This year’s Iowa State Fair set an all-time record for attendance. Over the course of eleven days, more than 1.1 million people made their way to the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines for a wholesome orgy of music, amusements, and impaled meat. That means, on average, more than a hundred thousand Iowans passed through the gates every day, and thanks to Iowa’s continued and baffling status as the site of the nation’s first presidential primary caucus, every one of them had the unique opportunity to personally engage with the electoral process in a way no other fairgoers in the nation can, by watching presidential candidates climb the Des Moines Register’s famous Political Soapbox.
Due to the superabundance of 2020 Democratic contenders, that meant there were dozens of chances for attendees to get up close and personal with the people vying to lead our nation. Yet, except for front-runners like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the audiences were meager: a few paid shills in campaign merch and a scattering of onlookers who may simply have savored the chance to rest their feet for a few minutes. The slow but steady flow of fairgoers kept the same sort of polite distance from the spectacle they’d give a Moonie mass wedding.
They were wise to do so. What else can you call getting heatstroke while listening to a parade of interchangeable political hacks recite identical lists of empty promises and hollow catchphrases but a mad religious compulsion? The rote poverty of American political discourse is such an undeniable reality that even the act of pointing it out becomes part of the ritual.
For those of us cursed with the sick need to Engage with the Process, this fact is taken for granted as a regrettable but immutable facet of political campaigning. But for those who view politics without rooting interest, that essential, punishing vacuity is repulsive. Only a real sicko would insist on exposing themself to the same arid cant, day after day, week after week, all throughout the two long years of the presidential political cycle. Being “politically engaged” is a subculture like any other, and a particularly perved-out one at that. At least the people who dress up like animal mascots in Holiday Inn conference rooms get off on it.
This is a problem for Bernie Sanders, the only person running for the Democratic nomination whose election could potentially fracture the deadly neoliberal consensus that has calcified around the two major parties. The wretched subset of Americans who consume political news, invest themselves in political campaigns, and identify in some way as “political” is already a minority of the voting-age population. Of that minority, the people who make up the Democratic primary electorate are a further subset. These voters are connected to the Democratic Party by some thread of loyalty, whether it be to particular elected officials or party apparatchiks or merely the fact that the Democrats are the team they root for when they watch cable news. As such, they are particularly vulnerable to the bad-faith arguments Democrats and capitalist media types are marshaling against Sanders, the only candidate who poses a genuine threat to their continued rule.
It’s frankly unlikely that these voters alone will coalesce around a candidate who is being systematically opposed by the party and their media handmaidens, not with other options available who replace the “divisive” language of class conflict with nonthreatening appeals to technocratic competence (catnip for liberal urban professionals) or “electability” (a legitimate concern of economically precarious Democratic voters personally traumatized by Republican governance).
To win, Bernie is going to have to reach people who haven’t had their political horizons carefully conditioned by press and party — the people who gave the Political Soapbox a wide berth. When he spoke on the Soapbox, it was to an audience bigger than any of the other candidates had managed to assemble, but it was still well short of the attendance of the previous night’s Slipknot concert.
The good news is that Bernie’s unprecedented network of volunteers and donors is well positioned to do the sort of grueling, face-to-face outreach that is the only way around the roadblocks thrown up by the media and the political class. But there mustn’t be any illusions about the deep damage that decades of naked cynicism, corruption, and cant have done to American’s faith that there will ever be a political solution to the problems of their lives.
Bernie can speak the neglected language of class war, but doing it on the same stage that just hosted Michael Bennet droning like a peeved high school principal about the need to “come together” limits the people who will hear that language to those who have already invested in the legitimacy of the process. For the depoliticized, it makes much more sense to spend your time in line waiting for a pork chop on a stick than listening to a political stump speech. The pork chop will fill you up.