason Republicans succeed is because, in general, they’re better at giving their voters tangible things. You want a meaningless tax cut? They can get you that. You want immigrants rounded up? They’re on it. Love guns? Here’s seventeen! Big fan of war? Oh! Oh, Republicans will give you all the war you can eat. By contrast, Democrats will give you a VERSION of what their voters wanted that just happens to have been watered down roughly 98 percent by concessions to Republicans. Your health care will still be an expensive pain in the ass, but at least Democrats’ heart was in the right place. They’re too meek to get what voters REALLY want, and that’s because they are all strategy and no heart. They chase voters rather than lead them. You only need to look where that strategy has gotten them so far to know where it’s going to take them.
Biden’s pollster: 2022 is ‘worst political environment’ of my lifetime
THAT ANSWERS THAT — President JOE BIDEN suggested Thursday that he was “ready to go” to Ukraine. But he’s not actually going. “He’s ready for anything — the man likes fast cars and aviators,” press secretary JEN PSAKIsaid Thursday night at a live taping of “Pod Save America” at the Anthem. “He’s ready to go to Ukraine. We are not sending the president to Ukraine.”
— Another bit of news from Psaki’s appearance came on the topic of thestudent loan moratorium: “Between now and August 31, it’s either going to be extended or we’re going to make a decision, as RON [KLAIN] referenced, about canceling student debt,” she said.
IT DEPENDS ON WHAT THE MEANING OF THE WORD ‘WE’ IS — “We will not take it anymore,” DONALD TRUMP said in his speech on Jan. 6, 2021. “We will stop the steal.” But who was “we”? Does the word suggest a call to action? Those questions were front and center when the Jan. 6 committee interviewed former Trump aide STEPHEN MILLER on Thursday, report NYT’s Luke Broadwater and Maggie Haberman.
BUCKEYE ENDORSEMENT BATTLE — With Ohio’s May 3 Senate GOP primary barely two weeks away and no clear frontrunner, J.D. VANCE’s rivalsare mounting an all-out effort to head off a Trump endorsement of the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, per our colleagues Natalie Allison, Meridith McGraw, Alex Isenstadt and Daniel Lippman. Trump seems intent on picking a horse in all the big GOP primaries. But several candidates are bunched together in polling in Ohio, making this one a real roll of the dice.
THE PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: JOHN ANZALONE — On the latest Deep Dive podcast,we sat down with JOHN ANZALONE, Biden’s campaign pollster. We caught up with Anzalone in Las Vegas, where he was attending a campaign retreat for one of his 2022 clients, Nevada Gov. STEVE SISOLAK. We talked politics for two hours over breakfast on the Strip. You can listen to the show here. These are some of our favorite parts:
— On the 2022 environment for Democrats: “I think what we’re missing right now is that voters are very much in, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ [mode]. … And they don’t feel Democrats can get their shit together and get things done. And so, you know, if we’re able to do something — a skinny [Build Back Better] or whatever on health insurance costs, prescription drug costs, elderly care, child care — that’s a big deal, because it will give Democrats … a competitive advantage on what they’re doing for working families. And it’ll cut through the inflation narrative, the Ukraine narrative, the Afghan narrative, the border narrative, etc. And right now, we don’t see that and we don’t have that. …
“No one’s going to sit there as a Democratic consultant and try to bullshit you that this is anything but a really sour environment for Democrats. So we better look at the strategic ways that we can compete, right?”
— On the “myth” that needs to be broken about Latino voters: “I think that a lot of time, there’s this narrative in D.C. among Democrats that you only talk to Latinos about immigration. Like, immigration is the 12th issue that they’re concerned about. Guess what? They’re concerned about the same things everyone else is concerned about. It’s always about the economy or inflation or health care or schools.”
— On what he thinks Republicans do better than Democrats: “Republicans do a much better job of branding Democrats [than] Democrats do Republicans … We don’t do a good job of branding. But, goddamn, man, you know, critical race theory, which literally just one day popped up in the American lexicon and — it’s not taught in any public school in America — now it becomes an issue. They’re really good at branding.”
— On why Democrats should crank up the volume on an economic populist message:“We’re scared of our own shadow on taxes, and it fucking makes no sense … People do not begrudge people making a lot of money and getting wealthy; people have a problem and [are] pissed off about them not paying any fucking taxes. And why, as a party, we don’t elevate that in our messaging is beyond me.”
— On whether Biden will run again: “I have no idea. No indication that he won’t run. And I think that … a lot of us feel that if Trump runs, there’s no one else that could beat Trump [other] than Joe Biden … You go head-to-head and Joe Biden’s always ahead of him. Not by a lot — one or two points. … Even at his lowest approval rating, he still beats Donald Trump.”
— On his prediction for 2022: “It’s the worst political environment that I’ve lived through in 30 years of being a political consultant. … There’s a big difference between losing 7 and 10 seats in the House and getting your ass kicked and losing 35, 40. … I think we really have the ability to keep the Senate.”
We are three weeks into 2022, and the United States is still starring in its own dystopian horror movie that is running hours longer than it needs to be. But the producers and the directors are drunk and high off their own supply, so coming up with new ways to torture their stars has become sport.
Welcome to year three of the completely politicized coronavirus pandemic. We still have no plans to actually cure or treat Covid-19. The plan seems to be to keep increasing the number of vaccinations everyone has to take while simultaneously giving confusing and contradictory information on how to combat it. If you test positive, do you stay home for 14 days or just five so your employer doesn’t lose out on any human labor hours? If you have been exposed but test negative, do you just continue to run around town hanging with your friends like nothing happened?
When the violent and angry anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers (because let’s be clear, there are two distinct factions in both of those groups—those who have made their decision and mind their business, and those who choose to become patriots in the name of FREEDOM!) get together to battle against “the Others,” will it be like on Lost, or more like Lord of the Flies? Will this year send us back into lockdowns, complete with shortages on toilet paper, cleaning products, and patience? Is a trip to the grocery store for basic food necessities going to turn back into The Hunger Games?
“We did it, Joe!”
Girl, did we?
Forty-three million Americans owe $1.75 trillion in student loan debt. A phantom campaign promise was supposed to help with that, but thus far all we’ve seen are deferments with the promise of payments resuming at some later date. So student borrowers continue to drown, because those degrees do not come with the guarantee of a job that pays a living wage, and what supposed to be a simple education has turned into an elaborate pyramid scheme that you can’t escape from because if you default, your credit will be ruined forever, and how can you live in this world without good credit?!?
The hoarding of wealth is the epidemic they don’t talk about out loud, but billionaires are transporting themselves to just across the street from space while our nation’s homeless population continues to increase, and food insecurity continues to be a real thing for so many. We live in a country where children are punished for not having their lunch money, parents don’t have enough money to feed their children, and the cost of food continues to go up as if it is all part of some sick, torturous game that someone somewhere is watching with horrific glee.
Monday was the national holiday to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would be so proud! Fifty-eight years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black people in America are still fighting for both the “civil” and the “rights.” We get more symbolic gestures than actual change. We get the proverbial pat on the head from the same hand that continues to shoot us in the back. Lynching never ended; they just do it with bullets now.
Dr. King was celebrated by the NFL with a sticker on the back of helmets. What a kind gesture from the same league that has only one Black head coach. How noble of the same people who still haven’t given Colin Kaepernick a job.
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Nearly 54 years after his death, people still want to say “He gave his life,” as if he voluntarily stood in front of an assassin’s bullet to get shot in the face. And what exactly did he “give his life” for? What was accomplished? Because we seem to be stuck in the same circumstances. The only thing that has changed is the time period and the technology.
I could go on, but Kaitlin Byrd said it much more eloquently than I ever could.
The point is, for as much “progress” as America wants to claim, we are still the same shitty country. We just dress a little bit better.
The entire Critical Race Theory propaganda campaign had one goal: to keep people from realizing America is the very “shithole country” she claims to be against.
People are hungry, poor, and tired. Classism, racism, and capitalism have joined forces to become a Voltron of oppression, and those elected to serve our interests will not fix it because they are too busy serving their own personal agendas.
We are on a collision course with disaster, and when they study this time in history, it will be with disbelief and an inability to understand how a country that was supposed to be so great, so much better than others, was really just a sham filmed on a soundstage in Hollywood.
If Don’t Look Up was any indication, doom is coming soon, only we aren’t afraid of the comet because we are the gotdamn comet, and we are going to destroy everything else around us.
Wake up, America. It’s time to get your shit together.
Are We Entering a New Political Era?
Last June, when most Americans could agree that their country was in crisis but few could agree on what to do about it, staffers from a small organization called Justice Democrats—part of a burgeoning faction of young activists whose goal is to push the Democratic Party, and thus the entire political spectrum, to the left—joined a gathering on the patio of a restaurant in Yonkers, overlooking the Hudson. It was a breezy Tuesday night, and polls in the congressional primary had just closed. Most of the staffers hadn’t seen one another in person since covid lockdowns began, and their hesitant enthusiasm—distant air hugs, cocktails sipped hastily between remaskings—seemed appropriate to the event, which could, at any moment, turn into either a victory party or a defeat vigil. A lectern, framed by string lights and uplit pine trees, stood empty, apart from a sign bearing their candidate’s name: Jamaal Bowman. Bowman was still out campaigning, urging voters at crowded polls to stay in line. At least, that’s what everyone assumed. He had no staff with him, and his phone was dead.
Bowman was running to replace Eliot Engel, who represented southern Westchester and the North Bronx in Congress. Since being elected, in 1988, Engel had breezed through fifteen reëlection campaigns, usually without serious competition. But he was a seventy-three-year-old white man whose constituents were relatively young and racially diverse. He was also a moderate Democrat—militarily and monetarily hawkish, and a recipient of numerous corporate donations—in an increasingly progressive district. Seeing an opportunity, Justice Democrats had encouraged Bowman, a middle-school principal in his forties and an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter and environmental-justice movements, to run a long-shot primary campaign against Engel. “I identify as an educator and as a Black man in America,” he said in a video interview with the Intercept. “But my policies align with those of a socialist”—grin, shrug—“so I guess that makes me a socialist.”
The mission of Justice Democrats is to push for as much left-populist legislation as Washington will accommodate, with the understanding that what Washington will accommodate is a function, in part, of who gets elected. The group recruits progressives, many of them “extraordinary ordinary people” with no political experience, to run primary campaigns against some of the most powerful people in Congress. In its first effort, in 2018, it ran dozens of candidates on shoestring budgets. All of them lost, except one—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—but she turned out to be a potent validation of the group’s model. Today, the Justice Democrats-aligned faction in Congress includes about ten members, depending on how you count.
In most House elections, more than ninety per cent of incumbents are reëlected. Justice Democrats is betting that the most efficient way to reshape the Democratic Party is to disrupt this pattern, giving moderates an unignorable reason to guard their left flank. “It’s one thing for the progressive movement to tell a politician, ‘It sure would be nice if you did this,’ ” Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director, told me. “It’s another to be able to say, ‘Look, you should probably do this if you want to keep your job.’ ” This insurgent approach has caused establishment figures from both parties to refer to Justice Democrats and its ilk as the Tea Party of the left. Max Berger, an early employee, said, “If that’s supposed to mean that we’re equivalent to white-supremacist dipshits who want to blow up the government or move toward authoritarianism, then I would consider that both an insult and a really dumb misreading of what we’re trying to do. But if it means that we come out of nowhere and, within a few years, we have one of the two major parties implementing our agenda—and if our agenda is to promote multiracial democracy and give people union jobs and help avert a climate crisis—then, yeah, I’m down to be the Tea Party of the left.”
Justice Democrats is one of a handful of like-minded organizations—others include a climate-action group called the Sunrise Movement, a polling outfit called Data for Progress, a think tank called New Consensus, an immigrants’-rights group called United We Dream, and an organizer-training institute called Momentum—that make up an ascendant left cohort. Their signature proposal is the Green New Deal, a gargantuan legislative agenda that would decarbonize the American economy in the course of a decade, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and, almost as an afterthought, provide a national jobs guarantee and universal health care. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the main authors of the Green New Deal, said, “You can put together the perfect policy plan, but if it doesn’t fit within the dominant ideological frame then you’re getting laughed out of the room. So, while we argue for our ideas, we also keep trying to push out the frame.” In 2016, nobody was talking about a Green New Deal. The idea was languishing in the most inauspicious of legislative limbos: not unpopular, not divisive, just invisible. By the 2020 Presidential primaries, twenty out of twenty-six Democratic candidates supported it. “For anyone, and especially for groups this new, you almost never see your ideas get that much traction that quickly,” Brian Fallon, who was Hillary Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016, told me recently. “Lots of very high-up people, including people close to the President, have gone from underestimating them to sitting up and taking notice.”
For the 2020 congressional election, along with Bowman, Justice Democrats supported Cori Bush, a nurse and a Black Lives Matter organizer in St. Louis; Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-six-year-old lawyer in Laredo, Texas; and Alex Morse, a young, openly gay mayor in western Massachusetts. They all ran in deep-blue districts, where the only truly competitive election is the Democratic primary. For months, in New York’s Sixteenth District, Engel had a sizable lead. As primary day approached, though, Bowman appeared to pull ahead, and Engel got last-minute endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi. By the time Bowman showed up at the gathering in Yonkers, the returns looked promising. The speech he gave was essentially a victory speech, and not a diffident one. “I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there who have been maintaining a status quo that is literally killing our children,” he said. He ended up winning by fifteen points. Recently, I asked Bowman how much of his improbable victory could be attributed to the help he’d received—in the form of campaign consulting, volunteer phone-banking, debate prep, and other in-kind assistance—from Justice Democrats and Sunrise. “Out of ten?” he responded. “Twenty-five.”
“You’re lucky you’re insanely far away or I’d kick your ass.”
As the night went on, the gathering turned into a party. Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, cornered Rojas and Waleed Shahid, the communications director of Justice Democrats. McElwee had been poring over demographic data, and he was convinced that Cori Bush, the candidate in St. Louis, could also pull off an upset. “It’s a two-foot putt,” he said, again and again, his ardor enhanced by gin-and-tonics. “A two-foot putt!” Rojas agreed to pay him a few thousand dollars to run a poll. It had Bush trailing by less than expected, encouraging Justice Democrats to invest heavily in the race; a few weeks later, McElwee ran another poll, which showed a tie. That August, Bush won a come-from-behind victory, insuring her place as the sixth member of the mini caucus popularly known as the Squad. “In any other country—a parliamentary system in Europe or Asia or South America—we’d be called either social democrats or democratic socialists,” Shahid told me. “Our party would win twenty-five per cent of the seats, and we’d have real power.” But, in a two-party system, “the way to get there is to run from within one of the two parties and, ultimately, try to take it over.”
There are many ways to predict the political weather. Some, such as preëlection polling, focus on the near-present—the equivalent of hiring a meteorologist to determine which way the wind is blowing. Other methods, the kind that pass for long-term thinking in D.C., try to project a bit further into the future. In four years, will the electorate be in the mood for novelty or for continuity? Will the party in power be rewarded for governing or punished for not reaching across the aisle? This kind of prognostication can take on an eerily fatalistic quality, as if politics were nothing but an eternal regression to the mean. Scranton soccer moms drift left, Tejano dads drift right; the seasons wax and wane, but nothing really changes.
Alternatively, you could think in terms of ideological eras. On this time scale, the metaphors become geological. The weather patterns seem familiar, but, underfoot, tectonic plates are shifting. You wake up one day and whole continents have cleaved apart. New trade routes have opened up. What once seemed impossible now seems inevitable. Such seismic shifts appear to happen, on average, once a generation. If this pattern holds, then we’re just about due for another one.
Gary Gerstle, an American historian at the University of Cambridge, has argued, in the journal of the Royal Historical Society, that “the last eighty years of American politics can be understood in terms of the rise and fall of two political orders.” The first was the “New Deal order,” which began in the thirties, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt established a social safety net that Americans eventually took for granted. Next came the “neoliberal order,” during which large parts of that safety net were unravelled. The axioms of neoliberalism—for instance, that deficit spending is reckless, free markets are sacrosanct, and the government’s main job is to get out of the way—felt radical when they were proposed, in the forties and fifties, by hard-line libertarian intellectuals like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In the sixties and seventies, these axioms became central to the New Right. By the late eighties, the ideas that had been thought of as Reaganism were starting to be understood as realism. A new order had taken hold.
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A political order is bigger than any party, coalition, or social movement. In one essay, Gerstle and two co-authors describe it as “a combination of ideas, policies, institutions, and electoral dynamics . . . a hegemonic governing regime.” Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican President during the New Deal order, wouldn’t have dreamed of repealing Social Security, because he believed that Americans had come to expect a vigorous welfare state. Bill Clinton slashed welfare, in large part, because he thought that the era of big government was over. Richard Nixon, a conservative by the standards of his time, pushed for a universal basic income; Barack Obama, a liberal by the standards of his time, did not. A truly dominant order doesn’t have to justify itself, Gerstle has argued; its assumptions form the contours of common sense, “making alternative ideologies seem marginal and unworkable.” Obama recently admitted as much in an interview with New York, in a passive, mistakes-were-made sort of way. “Through Clinton and even through how I thought about these issues when I first came into office, I think there was a residual willingness to accept the political constraints that we’d inherited from the post-Reagan era,” he said. “Probably there was an embrace of market solutions to a whole host of problems that wasn’t entirely justified.” As President, Obama could have proposed, say, tuition-free public college or a universal-jobs program—Democrats had large majorities in both the House and the Senate—but he and his advisers considered such ideas marginal and unworkable, because they were negotiating, in a sense, not only with Mitch McConnell but also with the ghost of Milton Friedman.
Reed Hundt, an early Obama donor, worked on the Presidential transition team in 2008. In Hundt’s 2019 book, “A Crisis Wasted,” he argues that Obama and his top aides badly mishandled the 2008 financial crash, largely because they were in thrall to the “neoliberal dogmas” of the time. In December of 2008, Christina Romer, the incoming chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, ran the numbers, Hundt writes, and found that “the economy needed $1.7 trillion of additional spending in order to produce full employment.” But Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton Administration and Obama’s designated chief of staff, had already decreed that Congress would be spooked by any price tag “starting with a t.” Larry Summers, a budget hawk who’d served as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, agreed. When Obama met with his economic-policy team later that month, Romer opened her remarks by saying, “Mr. President, this is your ‘holy shit’ moment.” But then, acting on Summers’s instructions, she presented four potential stimulus packages, ranging from $550 billion to $890 billion.
After the financial crisis, it became increasingly clear that the market was not going to self-correct, and that inequality was likely to keep widening. The Tea Party mobilized on the right, and Occupy Wall Street on the left. The Black Lives Matter movement, the mounting salience of the climate emergency, and the covid pandemic have since heightened the dual sense of urgency and possibility. “The Great Recession of 2008 fractured America’s neoliberal order,” Gerstle has written, “creating a space in which different kinds of politics, including the right-wing populism of Donald Trump and the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders, could flourish.” By the end of the current decade, he continues, we will see whether the neoliberal order “can be repaired, or whether it will fall.” He wrote these words three years ago, in a journal article called “The Rise and Fall (?) of America’s Neoliberal Order.” He is now at work on a book with the same title, minus the question mark.
In March, in the East Room of the White House, President Biden met with a handful of writers and scholars, including Eddie Glaude, the chair of the African-American-studies department at Princeton. “It was duly noted that we’re at a conjunctural moment,” Glaude told me. “Reaganism is collapsing. The planet is dying in front of our eyes.” Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian and law professor at Harvard who also attended the meeting, said that, since the Reagan era, many citizens have come to expect “a government that can’t do anything except cut taxes.” But that vision may soon be overtaken by a new one. “We’ve already seen, under Trump, an early version of what a right-wing post-neoliberal order might look like,” Gerstle said. “Ethno-nationalist, anti-democratic, trending toward authoritarianism.” A progressive version of post-neoliberalism is “harder to nail down,” he continued, but “we might be starting to see it unfold under Biden.” He noted the irony that “for all of Obama’s charisma, and Joe Biden’s reputation for political caution and for stumbling over his words, Biden seems likelier to emerge as the larger-than-life figure. This is where personality matters less than circumstance. Obama was stuck within a preëxisting order, but Biden is inheriting a more fluid moment.”
The month after Bowman’s primary victory, Justice Democrats spent a few days conducting what they were calling their annual staff retreat. Previously, the retreat had taken place in suburban Maryland and Knoxville, Tennessee; this year, it took place on Zoom. Still, the staffers did their best to keep things lively, joking around in the chat and cycling through an array of virtual backgrounds: the living room from “The Simpsons”; a still from “Star Wars” in which members of the Rebel Alliance celebrate an improbable victory over the Galactic Empire.
On a Thursday evening, after a day of strategy discussions, the participants took a break to watch a movie together. A few of them didn’t have Netflix accounts. “We can share passwords,” Gabe Tobias, a staffer in Brooklyn, said. “Very socialist of us.” Being good small-“d” democrats, they had tried to pick the movie through an anonymous, ranked-choice vote. Now there were late-breaking allegations of voter fraud. “It looks like there were at least twenty votes, and we definitely don’t have that many people on staff,” Shahid, the communications director, said. “I call bullshit.” He had voted for “Clueless,” which had placed third.
“I admit, I was whipping votes,” Amira Hassan, the political director, said.
“I forgot to vote,” Rojas, the executive director, said. Rigged or not, the election results went unchallenged. The winner was “The Death of Stalin,” a 2017 satire about the lethal symbiosis of corruption and ineptitude.
The following morning, Hassan delivered a presentation about what she expected the situation in D.C. to look like after Trump left office. In the public imagination, political movements are associated with picket lines or with throngs amassing on the National Mall, but a surprising amount of the work takes place via spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks. Hassan displayed a collage of recent articles about Joe Biden that provided her with fodder for either despair (a reference to “Biden’s Retro Inner Circle”) or cautious optimism (“Progressives don’t love Joe Biden, but they’re learning to love his agenda”). Her presentation was about what the group could do to nudge the Biden Administration leftward. “As we know, the Democrats don’t have a history of always fighting to actually pass the stuff they campaigned on,” she said. “Which is why we’ve got to make them.”
If politics is the art of the possible, then there are two kinds of radicals: those who disdain all worldly forms of politics, and those who engage in politics in order to change what’s possible. The former may make a disproportionate amount of noise, especially on the Internet, but the latter tend to notch more tangible victories. Although both Justice Democrats and Sunrise endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary, their members don’t fit the caricature of the “Bernie bro” that some pundits apply to almost anyone who is young, restless, and far left. If the jaded, bellicose young socialists who post and podcast for a living are sometimes referred to as the dirtbag left—or, even more derisively, as the Patreon left—this nascent cohort might be called the PowerPoint left: anti-incrementalist but not anti-pragmatic, skeptical but not reflexively cynical, willing to speak truth to power but not averse to acquiring some. Its collective outlook is sweetly earnest, sometimes to the point of treating politics as a spiritual practice. More than one person, contrasting the abrasiveness of the Bernie bros to female-led groups such as Justice Democrats and Sunrise, described the cohort as “matriarchal.”
“Just don’t chisel anything that will embarrass us thousands of years hence.”
Most of the groups are run by people in their twenties. (Rojas, of Justice Democrats, is twenty-six; Varshini Prakash, the executive director of Sunrise, is twenty-eight, as is McElwee, who runs Data for Progress.) They describe themselves with words like “nimble” and “scrappy”—a diplomatic way of saying that they tend to be non-hierarchically organized and perennially cash-strapped. Officially, the groups are all independent. In practice, everyone seems to be everyone else’s co-author, drinking buddy, former mentor, or romantic partner. Once, over the phone, I asked Ava Benezra, the campaigns director of Justice Democrats, about Ed Markey, the environmentalist senator from Massachusetts, who was propelled to victory last year by an army of young volunteers. “That’s more of a question for Sara,” she said, referring to Sara Blazevic, the training director at Sunrise. I waited for Benezra to give me Blazevic’s phone number, but instead I heard her shouting down the hall. “We’re roommates,” she explained.
Their third roommate—in Flatbush, Brooklyn—is Guido Girgenti, Blazevic’s boyfriend and Benezra’s co-worker. During the Justice Democrats’ Zoom retreat, Girgenti, the media director, gave a presentation about an in-house podcast that he was then in the process of developing. He asked whether it should be called “Squad Talk” or “Squad Goals,” and endured some constructive ribbing from colleagues. (When the show launched, late last year, it was called “Bloc Party.”)
Just as pragmatic liberals pursue piecemeal reforms and orthodox Marxists hold out for the proletarian revolution, the lodestar of the PowerPoint left is ideological realignment. “For as long as I’ve been old enough to be conscious of politics, all I’ve known is a Democratic Party that has defined itself as ‘We’re less bad than Republicans,’ ” Girgenti told me. “With J.D. and Sunrise, the starting point is more like, ‘If we as a society didn’t accept the busted logic of anti-government austerity, what would that allow us to do?’ ” Evan Weber, Sunrise’s political director, said, “All that matters, in terms of continuing to have a livable planet, is whether we do what is necessary—which, according to science, is a massive, World War II-style mobilization to fully restructure our economy within our lifetimes. If both parties consider that unthinkable under the current paradigm, then we’re gonna need a new paradigm.” Bringing about this kind of fundamental political change is not easy work for anyone, much less a small cadre of near-neophytes. “A realignment is such a huge multi-decade project that it’s almost hard to imagine what it would look like, much less to feel confident that it will happen,” Girgenti said. “On the other hand, if it doesn’t, we’re pretty much fucked.”
In 2015, a dozen young activists formed a group called All of Us—or, in the inevitable orthographic style of the time, #AllofUs. Every month or two, the organizers—including Waleed Shahid, who was working in Philadelphia as a labor organizer; Max Berger, who had co-founded a progressive Jewish organization while living in New York; and Yong Jung Cho, a climate activist in New Hampshire—would gather for a weekend-long retreat, sleeping on pullout couches. Many of them had spent time with Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, and they were still discussing the strengths and weaknesses of that campaign. On one hand, it had turned inequality into a topic of national urgency for the first time in decades. On the other, it had failed to convert energy on the street into representation in the halls of power.
“There are segments within the left that have always been allergic to anything having to do with elections or politics,” Shahid told me. “Our basic feeling was, Sure, we can cede the entire terrain of electoral politics to the center and the right, but how does that help us achieve our goals, exactly?” He liked to refer to a 1998 episode of “South Park” in which “underpants gnomes” steal people’s underpants and hoard them in a subterranean lair. The gnomes claim to be doing this in order to make money, but when asked they can muster only the vaguest of business plans. (“Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ? Phase 3: Profit.”) Shahid said, “I was getting pretty tired of going to organizing meetings where the first step was ‘We organize this one protest,’ the last step was ‘The people rise up and take power,’ and the middle steps were all question marks.”
At first, Cho told me, All of Us was “somewhere between a book club and a discussion group.” They read “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,” by the post-Marxist philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and analyzed the writings of the civil-rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who wrote, in the nineteen-sixties, “If we only protest for concessions from without, then [the Democratic Party] treats us in the same way as any of the other conflicting pressure groups. . . . But if the same amount of pressure is exerted from inside the party using highly sophisticated political tactics, we can change the structure of that party.” The book “When Movements Anchor Parties,” by the Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Schlozman, examines why some social movements (labor in the thirties, the Christian right in the seventies) were able to reorient a major party’s priorities, whereas other movements (the Populists in the eighteen-nineties, the anti-Vietnam War movement in the nineteen-sixties) were not. Published by Princeton University Press, in 2015, it was not reviewed in the popular press. “Six months after it comes out, I get an e-mail from Waleed saying he wants to ask me a few questions,” Schlozman said. “Suffice it to say I am not used to getting inquiries like that.”
Both major American parties, despite their entrenched power, are what political scientists call “weak parties.” In other countries, parties decide which policies they favor, then select candidates who will implement them; in the United States, the parties are more like empty vessels whose agendas are continually contested by internal factions. Sometimes factional conflict tears parties apart. All of Us hoped that widening the fissures within the Democratic Party could instead initiate a virtuous cycle. An emboldened progressive bloc of Democrats could persuade the Party to enact a more redistributionist agenda, delivering material benefits, such as universal health care and green jobs, to voters, who would then reward the Democrats at the ballot box. “It wasn’t like we were entirely talking shit,” Berger said. “But we also weren’t, like, ‘Yes, we, a bunch of kids with very little experience doing national politics, can definitely pull this off.’ It was more like, ‘In theory, somebody really should try this.’ And then we would wait, and we wouldn’t see anybody doing it. At least, nobody from the American left.”
In 2014, activists from an Occupy-like movement in Spain founded a new left-wing party called Podemos. The following year, when Spain held a general election, Podemos won twenty-one per cent of the vote. Íñigo Errejón, a co-founder of the Party, was elected to parliament, and he became a nationally prominent figure. “This was a guy I knew from post-Occupy circles,” Berger said. “I remember reading the newspaper one day and thinking, Huh, this young radical guy I text with sometimes is now wielding a significant amount of power in his country’s legislature. That’s interesting.”
In the U.S., the only successful insurgency was happening on the right. In 2014, in Virginia, an archconservative economics professor and Tea Party candidate named Dave Brat ran a Republican primary campaign against Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader, portraying him as soft on immigration. Cantor spent more than five million dollars on the race; Brat spent less than two hundred thousand. In a shocking upset, Brat won. It was just one congressional seat, but it sent a clear national signal. A bipartisan immigration-reform bill had already passed the Senate and had gathered momentum in the House; after Brat’s victory, though, it was obvious that the bill was dead. Shahid, who was then working for an immigrants’-rights group, was crushed by the news, but he also saw it as a proof of concept. “My first reaction was, Looks like a small faction really can change the direction of an entire party,” he recalled. “My second reaction was, I bet I could raise two hundred thousand dollars.”
When All of Us started, more than a year before the 2016 election, the organizers assumed that the candidates would be Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Then each party held a primary in which an outsider ran openly against the establishment, trying to overturn long-held assumptions about what was politically feasible. On the Democratic side, it came shockingly close to happening; on the Republican side, it happened. “We were getting ready to make the case that, even if it looks like the establishment is still in control, the American people are going to be ready for populism soon,” Cho said. “Then we looked around and went, Oh, it looks like people are ready for populism right now.”
Shortly after Trump was elected President, the members of All of Us condensed their main arguments into a PowerPoint. Over the next year, they delivered the presentation to any progressive organization that would have them, including MoveOn, Demos, and the Working Families Party. One casual version began with a meme (the pop star DJ Khaled saying, “Don’t ever play yourself”); other versions started more ontologically (“What are political parties?”). Presentations of this kind generally focus on a topic of immediate utility—how to persuade female voters, say, or how to write effective fund-raising e-mails. This one made a more sweeping argument: that neoliberalism had run its course, and that a vast shift in “the terms of political debate” was both necessary and possible. In one version of the PowerPoint, the final slide contained a single sentence: “A movement-aligned faction can take control of the party.”
Usually, when the presentation ended and the lights came back up, the response was polite but noncommittal. “We got a lot of ‘You’ve given us a lot to think about,’ which basically translated to ‘Sure, great, you kids are cute, whatevskis,’ ” Berger said. Public-advocacy groups tend to measure their success in terms of how many signatures they’ve added to a petition; the daily calendar doesn’t generally leave room for broader discussions about ideological eras. Shahid recalled the director of a large nonprofit saying, “I’m so glad you guys are taking the time to wrestle with this stuff, because the rest of us are too busy on conference calls all day,” before rushing out to join another conference call.
In June of 2017, Cho and Shahid travelled to Chicago for the People’s Summit, a kind of South by Southwest for the pro-Bernie set. They roamed through a convention center filled with booths for groups such as Free Speech TV and the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. One booth, tucked away in a corner, was devoted to a tiny new organization called Justice Democrats. Cho and Shahid struck up a conversation with Rojas, one of the group’s founders. “They explained this theory they had about realignment,” Rojas recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s kind of how we see it, too, we just haven’t had time to write it down.’ ” She was too busy recruiting candidates. The three met for lunch, and Cho and Shahid pressed Rojas for logistical details. At one point, Rojas choked up with gratitude. Finally, someone was taking her seriously.
Rojas had co-founded Justice Democrats with three friends—Corbin Trent, Saikat Chakrabarti, and Zack Exley—all of whom had been organizers on Sanders’s 2016 Presidential campaign. A few weeks later, Shahid and Berger met with some of the Justice Democrats co-founders on Zoom and delivered their PowerPoint. Shahid recalled, “They weren’t really interested in chewing on the ideas. They were more concerned about implementation.” Trent put it this way: “I didn’t fucking like those guys at first. I didn’t like their college jargon and big words and all that shit. But the others wanted to bring them on, and I only had one vote.” At the time, Justice Democrats was based in Knoxville, near where Trent had grown up. In August of 2017, Shahid and Berger flew to Tennessee, and they worked out a merger: Justice Democrats would acquire All of Us’s e-mail list, and Berger and Shahid would join the staff. (By then, the other All of Us organizers had moved on to other projects.)
Before the Sanders campaign, Chakrabarti was a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and Trent owned two food trucks. Both scorned electoral politics, sometimes declining to vote. The first iteration of their group had been called Brand New Congress. The goal was to elect four hundred working people to the House, in Democratic and Republican districts—a “post-partisan” attempt to throw all the bums out. Trent, for one, was so focussed on class as the main driver of political polarization that he sometimes insisted that a candidate with a bold enough platform should, in theory, be viable anywhere. (Shahid, who was more willing to accept the worldly constraints of partisanship, would later argue, “Dude, I’m Muslim! There are a lot of districts in this country that I could not even run in.”) They hoped that the novelty of their plan would attract national media attention and a wave of small donations. It didn’t work. “It was a nice dream, but we ended up realizing that the partisan divides were just too strong,” Exley said.
They decided to regroup. Instead of replacing nearly everyone in Congress, their new, post-post-partisan goal was to replace as many establishment Democrats as possible. Justice Democrats put a nomination form on its Web site. Self-nominations were prohibited—“If you can’t find one person who would nominate you for office, you probably don’t have a future in politics ;)”—but, other than that, “selfless leaders from all walks of life” were invited to apply. By the time Shahid and Berger joined the staff, Justice Democrats had received some ten thousand nominations—an organic-cotton farmer in Wyoming, a pastor in South Carolina. Employees interviewed applicants by phone, taking notes in a Google spreadsheet. Ocasio-Cortez, nominated by her brother Gabriel, was rated a four out of four in several categories (strength as a nominee, good fit for district). Under “Would this applicant do well on TV?” the interviewer wrote, “Absolutely.”
Justice Democrats still hoped to bring a new faction to Congress—if not hundreds of members, then maybe dozens. By the end of 2017, though, it was having trouble paying its own staff, much less supporting dozens of campaigns. The organizers wrote an internal document listing their top goals for 2018, which included “Get (at least one) incumbent establishment scalp to become a credible threat” and “Lead (at least one) national policy/ideological fight in the Democratic Party.” Instead of dividing their resources equally, they went all-in on three candidates: Anthony Clark, a teacher in Chicago; Cori Bush, the Black Lives Matter activist in St. Louis; and Ocasio-Cortez. Shahid, Chakrabarti, and Trent spent the next few months in New York, devoting most of their time to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign. Clark and Bush lost by wide margins; Ocasio-Cortez won.
Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent had many causes, from quirks in New York election law to her raw political skill. On cable news, her election was often framed in personal terms. At every opportunity, though, she talked about herself as part of a burgeoning faction. Last year, when a reporter from New York asked her how she might legislate under a Biden Presidency, she said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.” This, too, was interpreted through an interpersonal lens. She later clarified that she hadn’t meant it as an insult; it was simply a fact. It was also the kind of thing you might say if you’d been subjected to one too many PowerPoints about factional realignment.
Shortly before Ocasio-Cortez took office, Chakrabarti and Trent moved to Washington to join her staff. Exley, an excitable idealist in his fifties, decided to start a think tank instead. His co-founder was Demond Drummer, a former Justice Democrats recruit. They hired Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a twenty-nine-year-old Rhodes Scholar, to flesh out the proposals Ocasio-Cortez had run on, including the Green New Deal. These proposals were surprisingly popular with voters, but they were anathema to many media outlets and academics, owing in part to the widespread notion that ambitious public-sector investments might be desirable, or even necessary—if only we could afford them. As long as this consensus remained dominant, Exley believed, the faction’s ideas would continue to seem marginal and unworkable. So he embarked on a kind of freelance diplomacy campaign, hoping to create some ideological headroom. He called his think tank New Consensus.
Through the Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, Exley befriended Anya Schiffrin and Joseph Stiglitz, married scholars at Columbia who are known for their dinner-party salons. Schiffrin studies media and technology, and Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and one of the most prominent progressive economists in the country. “If I meet or hear about someone interesting, I invite them over for a meal, almost as a reflex,” Schiffrin said. (Foroohar, who once spent a few nights sleeping in Schiffrin and Stiglitz’s guest room while going through a divorce, described their apartment—Upper West Side, double river view—as “a crash pad for the American left.”) “Rana mentioned this guy Zack, who was connected with A.O.C. and had these provocative ideas,” Schiffrin recalled. “I cut her off and said, ‘Let me e-mail some people.’ ”
In 2019, during a January snowstorm, Schiffrin and Stiglitz hosted a dinner for Exley and some of his young comrades from Justice Democrats, Sunrise, and New Consensus. “I think they wanted to feel out these kids, to see that they were normal and smart, and not bomb-throwing anarchists,” Exley said. The activists wanted validation for their proposals in the form of number crunching. “I tried to be nuanced—just because we have underutilized capacity doesn’t mean that the laws of economics have been suspended, or that we have no resource constraints,” Stiglitz said. “But the bottom line was ‘Yes, what you’re proposing won’t break the bank.’ ”
A month later, Schiffrin and Stiglitz hosted a brunch for Exley, Foroohar, and a Who’s Who of left-leaning economists, including Paul Krugman, the cuny professor and Times columnist. Schiffrin said, “I served Jewish stuff for the out-of-towners”—bagels, lox, whitefish—“and salad for anyone who was trying to slim down, a.k.a. myself.” The economists agreed that a multi-trillion-dollar Green New Deal wouldn’t blow a hole in the economy—that, as Stiglitz put it, “we can’t afford not to do it.” He told me, “The foundations of classical neoliberalism, in my view, showed themselves to be intellectually deficient a long time ago. But sometimes you have to wait a couple of decades before the backlash shows up.”
Around this time, the activists were invited to an off-the-record meeting with the Times editorial board. Stiglitz agreed to join them. “We gave a little spiel about the Green New Deal, and then we sat back and faced, to be honest, some very skeptical questions,” Gunn-Wright said. “I had done the research, so I was able to talk in depth about how, say, a lot of secondary and tertiary segments of the auto industry would have to adapt to building electric vehicles. You could see them slightly relaxing and going, O.K., maybe these kids know what they’re talking about.” It helped to have a Nobel-winning economist on their side. “Whenever we got a version of the ‘How are you gonna pay for it?’ question, we would just turn it over to Joe,” Gunn-Wright continued. This meeting, and others like it, were not made public, but Exley considered them time well spent. “I feel confident that the Times, and the rest of the center-left media, would have come out swinging against us much harder if we hadn’t invested all that time in demonstrating that we were legit,” he said.
Joe Biden ran for President as a moderate, but moderation is relative. Last spring, after it became clear that he would win the nomination, his campaign and the defunct Sanders campaign put together “unity task forces” to come up with plans for the economy, the climate, and four other issues. Anita Dunn, a top adviser to the President, told me, “Biden’s feeling always has been that when people can discuss these ideas with each other, even when they don’t agree, it’s a better process than if they’re having the discussions in Twitter wars, or on cable TV.”
Each task force consisted of a handful of experts. Most of Biden’s selections were Party stalwarts. Sanders’s were not. For the task force on climate, Sanders picked Ocasio-Cortez and Varshini Prakash, of Sunrise. For the task force on the economy, he chose Darrick Hamilton, a post-Keynesian economist who has called for “a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow,” and Stephanie Kelton, arguably the leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that huge budget deficits would not necessarily cause inflation. M.M.T. is far from a majority view, but it is migrating from the margins toward the mainstream. Krugman recently wrote in the Times that, despite their considerable differences, he and the M.M.T. economists “agree on basic policy issues.”
Some of the pledges that Biden ended up making in his 2020 Presidential campaign put him not only to the left of his previous positions but also to the left of the positions Bernie Sanders ran on in 2016. Sanders’s climate plan had proposed an eighty-per-cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, to be achieved mostly through tax cuts and other market-based incentives. Biden’s plan called for net-zero emissions by 2050, to be achieved largely through government investment. Heather Boushey, who attended one of the dinner parties at Stiglitz and Schiffrin’s apartment, now serves on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. When Exley embarked on his diplomacy campaign, in 2019, this was just the sort of outcome he was hoping for.
“Listen, we’ll finish this assignment, but I don’t think either of us understood your teacher’s instructions.”
Afew days after the 2020 election, the Times ran an interview with Conor Lamb, a young moderate Democrat who’d just been narrowly reëlected to Congress from a conservative district in western Pennsylvania. Asked why the Democrats had fallen short of national expectations, retaining a slim majority in the House but losing seats they were projected to win, Lamb blamed the left wing of his party, decrying “the message of defunding the police and banning fracking . . . policies that are unworkable and extremely unpopular.” His implication was that moderate Democrats were the adults in the room, sensible enough to advocate a platform “rooted in common sense, in reality, and yes, politics. Because we need districts like mine to stay in the majority.”
Lamb was responding to Ocasio-Cortez, who had given an interview to the Times the previous day. For now, she argued, Democrats in purple districts might think it’s safer to avoid taking bold positions on racial justice or universal health care, but, in the long run, centrist Democrats were “setting up their own obsolescence.” Her argument seemed to be predicated on the vision of a looming realignment—the assumption that, in a post-neoliberal world, Democrats will have to assemble a coalition around new ideas.
Given the extant political map, the moderates have a point. “You’re not just dealing with New York and California—you’re dealing with America,” Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff under Bill Clinton and as Secretary of Defense under Barack Obama, told me. “When people hear the extremes, whether it’s on the right or the left, it scares the hell out of them.” For now, Justice Democrats focusses on safe Democratic districts, where the risk of losing a seat is low: no matter who wins the Democratic primary in Minnesota’s Fifth, for example, there’s effectively no chance of the nominee losing to a Republican. The risk-benefit calculus is different in, say, West Virginia, the home state of Joe Manchin. Challenging Manchin from the left could mean ousting one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate; it could also mean flipping the seat, and perhaps the whole Senate, to Republican control. Electoral math aside, though, arguably the most notable thing about the debate between Lamb and Ocasio-Cortez was the fact that it happened at all. An uncontested ideology doesn’t have to justify itself. An ideology in crisis does.
If some historians now see Jimmy Carter as the last President of the New Deal era, then it’s reasonable to wonder whether Biden will be the last President of the neoliberal era, or the first President of whatever comes next. In April, Bernie Sanders told me, “The last time I was in the Oval Office with Biden, there was a very big painting of F.D.R.—largest painting in the room.” Biden clearly invites the comparison. His critics have argued that likening the two men is premature at best. That being said, Biden’s first stimulus bill very much started with a “t,” and his proposed infrastructure plan is even bigger. “He has said this publicly, and he has said it to me privately, that he wants to be the most progressive President since F.D.R.,” Sanders told me. Is he on track to achieve that goal? “As of now,” Sanders said. “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow.”
Gerstle, the Cambridge historian, is skeptical that “Biden, in his heart, wants to move left.” But he pointed out that F.D.R. and L.B.J. were also moderates who initially resisted sweeping change. “Whenever progressives have won in America,” he said, they’ve done so by “pulling the center to the left.” The Civil War historian Eric Foner compared contemporary progressives like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to the Radical Republicans who goaded Abraham Lincoln, a moderate in his party, to abolish slavery. “In times of crisis,” Foner told me, “people with a clear ideological analysis come to the fore.”
From the moment Biden was elected, the PowerPoint left started lobbying him to staff his Administration with progressives. Justice Democrats launched a petition demanding that Bruce Reed, a centrist Democrat with a history of fiscal conservatism, not be given a job. Some Washington insiders found such public confrontation unseemly. A Politico article headlined “Is the Left Wing Overplaying Its Hand?” quoted a Democratic operative making an undiplomatic plea for intra-party diplomacy. “If all you do is escalate,” she said, “then people eventually think that you’re enemies and not friends and they’re, like, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists.’ ”
Guido Girgenti, the media director of Justice Democrats, records the podcast “Bloc Party” from a spare bedroom in his apartment, in Brooklyn, softening the acoustics by sticking his head inside a cardboard box from Home Depot. On one episode of the show, Shahid, who was co-hosting, compared him to Oscar the Grouch, before turning to the factional fracas of the moment. “People frame these as interpersonal disputes, rather than as disputes about ideas and governance and vision,” he said, with a rueful chuckle. He quoted Lincoln, who once said, of his Radical Republican critics, “They are utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with—but after all their faces are set Zionwards.” Shahid’s moderate interlocutors sounded less than Lincolnesque. “Can you guys come up with better material?” he said. “Don’t call me a fucking terrorist. You can say my face is set Zionwards.”
For now, the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. This will not be the case forever; it might not even be the case in two years. Almost always, the party that controls the Presidency loses congressional seats in midterm elections. This is fairly dire news, considering that the current iteration of the G.O.P. seems to be organizing not against the Democrats but against the very concept of democracy. “While Biden’s diverse center-left coalition is a source of hope,” Shahid recently tweeted, “permanent Republican minority rule continues to be a ticking time bomb and no one really knows what Democrats plan to do about it.” What Justice Democrats plans to do about it, of course, is to run more populist progressives: Nina Turner, a former state senator, in Ohio; Odessa Kelly, an organizer and a former parks-department employee, in Nashville; and Rana Abdelhamid, a Google employee and a self-defense instructor, in New York City.
Obama, ever the conciliator, said in his interview with New York, “There is this tendency to play up this divide between the moderate center left and the Bernie-AOC wing of the party. And the truth of the matter is that aspirationally, you know, the Democratic Party is pretty unified.” Whether or not this is true, it is inarguable that the Bernie Sanders-A.O.C. wing of the Party, which barely existed a few years ago, is now contesting for power in ways that were recently unimaginable. John Kerry is Biden’s climate czar—a job that was created only because Sunrise and other activist groups demanded it. Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, actively courts leftist support, liking tweets from Shahid and McElwee along with the usual fare from Axios and the Center for American Progress. He is in frequent touch with several prominent progressives, including Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’s former campaign manager. In February, when a union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was becoming a national story, Shakir and other labor advocates told Klain that a pro-union message from the President could galvanize the movement. On February 28th, Biden released a video on Twitter. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union,” he said. “No employer can take that right away.” The union drive failed, but Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer who has been critical of Biden, told me that his support was “unprecedented, and incredibly important.”
When I talked to White House officials about their outreach to leftist groups, their tone was phlegmatic. “We listen to everybody,” Cedric Richmond, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told me. Sunrise had protested Richmond’s appointment to the job, noting his history of receiving donations from fossil-fuel companies, but Richmond sounded unfazed. “Their job is to push,” he said. Emmy Ruiz, the White House director of political strategy and outreach, said, “Every organizer I talk to is trying to move our country forward. We may have different paths to getting there, but we have very similar destinations.” Not quite as poetic as “Zionwards,” but in the ballpark.
Moderation may be relative, but moderates still run the Democratic Party. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is so proud of his ability to steer toward the middle of the road that he apparently affords it a kind of numerological significance. According to a 2018 article in the Washington Post, if you apply for a job in Schumer’s office, “he will quiz you about where various senators fall on an ideological spectrum from zero (most conservative) to 100 (most liberal). It’s important to know that there is a correct answer for Schumer; it’s 75.” Now that the left wing of the Democratic Party has been revivified, however, Schumer is revising his priorities. The last three times he was reëlected to the Senate, he did not face a primary opponent. Next year, when he runs again, he may not be so lucky; perhaps he’ll even face an opponent endorsed by Justice Democrats. “I remember when he had nothing nice to say about anyone to his left,” Rebecca Katz, who runs a progressive political-consulting firm called New Deal Strategies, told me. “Now every five minutes you turn on the TV and he’s doing another press conference with someone on the left.” This is what it means to be a 75 in 2021. The equation stays the same, but the variables are subject to change. ♦
Let’s get something really fucking clear right now: Our country is gaslighting us.
At this point, without willful ignorance or staunch denial or some special cocktail of both, there is no way to dodge the reality of our country.
Whatever hope any of us had (spoiler alert I had none) that Trump “wouldn’t be that bad” has crashed by now, and we are left with detention centers for children ripped from their parents’ arms, alongside a mural of our dictator.
Wait. We aren’t supposed to have a dictator.
When our President refers to a murderous dictator running a totalitarian state as “very honorable” and “very smart,” somebody who “loves his people,” stating that it’s an “honor to meet [him],” you have two choices: Admit Trump is dangerous as fuck and wholly anti-democratic or bury your head further in the sand.
The ship has sailed. We are here. POTUS lies so much we don’t even care anymore. He refers to the free press as “our country’s biggest enemy.” That shit barely makes the news.
Meanwhile, Russia’s meddling in our 2016 elections remains unaddressed. Not only is it unaddressed, our President advocates for Russia on the global stage, aligning himself with the world’s dictators while shitting on our allies. (Sure am glad he’s taking care of that pesky threat known as “Canada.”)
They’re trying to gut health care, again. Net neutrality is gone.
Meanwhile, Trump attacks actors in misspelled tweets and the White House remains a revolving door of appointees and Antarctica is melting. We can’t even care about climate change. That’s like way low on the list, amiright? Think about that.
The hits just keep on coming, so, so fast. Every fucking day. And we’re expected to just carry on. On the one hand, what else are we supposed to do? We have to live. We have to feed our families and raise our kids and pay our rent.
But all this “normalcy” in the face of absolutely not normal at all creates a sense of dizzying and lonely dissonance. Gaslighting. The sycophantic GOP twiddling its thumbs letting this shit all slide, as if it’s all business as usual. Gaslighting. Fox News has clearly become state propaganda and millions of Americans believe that shit. Gaslighting.
I walk around in a perpetual state of ARE YOU NOT SEEING WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE? Even with some acquaintances. And family members. People are flat out fucking delusional. Somebody tried to argue recently that Trump is bringing people “together.”
We are forced to carry on our lives in The United States of Fascism Light. We have to just keep on living. We see democratic principles being systematically annihilated every fucking day, maybe hour, and the never-ending newsreels cover it and cover it like it’s standard politics and the GOP does jack shit and we see what’s happening but all this inaction by the people in power tells us every day, all day, that everything is fine.
Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.
I read Twitter and Facebook and comment sections of news articles. Trump supporters quote the Bible and call people liberal snowflakes, citing shit Obama did, rejoicing in some idea of regaining America greatness, of vague nostalgia, while they get fucked by the oligarchy and don’t even see it. Their bigotry is so rampant they’re overjoyed at the prospect of “tough on illegals” without recognizing what it really means is that we’re removing children from their parents. They love Trump’s posturing, his Big Man persona, failing to see how they’re being played. The rich simply rejoice in their tax cuts. Dizzying. Infuriating.
As if any of this is the fucking point.
This isn’t about us vs. them, folks. This is about the soul of our nation and thus the soul of its people, and it’s about where we’re headed, and how we built this, and whether or not we can survive it.
Am I overreacting? Being hyperbolic? Maybe. But explain to me a detention center for children with our President’s face painted on the wall. Explain to me a President attacking the free press. Explain to me a President who FLAT OUT DOES NOT CARE that Russia meddled in our elections. Explain to me his praise for Kim Jong Un. Explain to me his constant barrage of lies. Explain to me his pardoning his friends and installing of loyalists. Explain to me Congress doing nothing to stop him.
I have no answers. How could I?
What I want to say to you, friends, is that what we have to do right now, every goddamn day, is look for the truth.
I’m not referring to truth in the media. Although, yes, also do that.
Right now what I’m talking about are the artists. The people speaking the truth of humanity, of love, of freedom.
Read more than you ever have. Read James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Tolstoy and Austen and Sylvia Plath. Read everyone. Read every fucking day, even just a little.
Follow @nitch on Instagram. Follow painters and poets and weirdos. Follow the ones making shit. Right now. Do it.
Get your ass to a museum and look at some art. Look at local art. Look at fancy European art. Look at photographs and sculptures. Watch people doing amazing things with their bodies and hands and minds.
Turn your music up. Turn it way, way up. Get thee to festivals and dance. Bring the annoying children. Dance with them, too. Dance in the living room. Turn it up so loud you think your ears may break. Your favorite songs. The ones that rip your heart out. The ones you loved when you were young.
We have to stay centered, friends, grounded, in life, in the people speaking the truth, in those with the moral courage, then and now, to insist on the power and beauty and creative force within all of us, to revolt and resist and survive, or we will grow tired, and we will forget, and we will give up.
We are living right now in a nation that’s lying to us, every day, forcing us to deny and ignore what see with our own eyes, what we know to be true, and that’s a horrible way to live. A horrible way to raise children. A demoralizing, confusing way to live.
Remember you aren’t crazy.
You know the truth and the truth knows you.
We must insist on it.
And vote in November or I’ll kick your fucking ass.
I love you. Art. Art now.
he’s learning guitar and playing these old songs and the kids and i sing along. we have to not forget.
“I suppose some of us don’t have the luxury of neatly wrapped truth, of affirmations that rest on our tongue like peppermints. Some of us need to be doused in gasoline and set aflame, until the truth consumes us, and we have no choice but to recreate ourselves. A collision, I suppose, when one must choose to live or die.
I didn’t want to feel better. I wanted to live.
I didn’t want the pain gone. I wanted it to mean something.
And when I found my voice, I found a purpose for every moment I had lived. I found power in every blackened room in my mind, every fear, every molestation, every sad parent, every futile word and nightmare memory.
Because it led me to you, to the place where we are the same, to the place where words draw a line from my bones to yours, and you look at me and say, “I know,” and I look back at you, thinking, Well I’ll be damned, I guess we’ve been here together all along.”
Sean Illing called James Carville hoping to get his thoughts on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office.
He obliged — then, one question in, brushed aside the exercise to talk instead about why the Democrats might be poised to squander their political advantage against a damaged GOP.
His failure to cooperate may have been for the best since the first 100 days ritual can sometimes lead to dull, dutiful analysis. What Carville offered up instead was a blunt critique of his own party even after a successful 2020 election cycle — a sequel of sorts to his fulminations during last year’s Democratic primaries. The longtime Democratic strategist is mostly pleased with Biden, but it’s where much of the party seems to be going that has him worried.
“Wokeness is a problem,” he told me, “and we all know it.” According to Carville, Democrats are in power for now, but they also only narrowly defeated Donald Trump, “a world-historical buffoon,” and they lost congressional seats and failed to pick up state legislatures. The reason is simple: They’ve got a “messaging problem.”
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
What do you make of Biden’s first 100 days?
Honestly, if we’re just talking about Biden, it’s very difficult to find something to complain about. And to me his biggest attribute is that he’s not into “faculty lounge” politics.
“Faculty lounge” politics?
You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language. This stuff is harmless in one sense, but in another sense it’s not.
“IMAGINE IF IT WAS A BUNCH OF NONWHITE PEOPLE WHO STORMED THE CAPITOL. IMAGINE HOW REPUBLICANS WOULD EXPLOIT THAT AND MAKE EVERY NEWS CYCLE ABOUT HOW THE DEMS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.”
Is the problem the language or the fact that there are lots of voters who just don’t want to hear about race and racial injustice?
We have to talk about race. We should talk about racial injustice. What I’m saying is, we need to do it without using jargon-y language that’s unrecognizable to most people — including most Black people, by the way — because it signals that you’re trying to talk around them. This “too cool for school” shit doesn’t work, and we have to stop it.
There may be a group within the Democratic Party that likes this, but it ain’t the majority. And beyond that, if Democrats want power, they have to win in a country where 18 percent of the population controls 52 percent of the Senate seats. That’s a fact. That’s not changing. That’s what this whole damn thing is about.
Sounds like you got a problem with “wokeness,” James.
Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it. It’s hard to talk to anybody today — and I talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party — who doesn’t say this. But they don’t want to say it out loud.
Because they’ll get clobbered or canceled. And look, part of the problem is that lots of Democrats will say that we have to listen to everybody and we have to include every perspective, or that we don’t have to run a ruthless messaging campaign. Well, you kinda do. It really matters.
I always tell people that we’ve got to stop speaking Hebrew and start speaking Yiddish. We have to speak the way regular people speak, the way voters speak. It ain’t complicated. That’s how you connect and persuade. And we have to stop allowing ourselves to be defined from the outside.
What does that mean?
Take someone like Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s obviously very bright. She knows how to draw a headline. In my opinion, some of her political aspirations are impractical and probably not going to happen. But that’s probably the worst thing that you can say about her.
Now take someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new Republican congresswoman from Georgia. She’s absolutely loonier than a tune. We all know it. And yet, for some reason, the Democrats pay a bigger political price for AOC than Republicans pay for Greene. That’s the problem in a nutshell. And it’s ridiculous because AOC and Greene are not comparable in any way.
I hear versions of this argument about language and perception all the time, James. It’s an old problem. What’s the solution?
That’s why I’m doing this interview. Lots of smart people are going to read it, and hopefully they can figure out that which I can’t. But if you’re asking me, I think it’s because large parts of the country view us as an urban, coastal, arrogant party, and a lot gets passed through that filter. That’s a real thing. I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it — it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s damaging to the party brand.
Part of the issue is that Republicans are going to paint the Dems as cop-hating, fetus-destroying Stalinists no matter what they say or do. So, yeah, I agree that Democrats should be smart and not say dumb, alienating things, but I’m also not sure how much control they have over how they’re perceived by half the country, especially when that half lives in an alternate media reality.
Right, but we can’t say, “Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what, so let’s just run as out-and-out socialists.” That’s not the smartest thing to do. And maybe tweeting that we should abolish the police isn’t the smartest thing to do because almost fucking no one wants to do that.
Here’s the deal: No matter how you look at the map, the only way Democrats can hold power is to build on their coalition, and that will have to include more rural white voters from across the country. Democrats are never going to win a majority of these voters. That’s the reality. But the difference between getting beat 80 to 20 and 72 to 28 is all the difference in the world.
So they just have to lose by less — that’s all.
So what do you want the Democrats to do differently besides not having people peddle politically toxic ideas like abolishing the police? How do they change the conversation so that Republicans aren’t defining them by their least popular expressions?
You’re a strategist, James. I want to know what you’d advise them to do. You don’t have any complaints about Biden because he’s getting stuff done. He’s putting money in people’s pockets. But the Democratic Party is a big coalition and you’re always going to have people promoting unpopular ideas, right? Whereas the Republican Party is more homogenous, and that lends itself to a tighter, more controlled message.
Tell me this: How is it we have all this talk about Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and we don’t talk about Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in Congress? If Hastert was a Democrat who we knew had a history of molesting kids and was actually sent to prison in 2016, he’d still be on Fox News every fucking night. The Republicans would never shut the hell up about it.
So when Jim Jordan was pulling all these stunts with Anthony Fauci [Fauci was speaking at a congressional hearing about ending coronavirus precautions], why didn’t someone jump in and say, “Let me tell you something, Jim, if Fauci knew what you knew, if he knew that a doctor was molesting young people, he would’ve gone to the medical board yesterday. So you can go ahead and shut the fuck up.” [Ed. note: Jordan denies knowing about the allegations of abuse when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State University.] I love that Congresswoman Maxine Waters told Jordan to “shut your mouth,” but that’s what I really wish a Democrat would say, and I wish they’d keep saying it over and over again.
Can I step back for a second and give you an example of the broader problem?
Look at Florida. You now have Democrats saying Florida is a lost cause. Really? In 2018 in Florida, giving felons the right to vote got 64 percent. In 2020, a $15 minimum wage, which we have no chance of passing [federally], got 67 percent. Has anyone in the Democratic Party said maybe there’s nothing wrong with the state of Florida? Maybe the problem is the kind of campaigns we’re running?
If you gave me an environment in which the majority of voters wanted to expand the franchise to felons and raise the minimum wage, I should be able to win that. It’s certainly not a political environment I’m destined to lose in. But in Miami-Dade, all they talked about was defunding the police and Kamala Harris being the most liberal senator in the US Senate. And if you look all across the Rio Grande Valley, we lost all kinds of solidly blue voters. And the faculty lounge bullshit is a big part of it.
If you’re a Democrat, you could look at the state of play and say, “We’re winning. We won the White House. We won Congress. We have power. It ain’t perfect, but it ain’t a disaster either.”
We won the White House against a world-historical buffoon. And we came within 42,000 votes of losing. We lost congressional seats. We didn’t pick up state legislatures. So let’s not have an argument about whether or not we’re off-key in our messaging. We are. And we’re off because there’s too much jargon and there’s too much esoterica and it turns people off.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Democrats and Republicans are dealing with very different constituencies. Democrats have a big tent, they have to win different kinds of voters and that means making different kinds of appeals. Republicans can get away with shit that Democrats cannot.
Yeah, that’s a problem. We can only do what we can do. People always say to me, “Why don’t Democrats just lie like Republicans?” Because if they did, our voters wouldn’t stand for it. But I’m not saying we need to lie like they do. I’m saying, why not go after Gaetz and Jordan and link them to Hastert and the Republican Party over and over and over again? We have to take these small opportunities to define ourselves and the other side every damn time. And we don’t do it. We just don’t do it.
“DEMOCRATS ARE NEVER GOING TO WIN A MAJORITY OF THESE VOTERS. … BUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GETTING BEAT 80 TO 20 AND 72 TO 28 IS ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD”
Republicans aren’t just more comfortable lying, they’re more comfortable with slogans and sound bites, and that’s partly why they’re more effective at defining themselves and the Democrats.
Let me give you my favorite example of metropolitan, overeducated arrogance. Take the climate problem. Do you realize that climate is the only major social or political movement that I can think of that refuses to use emotion? Where’s the identifiable song? Where’s the bumper sticker? Where’s the slogan? Where’s the flag? Where’s the logo?
We don’t have it because with faculty politics what you do is appeal to reason. You don’t need the sloganeering and sound bites. That’s for simple people. All you need are those timetables and temperature charts, and from that, everyone will just get it.
That’s not how the world works; that’s not how people work. And Republicans are way more disciplined about taking a thing and branding it. Elites will roll their eyes at that, but I’d ask, “How’s that working out for you?” Most people agree with us on health care and minimum wage and Roe v. Wade and even on the climate.
So why can’t we leverage that?
What would you have Biden do to counter some of these messaging problems?
I’d have him pick up a phone. I’d have someone in the White House pick up the phone. And when someone in the party starts this jargon shit, I’d call them and say, “We’re only a vote away. Our approval rating is 60 percent. We got a chance to pick up seats in 2022, and if you did this, it would be very helpful to us.”
Are you sure those calls aren’t happening already?
Maybe they are, but they need to be more effective. And we need more of them.
There’s a philosophy on the left right now, which says the Democrats should pass everything they possibly can, no matter the costs, and trust that the voters will reward them on the back end.
Where do you land on that?
First of all, the Democratic Party can’t be more liberal than Sen. Joe Manchin. That’s the fact. We don’t have the votes. But I’ll say this, two of the most consequential political events in recent memory happened on the same day in January: the insurrection at the US Capitol and the Democrats winning those two seats in Georgia. Can’t overstate that.
But the Democrats can’t fuck it up. They have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can’t sit back and wait for it to happen.
Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.
So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that’s exactly what the hell we need to do them.
China and the United States Are in a Race to Lose Power
A new cold war is starting, and neither side seems interested in winning.
markmason.net, “10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About America.” ; bu.edu, “BU Historian Answers: Are We Headed for Another Civil War?” by BU Today staff; gq.com, “Democrats Will Never Get Their Shit Together: Part of the problem? Drew Magary argues they care way too much about what Republicans think.” By Drew Magary;politico.com, “POLITICO Playbook: Biden’s pollster: 2022 is ‘worst political environment’ of my lifetime.” By RYAN LIZZA and EUGENE DANIELS; damemagazine.com, “HOW IT IS It’s Time to Wake Up, America!” By Monique Judge; newyorker.com, “Are We Entering a New Political Era? The neoliberal order seems to be collapsing. A generation of young activists is trying to insure that it’s replaced by progressive populism, not by the fascist right.” By Andrew Marantz; renegademothering.com, “YOU ARE NOT GOING CRAZY. AMERICA IS GASLIGHTING YOU.” by Janelle Hanchett; vox.com, ““Wokeness is a problem and we all know it.” by Sean Illing;
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