This week was a long year, and now there are fewer than seven weeks until one of the most important elections in our country’s history.
Everyone is on edge from everything — climate disasters, a pandemic, an economic emergency, and Trump’s endless effort to sow anxiety. We should acknowledge that things will get more turbulent before they get better. But I fear that we are reaching a point where too many are starting to conclude that things can never get better — and ignoring signs that things can get better, and in some cases actually are getting better.
I see the despondence in my own email box every day: in the last month, readers have suggested that there is no reason for any hope, because even if Trump is defeated, there is no way to ever move our government to do anything good at all, ever.
It’s an understandable feeling — year after year, decade after decade, it has felt like our country cares less and less about us, and that we are all on our own. Those feelings are backed up by cold, hard numbers: a new RAND Corporation study this week found that since the 1970s, about $47 trillion of national wealth that should have gone to the bottom 90 percent instead went to the top 1 percent. As New York magazine put it: “If income had been distributed as evenly over the past five decades as it was in 1975, the median full-time worker in the US would enjoy annual earnings of roughly $92,000 a year. As is, that worker makes just $50,000.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat those figures — they illustrate a breakdown of the basic social contract in America, a breakdown deliberately created by the oligarchs, politicians, and corporations that are building their gilded careers and palaces atop the rubble of a once-vibrant economy. And day after day, the propaganda propping up this avarice is blasted at us by the corporate media, which indignantly tell us that a new president must represent Wall Street arsonists, not just the millions of people being set on fire.
oh. my. fucking god pic.twitter.com/OwBkCjjYzM
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) September 18, 2020
We do something different here: we scrutinize and challenge the greed-is-good culture in this newsletter — and we do that even when it’s depressing, because the crime spree must be exposed.
And here is some good news that offers a reason to feel at least somewhat hopeful: for the first time in my own adult life, there seems to be widespread, society-wide awareness that we are living through a crisis.
The Permanent Will
When I got my first job on Capitol Hill working as Bernie Sanders’s press secretary, I remember talking to friends about the lonely battles we were waging — fighting cuts to retirees’ pensions, fighting against Republicans and the Clinton administration to try to lower prescription drug prices, fighting bad trade deals designed to disempower workers and wreck the environment.
Every day, it was fight, fight, fight. It was a tiny handful of House offices and one Senate office (Paul Wellstone’s) — and for the most part, everyone in national politics saw us as pariahs. At best we got eye rolls, and most often we got the big middle finger. From both parties. We were scoffed at and mocked in the way this episode of The West Wing scoffed at and mocked the Progressive Caucus in 2001 for pushing to raise taxes on billionaires. (I was working for Bernie when that episode came out — it was a gut punch.)
Fast forward almost twenty years: we’ve been through 9/11, major wars, a financial crisis, two recessions, and a lethal pandemic. Along the way, there has been incredible pain, suffering, and death as George Bush laid waste to everything he touched, Barack Obama made a cruel joke out of the phrase “hope and change,” and Trump now threatens to end the entire American experiment. It’s been a dark timeline — and anyone who tells you it hasn’t been is probably one of the few billionaires and politicians who profited off the descent.
And yet . . . 2020 is not twenty years ago or even ten years ago.
Polls show Americans now see economic inequality as a huge problem. Large majorities see things like unions and Medicare for All and all sorts of progressive agenda items as the solution. Unlike when I worked on Capitol Hill at the end of the Clinton era and the early Bush era, you don’t have to convince people that we face huge problems and that realistic, pragmatic solutions exist — everyone now finally knows, and that’s no small thing. Even Obama — who went out of his way to stymie so much and prop up conservative austerity rhetoric — has belatedly (and begrudgingly) admitted that progressives actually have some good ideas.
That’s an enormous change — and you can see that change starting to express itself in our politics.
We’ve seen progressives defeating the Democratic machine and winning state legislative seats in the home of Wall Street and even in the corporate state of Delaware. We’ve seen people-focused campaigns defeat corporate-aligned incumbents in Congress.
We are seeing labor activism across the country — and successful union drives. We are seeing big successes in the fossil fuel divestment movement. We are seeing the reawakening of the entire idea of peaceful protests — and we have seen mass demonstrations levels not seen since the middle of the twentieth century. Hell, we even just saw New Jersey’s famously corrupt and dysfunctional political system raise taxes on millionaires.
We haven’t gotten all — or even most of — the changes we want and need because the oligarchic status quo is powerful, and because the game is intentionally rigged. Quite literally, the founders designed the government to slow down change. As Alexander Hamilton said, the Senate was created to be a “permanent will” — and that will is not our will, it is the will of the elite.
But if a past generation of Americans can overcome that permanent will and pass civil rights legislation through a Congress that included literal segregationists, then dammit, we can pass Medicare for All and a Green New Deal through a Congress owned by insurance companies and oil giants.
FDR Wasn’t FDR Until He Was Forced To Be FDR
Now sure, I’d love to give you the “it’s always darkest before the dawn” bullshit and tell you that everything is going to suddenly be fixed overnight through a presidential election. Obama sold us that fiction in 2008 and millions of people who were mobilized in that contest then demobilized in 2009 out of deference to the new president. Obama proceeded to use his administration to shield Wall Street and insurance companies from popular desire for much more systemic change.
That experience of euphoric hope being crushed by cynical politics was deeply disillusioning for a lot of people — and both congressional Republicans and Trump opportunistically exploited that angst to engineer the largest Democratic losses in modern history.
But while things are bleak out here, on the other side of that epic cataclysm there is little sign that we will relive 2009. If Trump is defeated, we can momentarily breathe a sigh of relief that the new president is at least not an authoritarian — but there is little evidence to suggest that everyone will go back to sleep and just hope that a new administration does the right thing out of the goodness of its heart. Biden faces a problematic enthusiasm gap for his own candidacy, but there’s no enthusiasm gap for taking immediate action to solve so many of the crises we face.
Far more people understand that real change will require constant mobilization. It will require pressure not just on the White House, but on every level of government to amplify that pressure up the political food chain.
Buzzfeed recently looked at whether Biden could be another FDR. In talking to them about it, I reminded them that FDR wasn’t FDR until he was forced to be FDR by the social and political forces around him. I said something that I know Bernie understands, but that more lawmakers need to know, too:
“Joe Biden won’t be the next FDR unless there are people like Bernie Sanders and other progressive leaders in Congress waking up every single day knowing that their job is not to be friends with Joe Biden,” said David Sirota, one of the campaign officials who pushed Sanders to step up his attacks on Biden during the primary. “Their job is to push Joe Biden whether he likes it or not. It can’t be both. You have to choose.”
In the Reagan-Clinton era, America lost some of its appreciation for the whole concept of constant pressure, protest, activism, and mobilization. The backlash to the 1960s and 1970s coupled with the Bowling Alone phenomenon helped depoliticize, demobilize and disengage large swaths of the country.
But thankfully, that’s not where we are now. Nobody is under any illusions about what’s going on. The only question is whether you think the die is already cast, the game is already irreversibly rigged, and resistance is futile.
The question, in other words, is whether you think America is already over.
I don’t, which is why I do this work, even when it feels shitty. Many days, I don’t particularly enjoy getting up and digging through campaign finance reports and financial documents and other muck to expose lies, corruption, deceit, and greed. It can be depressing — but I do it because I believe that a democracy requires an informed citizenry, particularly when the information at hand is upsetting. I’m trying to do my small part in our democracy, just like I tried to do my small part on all the underdog campaigns I’ve worked on.
Maybe I’m the idiot — maybe I’ve based my life’s work on a false premise that our democracy can still function. But I don’t think so, at least not yet. I don’t think America is dead.
I don’t think thousands of people who march in the streets are on a fool’s errand.
I don’t think union organizers fighting for workers’ rights are chasing some impossible fantasy of a better world.
I don’t think all those local candidates running for office are wasting their time. I don’t think my partner, Emily, wasted her time getting crushed in an underdog run for school board before picking herself back up and winning a seemingly impossible run for state legislature. I don’t think Cori Bush or AOC wasted their time on against-the-odds campaigns against big-city political machines. And having worked on my own share of losing underdog campaigns, I don’t think their struggles were only valuable because they were victorious — political engagement is valuable because win or lose, the exercise itself helps preserve and fortify the democratic spirit that holds communities together.
In that same vein, I don’t think the readers of this newsletter and other independent media are wrong to seek out noncorporate journalism that reports on inconvenient truths, so that we have a better sense of what the hell is actually going on and can use that information in our own communities and our own activism. And I don’t apologize for reporting painful truths, even though they can be depressing — ignoring those truths doesn’t make them go away. Spotlighting them, exposing them, and shaming them can.
The point here is simple: I think a better world is still possible, even if it takes enormous effort to take even one step forward.
After all, that’s what it has always taken — that’s part of the process of overcoming the permanent will. Generations before us have overcome that permanent will in their time, and now we can overcome it today. But we have to white-knuckle it through the despondence.
We have to know that there may not be instant gratification from our toil.
We have to know that we may never see the fruits of our labor, but that the labor is still critical.
We have to know the truth of that most famous line from Pirkei Avot:
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.