It is always hard to get back from some time away — the email backlog, the pile of bills, the untended to-do list, and the inevitable aggravation from the home appliance that somehow no longer works, even though it was running smoothly before you left.
But heading home to Colorado last week from a family trip to Michigan was more than hard. Driving back during a pandemic, past a heartland destroyed by storms, toward a cloud of wildfire smoke, and into the final weeks of this dreadful election — it was downright crushing, to the point where I find it tougher to bounce out of bed, harder to force a smile, and wondering whether during a crazy time, I’m the one who’s gone insane.
I’m wondering, because this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m told I should be bouncing up in the morning, uplifted by the Democratic convention and its promise of a new era soon — seventy-five days. But at least for me, watching the cable TV snippets, the convention speeches, and the celebratory Twitter dunks has left me with that feeling you get after eating junk food — full but not nourished; bloated, tired, and vaguely nauseous.
I’ve worked on a lot of Democratic campaigns, wins and losses. I’m literally married to a Democratic elected official. Over twenty years, I’ve put in an almost embarrassing amount of time working to support the Democratic Party. So these feelings are somewhat new for me, and I don’t think I’m having them just because Democratic officials decided to turn this year’s convention into a promotional platform for Republican icons who attacked unions, laid off thousands of workers, promoted climate denial, endangered 9/11 survivors, and lied us into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
I’m also not glum just because the Democrats’ presidential standard-bearer is often an uninspiring mishmash of incoherent here’s-the-deal colloquialisms that mean nothing.
I think the despair is deeper — and it has something to do with the now-yawning gap between social expectation and reality.
Right now, if you are following politics at all, you are asked to feel chipper and energized. We are expected — no, required — to conjure 2008-level enthusiasm during this even darker time than the financial crisis, all so that we can move into a new, glorious moment of Hope™.
But pretense is the necessary ingredient for authentic enthusiasm, and there is no pretense anymore. Everyone, on all sides of this situation — and I mean literally everyone — knows that politics today is pantomime. You may not say it out loud, you may not like thinking about it — but I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, because somewhere deep down in there, everyone senses the fraudulence at hand.
This is a moment of apolitical crises — that is, crises that aren’t just manufactured by and confined to the political soundstage, but instead life-and-death, out-here-in-the-real-world emergencies in the realms of money, biology, and ecology. We’re facing an economic and environmental collapse in the midst of a lethal pandemic. And we’re going through this cataclysm with a legislative branch controlled by right-wing senators, a court system that rubber stamps corporate demands, and an authoritarian president whose major crisis-management experience was firing people on the Apprentice.
And yet, in the middle of this five-alarm garbage fire, we’re asked to white-knuckle it and feign excitement for an opposition party machine run by insiders, lobbyists, and careerists who keep letting us know that they think campaign promises are distinct from policy. In so many ways, they keep telling us over and again that the most we can hope for is, in the words of the nominee himself, that “nothing would fundamentally change.”
There has certainly been a lot of inspiring talk about the health care emergency, the climate crisis, and oligarchy, but the party platform says it all.
During a recession that has resulted in millions losing health insurance, Medicare for All is nowhere to be found in the platform. During climate-intensified wildfires, inland hurricanes, and — yes, really — fire tornados, the platform’s section on ending fossil fuel subsidies was removed. The lobbyists who run the DNC also killed an initiative to reduce the influence of corporate money on the party. Meanwhile, Joe Biden himself rolled out a whole package of legislative promises, and then told his Wall Street donors that, in fact, changing corporate behavior is “not going to require legislation,” and he won’t be proposing any. Please clap.
The worst part is that dispassionately recounting any of these facts obviously proves you love Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin — at least, that’s what you’ll be told if you dare even whisper this. In our tribalized politics, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and dissent is disloyalty. Failure to match the rah-rah spirit of the Blue Team, refusal to get psyched for the charade, asking questions about inconvenient facts — it all means you must be on the Red Team and are being paid in rubles, comrade.
As an electoral strategy, this kind of vote shaming and dissent suppression doesn’t have a winning track record. It is both immoral and bad politics. There must be a better strategy — and for the love of god, with polls now tightening, the world needs the Democrats to find one fast, because another Trump term is unthinkable.
Either way, the constant, incessant demand to be happy about fraudulence — the insistence that we put on a smile and insinuate that the New Deal is on the ballot — is shamefully dishonest. It helps make the whole process into exactly what Ohio state senator Nina Turner described: “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of shit in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still shit.”
This is demoralizing for obvious reasons, but to feel demoralized is to feel like you’re crazy and alone — because it requires you to deviate from the norm of blissful and willful ignorance. It requires you to pay attention and reject a culture that tries to turn you into a goldfish, forgetting your entire world every fifteen minutes.
To be demoralized at this political moment is to remember that, for all the great progressive oratory during the convention, the Democratic presidential ticket is the guy who wrote the crime bill, spearheaded the bankruptcy bill, and worked with Republicans to authorize the Iraq War — and, oh yeah, a running mate who blocked her law enforcement staff from prosecuting Steve Mnuchin.
To be demoralized is to feel momentarily uplifted by Michelle Obama’s inspiring convention speech deriding our “greed is good” culture from her Martha’s Vineyard castle — and to then remember that the Obama administration knowingly fortified that culture when it protected the Wall Street firms that destroyed millions of lives during the financial crisis.
To be demoralized is to make the mistake I made during my family break — to sit along the shore of Lake Michigan and, for some reason, reject a mindless beach novel to instead read Ron Suskind’s old book Confidence Men. That tome meticulously recounts Barack Obama and Biden promising real health care reform during the 2008 campaign, and then steamrolling a public option — and dishonestly pretending they never even pushed such a modest reform in the first place (they did). The book reads like a cautionary tale of what could come during the next Democratic presidency — especially if you believe the signals already coming from Capitol Hill.
To be demoralized, in other words, is to remember — and that’s not what Democrats do in America.
Minds are wiped, and Iraq War architects become Resistance heroes and Democratic convention speakers. Memories are scrubbed, and Wall Street thieves become Democratic economic gurus and treasury secretaries. Amnesia takes hold, and the Democratic governor of Mount COVID becomes a pandemic man crush. Democrats lose a presidential campaign to Donald Trump by defending the Washington establishment — and now, four years later, they are running the same Washington valor campaign again, telling themselves they’re too legit to quit, baby.
Our society is not interested in recollection and learning from the past. We are immersed in short-attention-span media and propaganda that doesn’t want us to remember, and that therefore goes out of its way to omit mention of historical context.
Indeed, this is part of why it’s almost sad that podcasts like Slow Burn seem like such wonderful aberrations — they are fascinating because they resurface lost history, but it shouldn’t be such a fascinating novelty, because political history should never be lost in the first place. Memory is the last defense against repeating catastrophes — but we choose to live in the memory hole.
On the long drive back from Michigan, I listened to some of those lost-history podcasts, and their themes mixed with my recent reading of Confidence Men. That first morning back home, I laid in bed, scrolling the news with that feeling of dread, wondering whether we have forgotten the most important history of all: the history of how authoritarianism rises.
We’ve seen this parable over and over again — elite-run, neoliberal governments are democratically elected and then do not economically deliver for the vast majority of the population, creating popular frustration and the political space for a right-wing strongman to seize power.
This is the taboo tale tying together the Obama and Trump eras. Though oversimplified, the broad strokes are clear: a populist campaign won the election, before an elite-run administration capitulated to corporate power, sowing frustration and disillusionment, which helped a demagogue peddling racism and sexism to successfully vault himself into the presidency.
We’ve been lucky that Trump is so narcissistic, clumsy, and inept — in many cases, his own idiocy has inhibited his ability to make things even worse than they are.
However, if our goldfish culture means we omit inconvenient facts and no longer allow ourselves to remember that journey from Obama to Trump, then what is to prevent us from repeating the journey again?
If we forget how bad the old “normal” was and just have to go back to a Wall Street–run White House championing incrementalism in the face of existential crises, what is to stop another Trump from emerging afterward?
If the 2009 capitulations of a new Democratic president, his party, and liberal groups in Washington become the 2021 capitulations of a new Democratic president, today’s party, and liberal groups, then what is to prevent 2024 from ending up like 2016, only with President Tom Cotton?
I probably should’ve read a pulp novel during my time off, because I don’t want these questions haunting my mind. I’d prefer that innocent, moronically naive hope I felt, standing with tens of thousands of others, when Obama visited Denver at the very end of the 2008 campaign.
But now, here in the middle of the country, with the sun blocked out by wildfire ash, with people losing jobs and health care, with schools closed, with a Democratic governor refusing to halt evictions — I can’t find that feeling. It’s gone.
That doesn’t mean I don’t know what to do when I get my ballot. I know I’ll have to deliver it to a drop box rather than by mail if I want to make sure it gets there on time. And I know to vote the Democratic ticket, because I live in a swing state, and I know that fascism’s bid for reelection must be defeated.
But I also know that the threat of fascism isn’t going away after November, so don’t ask me to be excited or feel happy. I’m not, and I don’t — and I suspect it’s the same for many people.
Maybe that doesn’t make us crazy. Maybe it makes us human.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself when I have trouble rising and shining the morning after Joe Biden’s convention speech.