At the diner down the street from the house where we all sleep on inflated mattresses, a woman wearing an apron calls me dear and refills my coffee. I don’t like the coffee and I don’t particularly want to drink any more coffee but it’s important to me that she refill it. It’s a small act of ritualised care, and that seems to matter, like it matters anytime someone does something for you that isn’t immediately profitable. It seems to matter that there are still some things that aren’t commoditised: that not everything has been optimised by the pressures of the market.
It matters in a different way, too. This way is more like the way it matters when you open your eyes underwater and it stings, just as it should. This way of things mattering has something to do with our need for the world to behave as it’s supposed to. It’s a need for our expectations to be realised, for things to obey a pattern, for some things to be constant. Like our need for some social relations to exist outside of the cold logic of the market, it’s a need threatened by modernity, or post-modernity, or wherever we are now.
The point here is not simply that things are changing too fast. That might be true, but the only people who find it a sufficient explanation for our troubles today are those more worried about the rate of change than its trajectory. The point is that things aren’t going in the right direction. In fact, for many, it has become hard to know what direction things are going in. The familiar structures of society are fracturing in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways, and none of us know what will replace them.
For decades at home on the conservative right, this view is once again being expressed from the left. It’s familiar among those who worry that an accelerating global capitalism threatens to diminish all our social relations to labour relations. But among the descendants of American liberalism—many of whom dominate political discourse—the tone is much more optimistic. This broad coalition happens to include classical liberal Steven Pinker, whose career now consists in saying that things are Good, Actually; moderate Democrats like Pete Buttigieg, who hope a few small changes will do the trick; and the tech-utopians who view social complaints as temporary reactions to changes that will ultimately justify themselves.
In some form or another, optimistic liberalism has dominated the rich world for decades. At the turn of the century, liberals looked particularly happy with themselves; Francis Fukuyama even declared victory in The End of History and the Last Man (1992). But then September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the global financial crisis, Syria, the refugee crisis, school shootings, deaths of despair, catastrophic global warming, and a slew of other horrors happened, and, over two decades, the liberal view of world progress began to look less tenable. Not everyone got the message. By 2016, the Democrats were running a status quo candidate against a Republican change candidate. The Republican just came out and said it: things are worse than they used to be. After decades of being frogmarched to the tune of ‘American exceptionalism’, establishment Democrats refused to break habit, and why should they? Among the people they knew, the trajectory of progress was uninterrupted. Hillary Clinton was so comfortable with the state of things that she came back at Donald Trump’s expression of national distress with this: ‘America,’ she said, ‘is already great.’
If it seems ironic that the American ‘progressive’ party was the conservative choice in 2016, it’s only because we’re often told, wrongly, that ‘conservative’ is synonymous with the right wing. But today’s liberal Panglossian view is fundamentally conservative because it demands a commitment to the trajectory of the status quo. It flourishes in purple patches, when people want things to stay as they are, and comes under stress when phrases like ‘deaths of despair’ are added to the lexicon. At these times, people look for change, and liberal capitalism has always had two understudies waiting in the wings: fascism and socialism. That’s why in 2016 liberal capitalism warded off an insurgent socialist left before the fascistic right took centre stage.
This gloss of history gives us a neat, if simplistic, picture of how we ended up here. It helps explain how Hillary lost and how Donald won, and it helps explain how I ended up in a diner in New Hampshire in the year 2020, volunteering for Bernard Sanders, an ageing Senator from Vermont. Things, for many people, are worse than they used to be.
I came to New Hampshire because, after a year and a half living in the United States, I wanted to see for myself the bizarre, arcane, dissonant cacophony of political advertising and vested interests and sincere public democratic engagement that will dictate the future for the rest of us—that is, for the rest of the world. I wanted to see how Americans would react politically to the transparent fact that their society is decaying. I wanted to see how people would respond, electorally, to fraying social relations, precarious experience of labour, the commodification of even their most basic utilities, and a President who seeks to accelerate all of the above.
In New Hampshire a foreign observer feels pulled in two opposing directions. To one side, there is the vision of genuine, romantic democracy made concrete in door-to-door grassroots political organisation. To the other, one sees a kind of grotesque international tyranny, a handful of under-engaged voters deciding for the world which man or woman gets to make the decisions that affect us all. If you think I am exaggerating, consider this: at the start of this year, the US President publicly assassinated a leading foreign citizen and the world did nothing. There was nothing they could do.
We are sleeping on inflated mattresses in a house with no furniture because we are trying to get Bernie Sanders to win. We’re in Manchester, New Hampshire, and when I arrive the US Democratic presidential primary is three weeks away. The Iowa caucus is two weeks away. I’m a curiosity to the household but not as curious as I am to the people in town, like the woman who refills my coffee in the diner. She looks at me over the counter and finds me unusual even before my accent gives me away. She wants to know what I’m doing in town. Just a moment before, she glanced at her watch as she greeted a regular customer: ‘This is late for you.’
At 111,000 people, Manchester is New Hampshire’s largest city. (In 2018, Toowoomba was sitting at 134,000 and Ballarat at 105,000.) Every four years, it is flooded with organisers and staffers and reporters and the various other remora fish of campaign politics, swimming along next to the candidates, eating scraps and warding off parasites. For months in the lead up to the primary, the city swells gradually, until about now, when the campaign cavalry arrives and NO VACANCY signs begin to appear in town. That brings an economic boost to a state that needs it, and the government here knows it: the date of the New Hampshire primary has repeatedly been brought forward to maintain the state’s position as first. There’s another reason to go first, of course, one I alluded to before: it gives your citizens outsized influence over the course of world politics. When the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are over, the race will have changed dramatically. By then, two states with a combined population less than Sydney’s, and a populace that looks nothing like the rest of the USA, will have heavily influenced the vote for President of the United States.
Manchester has the same character of all American cities that have names you don’t know until you move to this country. They are much smaller than anything an Australian would call a ‘city’. They’re typically ‘post’-something, and the older folks in town will tell you about the glory days if you’re kind enough to ask. Here, the evidence is in the old textile mills. There’s a heavy sense of nostalgia—or gloom, depending on your mood. It’s cold (-7 was today’s high). Ice creeps out towards the middle of the river. New Hampshire has no income tax and Manchester’s roads, perhaps correspondingly, are just terrible: cracked and fraying and pressed open by water freezing and melting and freezing again. Two different people have told me that one of the Bernie 2020 offices has sat empty since Bernie’s 2016 campaign rented it.
On my third day I go to a barber off Elm St, Manchester’s main road. Roland, the man who cuts my hair, has been doing it for 50 years. He bought the shop in 1970, aged 25, and has cut the hair of candidates and media in every campaign since. ‘Last time round,’ he says, ‘Larry King sat right where you did. Wrote me a card afterwards.’ Roland is large and talkative and loves his job. He’s a lifelong Democrat and keeps an eye on the TV in the corner where the impeachment process grinds on. He starts cutting my hair without asking what I want and I leave with the kind of militaristic fade that Pete Buttigieg has been sporting lately. Nothing, not the clippers nor the towel ovens nor the chairs have been replaced in 30 years, and the whole experience is so stereotypically American that it would be kitsch if Roland weren’t so immediately and unselfconsciously who he is. After a while another customer comes in to sit and wait, chatting idly about the weather and local politics, and Roland seems to know everything about this guy’s life, which seems odd until you realise he knows something about the life of everyone around here.
Manchester is going to shit, he says. It’s not like the old days. Now it’s the drugs, lots of drugs, and the homelessness. Later, when I get home, I google it—in 2019, 34 people died of opioid overdose in Manchester alone. Remember, this is a city of only 111,000 people. The opioid epidemic—a social disaster produced by America’s healthcare system, not in spite of it—has been crippling people in this state for years. At the rally I go to the night I arrive in Manchester, Bernie Sanders speaks for nearly 10 minutes about the Sackler family, the depraved owners of Purdue Pharma who pushed opioids on people even after they knew these drugs could and would destroy lives. That section got a lot of applause, but I’m so tired in the moment that it’s only later, sitting in Roland’s chair, that I connect the dots and realise that these people don’t hate the Sacklers the way I do, having read about them in the New York Times, no, they hate the Sacklers the way you hate someone who destroyed the life of someone you know.
As he cuts my hair and he tells me about his city Roland starts to talk about the various demographic changes of Manchester. By this I mean he starts talking about brown people, listing the immigrant communities that have recently begun to shift Manchester away from being Very, Very White to merely Very White. I begin to get nervous as he runs down the list: ‘Puerto Ricans, Sudanese…’ until I suddenly realise he’s nodding with approval as he talks. ‘Those Sudanese…’ He pauses with respect. ‘They’re Democrats.’
To my left, Roland’s partner Abdul cuts my colleague’s hair, mostly in silence, except to interject on two occasions. Abdul’s an Iraqi-American and came here, I am guessing, after the first Gulf War. His first exclamation comes when he realises I’m an Australian (his son now lives in Melbourne with his family). We have that conversation that all Australians have with people from the Northern Hemisphere (Australia? So far away). The second time I hear him talk is when he learns the location of Manchester’s Bernie office. His daughter owns and operates the Italian-American pizza joint next door.
Let’s go back a week or so. On the bus to Manchester from New York I pulled out my phone and tweeted that I was an Australian going to volunteer for Bernie. I added a couple of follow up tweets, too, explaining why I cared about American politics—namely that US politics affects Australia whether I like it or not. Within minutes, People For Bernie, a big campaign-affiliated Twitter account, retweeted it, and by the end of the next day I had a hundred comments from random American leftists thanking me for volunteering. The messages came from accounts like ‘Mary 4 Bernie’ and ‘TulsiandBernieZealot2.0’ and accounts with rose emojis in their handle. A handful of accounts had added the snake emoji to their bio —indicating their side in a recent dispute between Sanders and Warren. Very few of them had more than a handful of followers, but they were all deeply invested in the election, very passionate, and very Online.
The whole thing was striking, and embarrassing too. I’m happy to help, but I’m also on paid leave from work, and it’s not like I flew from Sydney to be here. But there was also the discomfort of knowing not everyone wanted me around. Among centrists, a key coping mechanism in the wake of the 2016 election was to blame Russia for ‘stealing the election’, and suspicion of foreign interference is at an all time high. The President, after all, was just on trial in the Senate for soliciting the interference of a foreign government in the 2020 election. So while the Sanders Left gave me sincere gratitude, a handful of anti-Bernie types accused me of being supported by Vladimir Putin. It’s hard to begrudge them: the 2016 election caught us all so off-guard that any explanation will do, and the easiest explanations to swallow are those that externalise the blame. What I don’t tell them is that they would have been wiser to accuse me of being in the pocket of the Australian Labor Party—in 2016 Labor gave seven Australian volunteers a stipend to fly to New Hampshire. The FEC fined the Bernie campaign about $15,000 for accepting ‘paid’ foreign help.
International volunteerism for Bernie Sanders is remarkably common. In Iowa, a British man has been furiously knocking on doors in blizzard-like conditions. You can follow his mini vlogs on Twitter. He and I and a few other foreigners occasionally share information about FEC regulations and how to speak to voters with an accent, and, after my tweet, an Australian and a German reached out to plan their own passage across. In the Manchester field office I meet a German and a Dutchman who flew across just to volunteer, then two other Australians. A number of Canadians drive down to help us. Sanders isn’t wholly alone in this—I know of two international Warren volunteers, including one French Canadian. But, to the best of my knowledge, no other candidates have received volunteers from abroad.
One day, out canvassing, I come across a 15ft flag pole on a suburban street that has not one but two Trump flags. One flag says MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. The other reads TRUMP: NO MORE BULLSHIT. Beneath the flag is a handwritten sign placed on the road for passing cars:
A Republican will leave you: Some Hearing, Some Intellect, Some Sight, Some Money, Some Hope
A Democract Vote will leave you: Deaf; Dumb; Blind; Broke; Hopeless
Make America Faint Again
As I read the sign, a man wearing a camouflage jacket backs out of the driveway. I’m supposed to knock on his door but I’m pretty sure there’s been a mistake: Republicans aren’t allowed to vote in the NH Democratic primary. I knock anyway, just to make sure, and a woman comes to the door. She’s suspicious, but when she sees my Bernie clipboard her face lights up. ‘Don’t worry about the flags, they’re my husband’s. It gets a little tense around here.’
At this stage of the race it becomes clear American presidential campaigning is an ultra-marathon, not a marathon. My friend on the Warren campaign has been in rural New Hampshire for nine months already. She’s tired and depressed and cold and just really, really good at her job. She’s a Field Organizer, which means the campaign dropped her out in New Hampshire, gave her access to lists of Democratic voters in the area, and told her to get calling. In her first month, she would come into the office and call every number on the list until she heard a sympathetic voice, then would try to get coffee with that person to learn about ‘the issues that are important to this community’. She’d sit for an hour with some invariably wealthy retiree and try to build a relationship with them. Then she’d sit with another, then another, then another, until finally she developed community ties.
The goal here is to build a kind of pyramid: you make calls and knock on doors until you find people who like your candidate enough to help. You then bring them on as a volunteer, and they start to do the same work. Every time you talk to someone who doesn’t like your candidate, you try to push them one step up the ladder towards voting for them. If all goes well, by election day you’ve got a healthy team of volunteers knocking on doors and making calls, asking people to consider your candidate. If you believe that persuading people means connecting with them, then this very intimate form of organising makes sense. But here’s the thing—you won’t be alone. Bernie’s people and Joe’s people and Pete’s people are all out there pestering the same people you are, here, in the most libertarian state in the Union. In 2019/2020, at least five campaigns have dumped massive resources into this form of primary organising, seeking to convert individuals voter by voter. The result is a knife fight that lasts for months: killing through a thousand tiny cuts.
Try to imagine what this is actually like. You get into your office and you open the campaign software and it tells you to start with ‘John Smith, 67, leans Warren’. You call John, hoping to take him from ‘leans Warren’ to ‘strong Warren’, and then to make a Hard Ask that he come canvass with you this weekend. John doesn’t pick up, because why would he, when he knows that any Unknown Number is probably a kid like you trying to meddle with his politics? So you call six or seven more people who don’t answer and you finally get through to Albert Anderson, 93, who simply cannot hear what you’re saying. You then call Fiona Blythe, 46, who is kind and lovely and then tells you she thinks she’ll vote for Pete Buttigieg because he ‘seems nice’. Eventually, when you try calling John Smith again, his widow picks up the phone—John died last week.
If these examples all sound too horrific to be true I am sorry to say I’m not exaggerating by much, and I’m not convinced I’m exaggerating at all. Here’s more bad news: organisers consider canvassing and phone-banking to be the two most effective forms of campaigning. To assure volunteers that their efforts are valuable, organisers will turn to the data. For every face-to-face conversation at the door, there’s a +3% chance that person will vote for your candidate. And phone banking? A full +1%! When I see organizers give this speech, they tend to get blank looks from their recruits, but I’m never sure they understand why. The volunteers immediately intuit what I am sure you’re beginning to wonder: those numbers only describe the people you do talk to. For every door you knock and phone you ring, maybe 15% will become a conversation.
At the end of my first week I and the organisers from the Bernie office go to another diner—the Red Arrow. The Red Arrow Diner is famous in Manchester—for decades it has hosted photo opportunities with candidates and their surrogates, and the diner takes some pride in this, putting plaques on the chairs where famous people sat. I’m seated in the corner, in a booth opposite the plaque for Ted Cruz, and behind him I can read ‘Donald Trump, Jr.’ glowing in the neon beer light. It’s a hotspot for journalists and politicos, and one of my colleagues warns me to be careful with what I say in case I’m overheard. I find that funny, not least because I’m a volunteer and spend most of my time doing menial tasks, but also because as far as I can tell none of us, even the most senior, know anything that would be valuable to the other campaigns. I order a burger and fries because I’m in a diner in New Hampshire. The Americans, for whom this experience is quaint but not foreign, order from other parts of the menu.
As we talk, a mother and daughter in a booth near the door call over the manager and suddenly all three of them are yelling at each other. The teenage daughter is black and the mother is white, and they’re telling the manager that the white waitress has been ignoring them, serving other people first, and they think it’s about race. All of a sudden the waitress is there alongside the manager and when she hears she’s been accused of racism she starts yelling as well, outraged, apparently, to have been accused of something like that. By this point the teenage girl is crying and extremely distressed, and the waitress is absolutely indignant, and everyone is floundering in this situation until the waitress does two things. First, she tells the family that ‘my son is half-black’, a claim that I’m pretty sure the mother and daughter do not believe, but then the waitress reaches for her phone and says ‘I’ll show you a picture of him if you want’, as though daring the family call her bluff, and of course they don’t, even though they don’t believe her, because they understand that this moment is stripping everyone of their dignity. ‘My son is half-black’ doesn’t deescalate the situation as much as the waitress hopes so instead she suddenly asks the family if she needs to call the police. At this, the daughter’s face drops even further and she goes from upset to scared within seconds, apologising and crying and saying that there must have been a misunderstanding. A moment later the waitress is gone; the mother and daughter pay and leave.
Here’s an extremely rough sketch of the race so far. For months, the major players have been Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. A bunch of big names have come and gone, including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kristen Gillibrand. There’s a kind of second tier still hanging around, each with particular strategies and motivations that I won’t go into, but each now threatening to join the Big Four. That tier includes Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, and two billionaires: Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg.
Joe Biden has led the national polls for the entire race. It was a remarkably consistent run, and it can be explained very easily. First, he was Barack Obama’s Vice President. Second, a lot of Democratic voters describe their biggest issue as Beating Donald Trump. That means that candidates don’t just have to convince voters of policy. They have to convince voters of a theory of change—their theory for winning the White House. For Joe Biden, beating Donald Trump means running from the centre, capturing moderate conservatives and Trump-hating progressives at the same time. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg believe roughly the same thing. This is the theory voters are familiar with.
But even with this familiar message, and even with the name recognition of a former Vice President, ‘leading the polls’ for Joe Biden has meant capturing, at best, 26% of national voters. In Iowa, the Biden’s house of cards collapsed—there, Pete Buttigieg claimed the centre lane, and with it, many of Biden’s voters. But neither moderate candidate has found an answer to undiminished support for the progressive left. Sanders, for example, has recently climbed to 21% nationally, and Warren sits at 13%. In Iowa, Sanders claimed the popular vote and here in New Hampshire he leads a number of polls, ahead of Buttigieg. That tells us that at least some chunk of the population prefer Sanders’ leftist change message to the centrist call to return to liberal normalcy. Some of them, I suspect, don’t disagree that these candidates are well-placed to revert the country to the old normal. The problem for Biden and Buttigieg is that many voters don’t think that would be a good thing.
What’s particularly interesting about this election, relative to the last, is that Bernie Sanders is no longer the only anti-corporatist candidate on the stage. In fact, for months towards the end of 2019, Sanders supporters were getting themselves into knots doing something they’ve never had to do before: argue that their candidate was different. In those months, Elizabeth Warren enjoyed a surge that appeared insurmountable. At her peak she was a full 10 points higher than Sanders and was rapidly gaining on Biden. The two candidates enjoyed a non-aggression pact, regularly describing each other as friends, with the effect that Sanders’ policies were legitimised by an establishment figure and Warren was able to shore support from the left. Some traditional Sanders supporters thought Warren, with her credentials and law degree, might be the perfect foil for the establishment: able to connect popular, left-wing policies with professional-managerial Democrats skeptical of Sanders’ distaste for compromise. At that point of the campaign the differences came down to identity and aesthetics. In one corner, a crotchety, ageing man trying to bring out working class voters; in the other, a female law professor defining herself by having a policy for everything.
To anyone who checked, it wasn’t clear that Warren actually had more policies than Sanders, or that her policies were particularly detailed. But eventually Warren was hoisted by her own petard. In November, she released a detailed proposal mapping out how she would pay for Medicare For All ‘without raising a penny’ on middle class taxes. It was a political disaster. Within a week, polling numbers began to reflect a shedding of Warren voters to Sanders. Sanders never bothered to demonstrate exactly how he would pay for the same policy. Warren supporters, who for months had championed her unique credentials as the Plan Candidate, suddenly complained that she was the only candidate expected to have a plan.
I’m focusing on this particular dispute because it’s integral, I think, to understanding Democratic voters in America in 2020. So long as Warren positioned herself as the Professional Leftist, she combined the aesthetic sought by centrist voters with the left-wing policies desired by a quarter of the electorate. But after her reputation as a leftist was damaged, progressives began to return to Bernie Sanders, and when that support dipped, centrist voters to her right suddenly found her less electable. She found herself wedged.
Then, in January, CNN reported that in 2016 Sanders had told Warren that a woman could not win the presidency. It produced a farcical scenario at the debate days later. Asked if he said it, Sanders denied it emphatically, claiming it would be ‘incomprehensible’ that he would say it given he made way for Warren to run that year. The debate moderator then turned to Warren, ignoring Sanders’ response, and asked ‘Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?’
There was laughter, but Warren repeated the accusation and spoke at length about why Sanders was wrong that a woman couldn’t beat Donald Trump. The women on stage, she said, were the only ones to have never lost a race—an argument that convinced no one, given how few races Warren and Klobuchar had run and where they had run them. After the debate, with mikes live, Warren and Sanders had their first public spat. Warren told Sanders, ‘I think you called me a liar on national TV.’
Among progressives it was widely assumed that Warren, or someone on the Warren campaign, was making a desperate ploy to sink Sanders, and at first that ploy appeared to be successful. Then public sentiment began to turn. Voters began to view Warren—not Sanders—as duplicitous. At the doorstep, I began to hear voters say they couldn’t vote for Warren, ‘not after what she did to Bernie.’
There’s no proof that Warren did indeed leak the story. But the suspicious timing was enough for a population primed for narratives about lying female politicians. And for those who care only about Beating Donald Trump, the episode was disastrous. Warren’s insistence that a woman could beat Trump put the question at top of mind. Is the USA too sexist to elect a woman?
There’s a section of Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money where the economist points out that in the stock market, investors tend to be less interested in the ‘real’ value of a stock than what other people think a stock is worth.
‘It happens…that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly…concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it ‘for keeps,’ but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence…
‘Or, to change the metaphor slightly, professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.’
And so it is in the 2020 Democratic primary. Voters who want nothing more than to defeat Donald Trump are casting their ballots on their best guess as to who other people will vote for. For candidates like Joe Biden, this fact determines the majority of their support. It also makes that support extremely fickle: when some voters turn away from the candidate, the others will follow.
For female candidates, the problem is compounded. In 2020 we find that female voters in the USA, convinced their compatriots are sexist, will themselves not risk voting for a woman. A brutal, sexist, self-fulfilling prophecy dominates the Democratic primary. Where Joe Biden’s support was grounded in the common belief that other people will vote for him, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar’s lack of support is grounded in the belief that other people will not. It means that whether or not Sanders said that a woman cannot win the presidency, the claim may yet be true. It is the claim that makes itself true.
On the Saturday before primary day, I attend the Mcintyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner, a monstrous, alien occasion of political spectacle. The first thing to say here is that the dinner was held in a stadium. Thousands of supporters sat in the stands, sans food, separated by security from those of us being served by waiters below. Among the white tablecloths ran waiters, staffers, and candidates shaking hands with donors. Tom Steyer took particular notice of supporters a few tables down from me. On the balconies above their supporters, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren took care to appear, waving regally. Behind me, the Sanders team carried placards laced with neon light, and across the room the Buttigieg crowd spelled out their campaign slogan: BOOT EDGE EDGE. Throughout the night, every candidate gave a speech—their final pitch before the primary on Tuesday. When Pete Buttigieg made an argument against revolution, the Bernie crowd overwhelmed him in chant: ‘Wall Street Pete! Wall Street Pete! Wall Street Pete!’
It’s tempting to use the stadium and the signs and the fans to develop a metaphor of campaign-as-competitive-sport. The trouble here is that the analogy has already been literalised. American politics simply is sport. Competitors compete for months in a gruelling physical test. They captain teams with managers and support staff. There are fans and betting agencies. Pundits split their times between predicting the primaries and predicting the football. Supporters come armed with chants—even cheerleaders. Before he speaks, the Sanders team hand out drumsticks and cowbells to their supporters.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this. Australia has nothing like this,’ I say to the woman next to me. I’m hoping she feels as I do, confused and overwhelmed and a bit concerned, but when she says ‘Well, this is democracy! This is what it should be like’, I’m not sure we’ve understood each other. I wonder what system she thinks Australia has.
The experience of having coffee poured for you in a diner in New Hampshire helps to soothe the anxieties particular to late capitalism. It helps you think, momentarily, that some things continue to escape the tentacles of the market.
But this is an illusion. The market got here years ago. Waitresses refill your coffee in diners because their ability to survive depends on tips. The minimum hourly wage here is seven dollars and twenty five cents, but the minimum wage doesn’t apply to service workers. The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 per hour. It is a depraved thing.
When this woman calls me dear and smiles and asks about my day, in the background lingers the spectre of economic power. She, like all these service staff, is always under threat. Her customers have power over her: they will withhold her income if her behaviour does not follow a strict but unarticulated set of social rules. Her boss has power over her: in the USA, he has no legal obligation to give a reason when he fires her.
If it matters at all that there are still diners where someone refills your coffee, it has to do not with the overall trajectory of things but with the particular sensation of whiplash that comes with being alive in this century. It has to do with the sense that all things are changing or at risk of changing at all times in all directions. And it has to do with the sense that we have no power to mediate the effect of these external forces upon us. If it matters that diners exist, it is because they help to anchor us in a shared social history. We are calmed by a sense of stability, any stability. Even an unjust stability.