A year ago this week, I sat in a left corner seat in a school auditorium, watching as presidential candidate Andrew Yang yukked it up with teens at Concord High in New Hampshire.
Yang was a hit. He said he wanted to give sixteen-year-olds a thousand bucks a month, the vote, and legalized weed. He also told them a generation of political leaders had left a sociopolitical “disaster” they would imminently be forced to address. “You could even call it a shit show,” he said (I noted a ripple of teacher applause).
Afterward, I asked about what at the time seemed like a small controversy. The Democratic Party was scheduled to hold a primary debate in Des Moines a few weeks later — on January 14th, 2020, to be exact — and it was beginning to look like Yang, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, and a host of other viable-ish candidates would be excluded.
The Democratic National Committee had been regularly changing qualification procedures for TV debates. At one point they allowed candidates polling as low as 1%. Now they were insisting on four “qualifying” polls showing 5% support or higher, or two polls showing 7% or more in the early battleground states of Iowa or New Hampshire. Which was fair enough, except there hadn’t been a “qualifying” poll in over a month, since November 17, 2019, in fact.
Yang’s campaign had been a success. His innovative P.R. strategy, led by a core of online #YangGang volunteers, caused the heretofore little-known business figure to become the fifth-largest fundraiser in the fourth quarter of 2019, pulling in $16.5 million.
For context, this was just $6.2 million less than eventual nominee Joe Biden ($22.7 million). The late surge prompted Buzzfeed to write, “Andrew Yang Could Win This Thing.”
The Party didn’t agree. When Yang joined Booker and billionaire Tom Steyer in offering to fund new polls, they told him to suck it. It wasn’t the DNC’s problem. It was, they said, just bad luck that the 16 “qualified” polling organizations, like the New York Times, hadn’t done a survey in a while. “They should do more independent polling,” the Party suggested, in amusing deadpan.
When I asked Yang if he was disappointed, he laughed. “We’re operating on the assumption the debate doesn’t exist… Besides, all of this stuff ahead of time historically hasn’t made the determination,” he said. “You know what has? Voters.”
I liked Yang personally — he’s a rare genuinely funny politician — but was mostly agnostic about his campaign, ironically apart from his attitude about things like this. Unlike many politicians, whose aides constantly whisper off the record about the various wrongs done to their candidate, Yang embraced the long odds of his campaign, seeming to take it for granted that the institutional deck would be stacked against him. He figured just having a fair shot with voters was reason enough to be optimistic, and why not? At that moment in time a year ago, the persuasive authority of institutional America seemed at its nadir.
An impeachment drama cooked up by the Party and relentlessly propagandized by mainstream news would prove a massive dud, both politically and from a ratings perspective.
Legacy press outlets resorted to writing explainer pieces about why the public wasn’t as mesmerized as it should be, with the L.A. Times noting that “sobriety and clarity” were “a hard sell in an ecosystem where escapism and mirrored reality are the currency.” New York explained that Nielsen ratings didn’t account for people “checking in periodically on a C-SPAN stream.”
There were many similar stories written to explain the impeachment drama’s lack of impact on Donald Trump’s poll numbers.
Worse, it was looking like the nominees for the general election would be two oft-denounced op-ed targets in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. A string of efforts by a panicking political elite to restore order failed, from the silly debate scam, to scare tales about Vladimir Putin scheming for Bernie (as well as Trump), to a half-baked smear campaign about Sanders allegedly telling Elizabeth Warren “a woman can’t win” — a story reported as fact by all the usual media suspects that the public roundly disbelieved — to a far more serious effort to buy the Democratic nomination outright through the bluntly obnoxious campaign of Mike Bloomberg. The year 2020, in other words, looked destined to be the climax of a long-developing story about the collapse of public faith in the pronouncements of America’s most powerful institutions: the news media, the two political parties, the medical and pharmaceutical establishments, the intelligence services, Wall Street, etc.
I was skeptical that anything would change much, but it did seem the public’s snowballing alienation was moving to a new phase. Genuinely interesting ways to re-think society might now be embraced.
Yang was symbolic of this. Though I didn’t necessarily buy his guaranteed income scheme, it was fascinating to hear how many people in places like New Hampshire were open to the concept. As was made clear in 2016, huge numbers of people were and are increasingly open to anything. Like Ice Cube, a lot of Americans were broke, their feet hurt, and they were “Down For Whatever.”
The clear subtext of the last half-decade of political upheaval has been rising impatience with how difficult it has become to enjoy things once considered the basics of life. Young people leave school saddled in debt, consider themselves lucky if they get health insurance, and are usually so far from being able to imagine owning their own homes or having real professional security that marriage or children seem like absurd, unattainable luxuries.
For older people further along in life, the logistical challenges of mere living have become so outrageous that many have committed to Dickensian work regimes, only to discover that in America, even working overtime costs money. You take a second job to pay for the child care necessitated by the first, and the little ancillary costs that seemed not so serious once — from DMV fees to getting a stove repaired to parking — now trigger a pucker factor just to consider. That’s without even taking into account all the various near-automatically bankrupting endgames built into the American experience that most people try as much as possible not to think about: serious illness, an elderly relative forced into care, divorce, surprise legal problems, etc.
The fact that a year ago, anyone thought it made sense to tell the millions of people forced daily to navigate all this stupidity that they needed to focus on a labyrinthine political controversy in Ukraine — and to blast them for deficits of “sobriety and clarity” when they didn’t — told you everything you needed to know about the cluelessness of the people who run this country.
Then the pandemic happened.
No conspiracy theories are necessary to point out that all of the institutions Americans were in the process of rejecting just a year ago have since increased their power and influence. Be it opportunism or coincidence, the international emergency has written a dramatic heel turn into our history.
A sweeping Fed-based rescue program resulted in enormous booms in asset values, allowing America’s wealthiest to increase their net worth by nearly a trillion dollars since the start of the pandemic (in mid-summer, American billionaires were collectively earning $42 billion per week). The disease pummeled people who actually had to travel to work, while empowering conglomerates like Amazon, which tripled its profits in the third quarter alone. Most of our lives are online now, an ironic reward to intelligence services that went unpunished after illegal surveillance programs were disclosed in the Obama years.
After all that upheaval, the White House is about to be re-occupied by a political fossil from the eighties, surrounded by a zombie cabinet of Iraq War supporters, drone assassination proponents, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and neoliberal economists, coming from places like Amazon, DuPont, and Raytheon (the Pentagon appointment of the current Henry Kissinger Chair from the Center from Strategic and International Studies was a nice homage to the unchangingly vile character of America’s royal court). How bad any of this is in comparison with the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump is arguable, but it surely represents the triumph of Sameness, a powerful reminder that in America, you ultimately can’t beat City Hall. Or can you?
The news in recent years often reads like accounts of America before the Sixties upheavals. That was also a time when long-held myths were rapidly losing force and people were beginning to question the palate of life choices celebrated in places like the Book of the Month Club and Life magazine. Men wondered why they were being sent around the world to kill poor people, only to come home to what Paul Goodman described as a “style of life dictated by Personnel… to work to pay installments on a useless refrigerator.”
Women had it worse, consigned to tend house and give themselves nightly as a reward for men who’d completed their “covenant of murder” in places like Vietnam. Spirituality in much of Jim Crow America was a superficial weekly injunction to conformity at archaic churches and temples, while our real religion, consumerism, became a constant devotional exercise, bolstered by a thousand dazzling commercials for products that people began to realize fulfilled every conceivable need, but the most important.
We’re in such a similar place, and though America’s political leaders learned a great deal from those times — the list of absurd Woke Headlines run here a few days ago chronicles the extremely clever effort to commoditize and sell the desire for political action that had no permissible outlet in the sixties — the reality is, if you keep giving people nothing but crappy choices, they’ll eventually write their own story, even if they can’t do it through voting.
Americans are tired. The rancorous politics they’ve been sold as bread-and-circus diversions are tiring, not laughing is tiring, having too much work and too little money is tiring, being stuck inside now is tiring, even being sexually frustrated is tiring (look at the stats on that one sometime, if you want insight into why so many Americans seemed a tad touchy in recent years). The most exhausting part is the mandate to take it all seriously. Unfortunately for America’s leaders, that’s the easiest part to change, which is why 2021 feels like such a good candidate to be the year things finally begin turning in a happier direction.
Distortions on CNN or in the New York Times drive people crazy, but that’s only because they remember trusting those sources. They’ll forget soon and learn to walk right past mass media blather as if it were just amusingly terrible wallpaper, the way Soviets eventually did with Pravda and Izvestia. Student debt is crushing and college is an overpriced scam, but a reckoning of sorts is coming when people stop being ashamed of vocational school. Facebook and Instagram turbocharged the impact of fear-based “ring around the collar”-style marketing, but what happens when the pandemic recedes and going offline is possible again? Throwing off worries about likes and rediscovering real-life interaction feels destined to become a fashionable dissident statement, in the same way tuning in, turning on, and “dropping out” was an obvious response to the stultifying conformity of the fifties.
Watching billionaires get richer and all the discredited vultures of the War on Terror and financial crisis eras sweep back into power is a bummer, but the tighter those people grip the reins, the more inevitable a counterculture feels. Who knows what that will look like, but it’ll probably be based on friends, family, and other things you can’t buy, and surely kinder and less maddening than the stress-packed world we’ve been asked to live in. My New Year’s resolution is to start living that other life sooner rather than later, after I check Twitter one last time, of course.