There is a certain kind of dedicated American political journalist who spends primary season traveling from state to state, reporting for the likes of CNN or Politico. They congregate in the media section at the back of every state-college auditorium rally, sometimes taking small pains to disguise their boredom. They often end up watching variations of the same stump speech many times over. Understandably, they spend a lot of time gossiping with one another, or scrolling through news on their phones, grazing tidbits from other parts of the country. They know that their editors are going to expect them to fit their reporting into the larger narrative that’s being crowdsourced, in real time, on social media and cable news.
As a Canadian journalist, my own approach this election season has been, by necessity, completely different, as no one pays me to fly around from the United States. Over the years, I’ve done most of my U.S. political reporting in that postage stamp of America that exists within a half day’s drive of Toronto, mostly consisting of New York and New England—including, of course, New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders won a narrow victory over Pete Buttigieg in the first 2020 Democratic primaries two weeks ago.
New Hampshire’s tininess is one of the reasons I try to visit every primary season, since almost every New Hampshire voter lives within a two-hour drive of one another. The campaign style gives you the slight feeling of traveling back in time to an era when politicians made their reputation on foot and horseback. (Unfortunately, New Hampshire’s racial demography adds to this anachronistic impression, as the state remains just seven percent non-white, a quarter the rate for America as a whole.) A voter (or journalist) looking to meet the presidential candidates in person can simply hop in a car and follow them around from one speaking event to the next. And it’s surprising how many New Hampsherites I met this year who did just that. (In one of the rare funny lines that I heard Buttigieg deliver, he described how one voter had told him, “I was really impressed with your speech, and you’re now in my top seven.”)
But even New Hampshire’s old-fashioned, throwback campaign style has been upended to some extent by digital media and modern campaign finance. Compared to the 2000s, when I first started attending New Hampshire primary events, there is now a much higher level of campaign professionalism, even among the minor candidates. Campaign volunteers are increasingly fastidious about ensuring that every attendee gets logged in the campaign database. And the ubiquity of web video means that many supporters arrive at campaign events in a self-indoctrinated state, sometimes having memorized lengthy riffs from stump speeches.
This was especially true of the young digital-first types who flocked to Andrew Yang, who sometimes used these acolytes in semi-spontaneous rituals of call-and-response. (“What’s the oil of the 21st-century? Data!”) Although Yang left the race after doing poorly in New Hampshire—for a job at CNN, it turns out—his mode of recruitment may herald future trends.
I have a particularly vivid memory of a half-frozen older woman I met while I was setting out from one Yang event to another. This superfan was, somewhat pathetically, trying to follow Yang around New Hampshire on a bicycle. After I’d thrown her bike in the back of my mini-van and the poor woman got a chance to thaw out, she asked me, matter-of-factly, which video had gotten me “Yanged.” She also used terms such as “Yang Gang” and “Yang Gang Hang” without irony, and offered nary a smile when I asked her deadpan if haters ever showed up at such meetings to hold forth with a Yang Gang Hang Harangue.
Covering Yang was an upbeat experience because his campaign style was relentlessly positive. He never attacked Democratic opponents in any sort of direct way, focusing instead on a technical analysis of what ails the U.S. economy, and his proposed antidotes for growing income inequality (the centerpiece of which was his $1,000-per-month payment to all Americans). He even declined to attack Donald Trump, arguing (correctly, in my view) that Trump is a symptom not a cause of the nation’s grievances.
But one surprise from the campaign trail in New Hampshire was that none of the candidates focused on any kind of sustained or personal attacks on other candidates. Even those attacks I did hear tended to be cloaked in respectful and even euphemistic language, as with Buttigieg’s oft-spoken line that Americans are looking for something in between “the status quo” (cough, cough, Joe Biden) and a revolution (more coughing, Sanders, Warren, cough, cough).
This is of course the opposite impression from the one that emerges from the daily national news churn. Certainly, it is hard to pick up a copy of the New York Times without reading an analysis of the “divisions” wreaking havoc on the Democratic Party. These claims often are sourced to party insiders, or extrapolated from melodramatic debate fragments that get cycled through the social-media hype machine. Even headline writers at the comparatively sober-minded Washington Post, for instance, were gushing on Friday about “[Elizabeth] Warren’s ‘devastating’ takedown of [Mike] Bloomberg.” And to the extent Bloomberg got praise, it was through his prepared hit on Sanders: “The best-known socialist in the country happens to be a millionaire with three houses.”
Personal zingers, accusations of hypocrisy and identity-politics slogans all make for great GIF-length viral clips. But they also serve to obscure the surprisingly high level of uniformity that exists at the policy level among the Democratic candidates—a uniformity that is, to some extent, a product of the crowdsourced ideological enforcement mechanisms that now exist on social media, and which tend to shear away stray, heterodox positions.
On gun control, for instance, Sanders told CNN in 2015 that “the people in my state understand…that guns in Vermont are not the same thing as guns in Chicago or guns in Los Angeles. In our state, guns are used for hunting. In Chicago, they’re used by kids in gangs killing other kids, or people shooting at police officers [or] shooting down innocent people. We need a sensible debate about gun control which overcomes the cultural divide that exists in this country, and I think I can play an important role in this.” This was just five years ago, but saying something similar in 2020 would now amount to political suicide. And so Sanders 2.0 has signed up with Democratic orthodoxy in most areas of gun-control policy. No, it isn’t an issue he emphasized on the hustings. But to the extent he jammed the issue into the back end of a campaign event I attended at Keene State College, it was to declare vaguely that “gun policy in America must be written and developed by the American people, not the NRA.” He also said that even in rural states, “views have changed”—including his own, apparently—and now offer a “consensus that says we must have universal background checks… end the gun-show loophole [and] end the sale and distribution of assault weapons.”
That is not to say that there aren’t multi-billion-dollar (and in the case of Sanders’ and Warren’s platforms, multi-trillion-dollar) gaps among the plans offered up by the major candidates. But to a large extent, the differences exist on the outer edges of implementation plausibility, and so might not amount to much in the real world. Sanders, for instance, says he’ll cancel all existing student debt—a $1.6 trillion write-off that would represent 22 years’ worth of Education Department budgeting. This is simply never ever going to happen. The same is true of slavery reparations (Warren), abolishing the electoral college (Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg) and amending the Constitution to abolish the doctrine of corporate personhood (Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard).
Universal child care and pre-k education, a carbon tax, abortion rights, signing the United States on to the Paris Agreement, paid family leave and sick leave, a public health insurance option, capital punishment, private prisons, right-to-work legislation, supporting DACA, net neutrality, raising the minimum wage, transgender military service and the estate tax: All of these are issues on which the candidates I saw in New Hampshire—11 in total, eight of whom are still in the race—had almost entirely uniform positions, or simply haven’t bothered articulating positions at all. Free trade and the Middle East are two issues that traditionally have been the subject of intense intra-party disputes in U.S. politics. Yet over four days of criss-crossing the state, I’m not sure I heard any of the candidates emphasize either subject in any of their speeches. In most cases, vast swathes of their rhetoric were taken up by largely interchangeable denunciations of Trump, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell and (surprisingly) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
It should be acknowledged that some real and practical issues, such as nuclear power and criminal sentencing reform, remain a subject of genuine disagreement among the candidates. Crucially, moreover, Mike Bloomberg did not compete in New Hampshire. And the reason his candidacy is so bitterly opposed by Warren and much of the progressive media is that he seems prepared to dissent on a significant number of high-profile issues—including the Green New Deal and a ban on fracking and offshore drilling. Indeed, for all the talk of Sanders being a revolutionary whose candidacy flies in the face of the Democratic establishment, it is actually Bloomberg who arguably presents the squarest peg in the round hole of dogmatic, leftist Democratic politics.
And one of the reasons there is so much uniformity, I believe, is that every candidate I saw was trying to pitch themselves as the answer to the same underlying structural problem, which is the staggering level of wealth inequality produced by what Yang called “the fourth industrial revolution.”
“There’s a straight-line relationship between the adoption of industrial automation in a voting area and the movement [of voters] to Trump in that area,” Yang told a crowd in Nashua, NH. And when factories close down, so does main street and the local school—because a laid off machinist can’t even get a job as a store clerk.
Like about half of the candidates, he specifically called out Amazon. “The company is like a giant spaceship sucking up $20 billion of business every year, closing 30 percent of our stores and malls,” he said. “The most common job is retail clerk. The average clerk is a 39-year-old woman making $8 — $12 an hour. What is her next opportunity when a store closes?…Truck driver is the most common job in 29 states. There are 3.5-million truck drivers in this country. My friends in California are working on robot trucks that can drive themselves. They tell me they are 98 percent of the way there.”
Yang’s cerebral, analytical approach to campaigning doesn’t resonate with a mass audience, which is why he bombed in New Hampshire and dropped out of the race. But I’m quoting him at length because none of the other candidates came anywhere close in their ability to describe the underlying reasons why so many Americans feel a sense of anxiety and dread about their futures, even if Yang isn’t the one who fills them with an emotional sense of hope that such anxiety and dread can be overcome.
During his candidacy, Yang was the adult in the room who admitted that “Democrats make a huge mistake when they act like Trump is the source of all our problems. He is the symptom of a disease”—a winner-take all economy powered by digital oligopolies and politicians who favour their interests—”that has afflicted our communities for years,” leading to spikes in suicide, overdoses, household debt, depression, medical bankruptcy and low rates of labor force participation.
Yang’s superficial manner was happy. But his message was candidly bleak: The machines are coming to take your job. They’re getting smarter, and they don’t care who your president is. Oh, and job re-training doesn’t work: Having worked for years in the rust belt, he knows that trying to turn lifelong clerks and truck drivers into Python coders is a waste of money. So the best we can do is accede to the inevitable, salute our new digital masters, and find a fair way to tax their unavoidably massive profits as the rest of us focus more on the things machines can’t do—including parenting, volunteering, mentoring and caregiving. I guess you could say I got “Yanged” in that moment, but I also knew that most Americans aren’t going to vote for this bare-metal, scent-free take on how screwed they all are.
Upbeat Yang’s sombre opposite is Joe Biden, aptly described by Fintan O’Toole in The New York Review of Books as “the most gothic figure in American politics,” a man “haunted by death, not just by the private tragedies his family has endured, but by a larger and more public sense of loss” in American public life. I saw Biden speak twice in New Hampshire, and both times, he followed the same pattern, starting slowly, sometimes stumbling, as he related sad stories about people he’d met at previous campaign stops—men who’d lost their jobs, women dealing with sick children—and then suddenly lurching into a louder, fiery, almost sermon-like mode in which he denounced Trump as the moral engine of all this misfortune. These anti-Trump flurries were met with furious audience applause, but also came with a riptide of sadness. For when he’d exhausted his fury, Biden would look searchingly, almost piteously, at the crowd, wondering aloud how all this had happened.
“Yesterday in Manchester, we were at the Feed the Children program, handing out food. Little kids,” he said in one especially sad riff, which brought to mind a black-and-white photo from the depression. “It was 22 degrees [-5C] and blowing hard. Cold as hell. And people standing in line. Women and children being handed boxes… We’re handing out bread. I remember saying to one kid, ‘Take an extra loaf’… And [meanwhile] this president of the United States is cutting food stamps. What in God’s name is happening to us?”
It seemed at once both artful political propaganda and a sincere-seeming glimpse into a morally dislocated man’s soul. The problem is that the question Biden asked—”What in God’s name is happening to us?”—seemed only half-rhetorical. We all love the grandfather who speaks wistfully of a simpler time. But we wouldn’t want him running the country.
Who is a “Biden voter”? By my observation, it’s hard to generalize, since many of the supporters I spoke to seemed drawn to him for no other reason than that he was the best, blandest bet to beat Trump. But other candidates have a more recognizable following, perhaps none more than Elizabeth Warren, whose rally at the Rochester, NH city hall had the feel of a David Sedaris college-town book reading. Warren’s fans are, like the candidate herself, young old people—mostly women—carrying a detectable whiff of station wagons and NPR. Many, I suspect, make a point of finishing one New Yorker before the next one arrives. It’s just this feeling I get.
Warren was introduced by a city official who shared her pronouns and spoke about “the erasure of LGBTQ identities” and “opposition to my existence.” I feared that I’d be in for something in the same vein from Warren herself. But, as anyone who’s seen her live can attest, she’s an entertaining orator who takes the edge off her intimidating professorial erudition with a physical presence that is endearingly giddy and child-like. She is capable of sad Bidenisms—as when she stilled the room with descriptions of the children in cages she saw at a Department of Homeland Security border facility. She is also capable of angry Bidenisms, never more so than when she scathingly assails McConnell, whose condescending treatment of Warren during the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General yielded a memorable catch phrase for Warren’s campaign and American feminists more broadly: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” But beneath it all is Warren’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of virtually every policy issue addressed in Washington during her adult life. Her policy-dense speech—much of it structured loosely around the themes of ridding Washington of corruption, confronting “giant multinational corporations,” and implementing a two percent wealth tax on the super-rich—matched Yang’s own impressive signal-to-noise ratio.
Like Biden, Warren ended up doing poorly in New Hampshire, scoring nine percent of the vote and none of the state’s 24 delegates (though she may get a second national wind from her debate performance this week). Many people I spoke to just didn’t seem to think she could beat Trump, an assessment they sometimes would blame on the sexism of other voters (never their own, of course). My own take is a little simpler: Vote share is a largely zero-sum game, and Warren is sharing the hard left with Bernie Sanders (which means she also shares several batty ideas that most Americans dislike, such as decriminalizing the act of sneaking into the United States). Of the two, one is a lifelong left-wing political scrapper who co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the early 1990s—around the same time that the other one was beginning a career at Harvard Law School, en route to becoming the school’s highest paid non-administrative professor. You can see how that zero-sum pie gets carved up.
The biggest event I attended in New Hampshire was Sanders’ rally at Keene State College, where I watched the frontrunner repeatedly denounce “billionaires” for half an hour. Even before Sanders took the stage, I kept trying to remind myself that he was the candidate supposedly setting the Democratic establishment to “panic.” Yet he had 2,000 people in the room, four times the crowds showing up for other candidates. And his opening act was Hollywood fly-in Tim Robbins. (The other opener was campaign co-chair Nina Turner, who probably was stylistically the single best speaker I saw during my entire swing through New Hampshire.) This didn’t feel like an “outsider” event.
Sanders himself is a skilled speaker. But then again, it’s easy to sweep up a crowd when your answer to pretty much any question is “Yeah, the government will pay for that.” In a newly published book, The Populist Temptation, UC Berkeley professor Barry Eichengreen notes that the defining qualities of populism include “divid[ing] society into the elites and the people” and “emphasiz[ing] distribution while de-emphasizing the risks to economic stability from sharp increases in government spending.” Certainly, those fit Sanders to a tee. He has provided no coherent estimate of how much all his promises would cost, but third-party analysts have reported that keeping all of them would require the U.S. government to double its budget, and cost the country around $60 trillion over the next 10 years, including $30 trillion for single-payer health care alone. The idea that Sanders could raise anything near this income is insane. Yet in his speech, he diverted any discussion of revenue generation to unspecified plans for taxing America’s—you guessed it—“billionaires.” This is policy-making on the level of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret.
There is also, paradoxically, something extremely conservative (in the European sense of the word) about Sanders’ pitch. As with many narratives that venerate ordinary folk—Sanders talks about “the people” and “working people” constantly—his ideal society seems to be one he remembers from his youth, even if it would be updated to feature more solar panels, fewer guns, a lot more free government services, and far less sexism and racism. He wants to “double union membership,” create “20 million good-paying union jobs” through a nation-wide “green retrofit,” and produce an economy where an average working-class breadwinner can support an entire household with a single 9 — 5 job. This is a pleasant backward-looking vision. But the idea that 1950s-style lunch-pail unionism is going to become the lynchpin of a modern post-industrial, knowledge-based service economy is science-fiction—the socialist version of Donald Trump’s fury-addled fixation on restoring American “greatness.”
* * *
One of the weird subplots of this Democratic leadership contest has been the steady output of long, puffed out New York Times think pieces that came off as thinly veiled hit jobs on disfavoured candidates. So we got a piece about Yang that seemed to promise juicy accusations from former friends and co-workers, but delivered little except complaints that Yang once pushed colleagues to join him in karaoke. There were a bunch of pieces about Biden hugging women, with titles like “Biden’s Tactile Politics Threaten His Return in the #MeToo Era.” The Times also loves running articles noting Buttigieg’s low support among black and Hispanic voters—culminating in a particularly torqued piece this week, in which the author claimed there was some sort of racial crisis within the campaign team itself. To give you a sense of the strength of this argument, one piece of evidence was that staffers “felt stressed from having to answer questions from friends and family members about working for a candidate struggling with minority voters.”
(My own take on the 38-year-old Buttigieg is that he is hopelessly boring, and I really don’t see the appeal. I saw him speak twice, and both speeches seemed like a robotically stitched together set of slogans. He wants to “Win the era” and speaks of the “politics of addition.” At one event, when the eight-year South Bend, Indiana mayor was asked what he’d do on his first day in presidential office, he said that he would spend the day acting in a way that “reminds Americans that this country belongs to all of us.” A recent article in the New Yorker argued that gay people don’t find Buttigieg, who happens to be gay, “gay enough.” But I think the issue is more basic: After hearing him speak, I was more concerned that a plate would fall off the back of his robo-candidate head, exposing a bunch of buzzing circuits.)
But perhaps the weirdest Times contribution was the newspaper’s endorsement editorial, which picked both Warren and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, on the basis that the former is a “gifted storyteller” with an ambitious and detailed policy agenda, while the latter is “a standard-bearer for the Democratic center” with bipartisan appeal, as well as “the very definition of Midwestern charisma, grit and sticktoitiveness.” The case for the two women exist as separate mini-essays embedded in the editorial, following which are the words “May the best woman win.”
This would make complete sense if the goal is to nominate a woman, full-stop, since, yes, these two candidates are definitely female (although, oddly, the editorial didn’t even mention 38-year-old U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who has a bright political future, even if she remains in the long-shot category on this go around). But if the goal is to pick the best candidate, the Times approach made no sense at all, since Warren sits alongside Sanders on the radical left of the candidate spectrum while Amy Klobuchar defines moderate, purplish-state Democratic centrism. As the Times itself pointed out, “In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried nine of Minnesota’s 87 counties. Ms. Klobuchar carried 51 in 2018.”
I’m going to come out and say that Klobuchar, 59—a former prosecutor who in 2006 became the first female senator from Minnesota in the state’s history—is the one I’d put on the top of the Democratic ticket if it were up to me (with Sanders in the VP slot as a fundraiser and mascot, whose $60 trillion socialist fantasy could be safely ignored once the general election was won). Her advantages consist not just of those positive virtues listed by the Times, but also her ability to say no to utopian Democratic ideas such as across-the-board tuition-free public college, complete debt relief for all students, and the elimination of private health insurance. And while all the Democratic candidates talked to some extent about winning over undecideds and former Republicans, I thought Klobuchar was the most sincere and effective in projecting symbols of political tolerance. When she told a touching story about her 91-year-old father’s recovery from alcoholism, for instance, she made a point of mentioning that he’d been “pursued by grace.” This is only a small, glancing reference to Christianity, but it struck me that it was one of the few times that any candidate I’d heard in New Hampshire had made even a symbolic overture to Christian conservatives.
Even the way Klobuchar criticized Trump suggested a welcoming attitude to Republican patriots, as she noted that a recent flippant comment Trump had made to the Russians about the U.S military had served to mock America’s proud military tradition and demeaned the country. She talked about football, too, and claimed that her father had written a book called Will the Vikings Ever Win the Super Bowl? Just to be sure, I checked. And yes, it’s real.
Does Klobuchar have a comprehensive Yang-style plan to systematically address the “fourth industrial revolution”? No. But then again, even if that’s what America needs, it’s not what it wants (as Yang’s New Hampshire vote share attests). Then again, Klobuchar also doesn’t seem to have any time for the socialist blueprint endorsed, in different flavours, by Warren and Sanders—which is something many voters may want, but not something they need. (Just the opposite, in fact.)
Maybe the truest sign that Klobuchar is the right woman to help save America is that she’s smart enough to realize the limits of a president’s ideological ambition. In this moment, especially, what America really needs in the White House is an honest, functional adult. Maybe once that happens, people might feel more ready to suit up and tackle the coming revolution.
Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He Tweets at @jonkay.
Feature image: Democratic Debate – Las Vegas, February 19th, 2020 (Photo Bank via Getty Images)