In the second-to-last year of Donald Trump’s first term in office, eighty percent of Americans reported feeling unsatisfied with “the nation’s campaign finance laws” (Gallup, January 2019), seventy-five percent reported feeling unsatisfied with “the nation’s efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness” (Gallup, January 2019), sixty-nine percent reported feeling unsatisfied with “the availability of affordable healthcare” (Gallup, January 2019), sixty-four percent reported feeling unsatisfied with “the quality of public education in the nation” (Gallup, January 2019), eighty-five percent reported believing that “elected officials return favors for those who contribute greatly to their campaigns” (Ipsos, January 2019), and seven out of ten Americans reported feeling angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington” (NBC/WSJ, August 2019).
In fact a broad public consensus about the influence of “insiders with money and power in politics” had by the late 2010s crystalized into something of a platitude, even a banality. In November 2018, eighty percent of American midterm voters reported favoring bipartisan legislation that would “reduce the influence of big money in politics and require full disclosure of all money being raised and spent to influence our elections” (Issue One, November 2018), a figure comparable to the percentage of Americans who told researchers in the late 2010s that they believed “allowances teach children the value of money” (Harris, April 2016), “nurses are honest and have high ethical standards” (Gallup, December 2018), “corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes” (ITEP, April 2019), and “summer passes by too quickly” (KRC Research, June 2019).
Of course, the emergence of a broad public consensus about the existence of a defect in our democracy has long been understood to have little to no bearing on the actual comportment of our democracy—which after all proceeds not from the rule of the people, but from the rule of its hallucination. We are hallucinated first by the national media—which in addition to feeding back to us everything we believe in the form of “polling data,” also provides the evidentiary basis for almost everything we believe in the first place, what we know and need to know in order to reliably formulate “our will” and translate “our will” into the election of our public officials—and then we are hallucinated by the officials themselves. What results is an interplay of misunderstandings and misapprehensions attenuated by so many levels of remove that in the same two-week span a March 2001 Gallup poll showed that Americans favored, by a margin of 76–19, “new federal laws limiting the amount of money that any individual or group can contribute to the national political parties,” Mitch McConnell, the then-third-term Republican senator from Kentucky, could assert on the Senate floor that campaign finance reform “ranks right up there with static cling as a matter of concern to the American people.”
What results, in other words, is the “spooky action of the American democracy”: popular will, churning as it does inside the roiling waters of America as it is actually lived, as it is actually experienced by the sea swell of Americans whose lives are rippled by scarcity and disorder and whose memories of that scarcity are of interest to a more comfortable class only insofar as they can be stripped for narrative parts, “moral clarity” and “symbolic freight,” the medical debts that can’t be paid, the paranoias of children inside of failing schools jostling to hoist themselves into a higher class (often without any awareness that the levers of the meritocracy-lottery exist and can be pulled, which is how so many aberrant trajectories unfold), the paranoias of the urban homeless (“It doesn’t matter who the president is, the FBI runs the show in this country, you didn’t know that Cole?” I was recently advised by a homeless man as he dove for cans inside the garbage and recycling bins outside my apartment in New Haven), condensing into the milk-white halls of the Hart Senate Office Building and the brightly lit studio floors at 1 CNN Center or 30 Rockefeller Plaza where sometimes it is captured, where sometimes it is distilled, converted into sources of electoral capital in the form of white papers, in the form of policy briefings, in the form of editorial notes and production memos—but more often than not it simply evaporates.
A certain disconnect intrudes.
We might begin, here, with the polls.
It is a curious feature of our representative democracy—a democracy we are routinely advised by our political class is the greatest in the world, and in whose distinction the goal of “spreading democracy abroad” becomes a legible objective—that any direct consultation with the national electorate regarding any issue of national importance, who we are at war with and why, who we raise money from and why, who we direct money to and why, who we look out for and why, is unheard of, beyond the pale, a vestige of Athenian optimism, nonexistent: direct consultation with the American public takes place entirely at the level of “who we empower to do the work of democracy for us,” such that who we empower to do the work of democracy for us becomes synonymous with the democratic ideal itself. From this ideal the overt mission of the national media (“to edify the general public”) and the underlying mission of the national media (“to facilitate the generation of ad revenue”) finds its most lyrical synthesis: burdened no longer by the unenviable task of instilling in the American public a conversancy with, say, the pros and cons of proposed federal legislation—but the pros and cons of a cast of characters.
In this light the modern proceedings of the American democracy could be said to owe its greatest debt not to Athens but to Hollywood.
The cast of characters, once assembled from a studio lineup of supporting players and rising stars (your senators and governors and state A.G.s and—if their credentials are in order—your small-town mayors), benefits all those who have what might be called a “share” in the system: (1) benefits the political parties, who—much like Paramount and Warner Bros. did as they transitioned out of the Silent Age and into the Golden Era—have figured out two things: that the appearance of excellence plays just as well as excellence itself, and well-pampered players do not “rock the boat”; (2) benefits the national media, whose readership and viewership rise and fall in lockstep with the electoral calendar; and (3) benefits, above all, the players themselves. “Public servants,” they are called, although this term can’t help but strike the modern reader as curiously vestigial, a throwback to a time when the ascent from obscurity into national-level politics did not come with such a rich and engaging menu of “second acts” attached, to be collected and cashed out upon the completion of one’s ascent into national prominence (or else one’s “service”): six-figure speaking engagements, seven-figure consulting gigs, eight-figure book advances, nine-figure Netflix deals.
To understand the institution of American democracy is to understand that a well-functioning corporation is one that cares for, first and foremost, all of its shareholders. Each arm props up another arm—the political media prop up the political actors and the political influence industry (that constellation of special interest groups, lobbyists, and political action committees whose very existence is enabled and normalized by the industry that reports on them), the political influence industry props up the political media and the political actors (the amount of money spent by players of the game to influence the 2018 congressional elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets, totaled $5.7 billion—a $3.8 billion increase from 2008), and the political actors, ostensibly the means by which public opinion is faithfully and exactingly translated into public policy—why, they prop up the trusses of the circus tent, the “main event,” the larger-than-life spectacle of warring personalities and minute-by-minute accounts of palace intrigue that is itself, and neither the public policies nor the electorate whose opinions are said to give rise to them,
American democracy’s star attraction.
“Politics as stagecraft.”
From this opening credo the sullen distance between the American democracy as a point of pride (or even national pastime, object of obsession) for the insider class—“Democracy dies in darkness,” The Washington Post theatrically rebranded itself three and a half months after Donald Trump’s election, and three and a half years after The Washington Post became the private property of Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and today the richest man in the world, in an all-cash purchase—and the curious remoteness of its operations from the actual needs and concerns of the American public naturally distends. If “democracy” is the means by which public opinion is negotiated by public officials into public policy, “stagecraft” is the means by which a democracy is hallucinated, assured to us not by any conditions on the ground as we can discern them but by rote repetition, whisked out of its very absence into hologram life.
In hologram life the appeal of an ideality lives on.
Platforms are erected. Lawn signs go up. Million-dollar candidates running million-dollar campaigns hit the familiar notes of hope and change before either vanishing into private events with high-dollar fundraisers, or else targeting their appeals directly to the working poor (“small dollar donors”). T-shirts are donned. Impressions of “where we are as a country” are bandied about. Conversations with strangers evolve into friendship or devolve into enmity over a shared hallucination that what we have to say about the issues matters and is of consequence to the general trajectory of the country, and on Election Day, “I Voted” stickers become potent indicators of one’s participation in civic life.
In hologram life a palpable stasis settles over the tangible conditions of the national electorate (whose life expectancy, according to a 2019 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, began to “diverge” from that of “comparable countries” in 1980 and had, by 2017, either stalled or declined for three straight years), their acute despairs transformed into perennial talking points by an insider class committed not to the identification and elimination of the people’s miseries, but to the identification and elevation of the people’s favorite sons and daughters—each and every campaign being first and foremost a campaign of brand identity, an exercise in character distillation. (“The politics are horrible for the Democratic Party, that’s my judgment,” said Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, to The New York Times in November 2019, about the decision by certain 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to make the installation of a national healthcare system a central issue of the 2020 presidential election. “We’re making the issue about our plan rather than what [Donald Trump] has or has not done.”)
Central to the logic of hologram life—but incidental to its actual operations—is the national electorate itself, who can be said to have a “role” but not a share in the system.
Our role, of course, is to intuit ourselves as “participants,” as “members of a self-governing class,” as “stewards in the management of our country” (we are letter-writers, we are caucus-goers, we are first and foremost congenial players of the game) all the while functioning, for all intents and purposes, as an audience (the closest we come, the vast majority of us, to a brush with power is a place in the selfies line during a campaign stop), or else as members of a deferential class (the closest we come, a sizable minority of us, to a brush with power is arrest and imprisonment), or else as passengers on a runaway train—helplessly we watch as the skies outside slur past us like a taunt, as our sea levels rise and our summers grow hotter, as our life expectancies decay and our wages stay stagnant and our prison sentences for the poor and disenfranchised necrotize into ethereal revenge fantasies, as the bodies of the homeless are found stuck frozen to bus stops while elite white-collar pay ticks up into the millions, as a distinctly twenty-first century vision of segregation coagulates across the race and class borders where a bygone vision of social mobility once stood, and the ethos of America as a land of neither hope nor opportunity but of capital, of permanently entrenched interests—America that immaculate arrangement, every man for himself, all sans one and one sans all—distends into its logical conclusion.
“The deaths of our loved ones . . . they don’t care because it’s not the family of a Washington bureaucrat,” said Jose Leal, the father of Joseph Maciel—an Army Corporal who was killed in Afghanistan just two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, and three months shy of the War in Afghanistan’s seventeenth anniversary—to Newsweek in December 2019, following the release of a report in The Washington Post that revealed “senior U.S. officials [under Bush, Obama, and Trump had] failed to tell the truth about the War in Afghanistan throughout the eighteen-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
“Billions of dollars of waste with our loved ones’ blood for the gaining of what?” Maciel’s father continued. “Nobody knows.”
In hologram life a pervasive sense that “something is wrong” inside the back of the train settles over—and even becomes a dominant topic of discussion among—our country’s comfortable class, while appreciable progress toward relieving a vast array of structural disconsolations that afflict our country’s underclass remains curiously stagnant. The word “stagnancy,” in fact, broadly captures so many features of America in the early twenty-first century, from the paralysis of our legislative institutions to the dilation of the War in Afghanistan into the longest-running war in American history; and our wide-ranging perception of the many, many stagnancies that have settled over this country—the soaring medical debts, the failing public education system, the capture of our electoral politics by “insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington”—lends our continued participation in electoral politics, its status as a captive entity notwithstanding, its curiously strident tenor. “Elections have consequences,” we are again and again admonished. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain,” we are again and again admonished. (That any individual ballot in almost any federal election has the functional weight of a lottery ticket becomes an embargoed suspicion so at once sacrilegious and yet self-evident that one can’t help but detect in the feverish response quasi-religious undertones.)
We are, in short, being summoned for our most profitable purpose.
“Stardom is a matter over which only audiences have any real control,” wrote legendary movie producer and Paramount Pictures co-founder Adolph Zukor in his 1953 autobiography The Public Is Never Wrong. As audience we select the stars that we want to see, and we select the performances that we wish to elevate—our role is central to the continued endurance of a machine whose relentless production of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has been shown to endure just fine with or without the people’s input, were it not for a vital ingredient that only the people can provide: the imprimatur of legitimacy. Our centrality, at last, is ceremonial. Polling data, in this light, have above all a serene and sobering function: they are, beneath the anodyne wording, obscured inside the coded responses, among the most vivid artifacts of evidence to routinely and reliably reach the insider class (who, after all, rely upon polling data and focus groups to calibrate their performances effectively) that there are people in the back of the train screaming out for help.
These are screams structurally inhibited from gaining an audience with the insider class—people in the back of the train typically do not bring up their GoFundMe campaigns to finance their insulin supplies as the regular hosts of podcasts en vogue with the Washington elite, or recount their clashes with Section 8 administrators as talking heads on MSNBC—and as far as political (or cultural—or social) influence goes, they rarely become the stars that the broader public aspires to elevate. These are the screams of people whose recollections of anxiety and deficit and tragedy are routinely met with incredulity by the insider class, so estranged have the latter’s experiences become from the life experiences of America’s underclass: from the life experiences of Americans who lack political power because they lack economic power because they lack institutional power, genealogical power—or else, in the case of my parents, of Americans who simply do not speak the metaphors, intuit the reference points, understand the rules of the game: non-participants in the culture that the insider class created.
Those whose lives are not on fire tend not to be preoccupied with fire.
This thought occurred to me as I watched a group of undecided voters talk about their reactions to the recent presidential debate, as part of a focus group led by Frank Luntz, a veteran political pollster and a prototypical Washington insider if there ever was one (“Frank Luntz does not want the buffet. We are on the top floor of the Capitol Hill Club, the members-only Republican hangout a block from the Capitol. . .” was how a 2014 profile of Luntz in The Atlantic began)—as I listened to an undecided voter whose words were the mirror image of the words I had heard uttered again and again by the homeless and hungry here in downtown New Haven:
“I’m forty-five years old and I was born a few weeks after Nixon resigned so my whole life has been post-Watergate. There has not been a day, week, month, year where anybody, at any level of government, has done anything that has had a positive effect on my life. So when Senator Klobuchar and a lot of them get up there and act as though they have accomplished a great deal for us—it kind of rings hollow. I mean, what has Senator Klobuchar, what has really any of them done that has had a posi-, I—I have friends who are Trump supporters and Bernie supporters, all across the spectrum, and I ask them all: ‘What has actually happened that has made your life any better?’ And nobody can come up with anything. Trump supporters can’t come up with anything that’s gotten any better. Nothing.”
“Obamacare,” a few members of the well-dressed focus group point out.
“Let’s go to the other one—” Luntz tries to move on, but the man presses the point:
“I work three jobs and have no health insurance, and I have a heart problem. And I have a special needs sister and seventy-year-old parents who aren’t going to live forever. This isn’t a game to me. You know—I buried a friend this week. I’ve buried so many people over the last few years. There’s good odds that somebody in this room isn’t going to live to the next election. I’m tired of the horserace, I’m tired of ‘who’s up, who’s down’ while people die. This is supposed to be a great country. It’s not. Not anymore.” I was struck by the poetry of this encounter, by the poignancy of this man’s intrusion into a house that was not built for him, this voter whose very presence in a focus group led by Frank Luntz—a Washington insider who has built his career out of not so much the documentation as the manipulation of public opinion—suggested some residual faith in the system, some fundamental optimism in the face of impotence that somebody out there, up there, might be meaningfully shifted by his words, might listen, might care, might come alive to the fire—and I was struck, above all, by the poignancy of Luntz’s response:
“And that—does, what, for who you support?”
I don’t want government to have a single thing on its mind other than the reduction of human suffering.
People whose lives are not on fire are structurally incentivized to not see fire.
When the history of the 2020 election is written—and it will be written, inevitably, by members of America’s comfortable class: by journalists and economists and political historians, the urban and well-educated (and well-compensated, and well-situated)—the ongoing conflict between corporatist and anti-corporatist Democrats during the Democratic primaries will be misremembered, its most vivid contours suppressed by people who, broadly speaking, are not incentivized to see the fires. Complicating this observation, however, is the remarkable extent to which people who are well-situated and comfortable have in fact been incentivized to “see the fires”: have in fact come to find themselves in environments (or else social circles, or else house parties and lecture halls and Internet echo chambers) in which moral power is the foundation of reputational power, and thus a cherished and valued currency for the perpetuation of one’s own social power.
From this sublime entanglement of self-interest and brotherly love, the comfortable class has unconsciously evolved its own guardrails, preventing the train that it controls from skidding unambiguously into cruelty—and therefore unambiguously into a self-interest that is odious, repellent, and at last unsustainable. The comfortable class has evolved, in other words, a tendency toward liberal-mindedness. A tendency toward progressivism. A tendency toward brotherly love. This is in part a phenomenon mediated by age: I am twenty-nine years old and I cannot remember the last time I encountered, within the comfortable circles I now travel in, a fellow young person who disputed the urgency of climate change, or who wanted gay couples not to marry. And anecdotally speaking, as a general rule: the more upper middle class accoutrements they owned (the Apple products, the Ivy League diplomas), the more vocal their concerned for the disenfranchised—the more involved their support for liberal-mindedness, for progressivism, for brotherly love.
Young people, after all, are more susceptible to the emotional requirement that they be seen as “good people,” by each other and at last themselves—and to the degree that this emotional demand will continue to require a fair amount of pruning and attending-to across the social classes, a curious ecological stasis will have been struck: the underclass will continue to burn, and the comfortable class will continue to be incentivized, to some degree, to “see the fires.” It’s only when the definition of the underclass becomes fleshed out (who is “disempowered” in this country and “why,” and “what should we do about it”) that certain fissures become apparent, certain limitations intrude—because another phenomenon is at work here, subtly, and insidiously: beneath the conscious mind’s roiling surface, self-preservation reigns supreme.
I hear this phrase whenever I think about the curious entanglement of the coastal elite’s aristocratic material conditions and the coastal elite’s anti-aristocratic ideological preferences: self-preservation reigns supreme. The ideological preferences of the comfortable class, themselves a guardrail against the dilation of self-interest into something obscene and intolerable, run again and again into this higher guardrail: do not intuit so many fires that you yourself go up in flames.
The comfortable class—the liberal-minded members of the professional elite who now make up the leadership and backbone of today’s Democratic Party—are never themselves the problem, and to the extent that they have been incentivized to “see the fires,” they have been incentivized to see only those fires that, when put out, do nothing to reduce their own economic, material, and professional privileges. From this principle, the favored battles of the comfortable class distend outward—the favored conceptions of “who the underclass is” and the favored conceptions of “what to do about it”: self-preservation reigns supreme. To be a member of the American left today is to exist in hostage to a vision of American triumph and disorder as invented, imagined, and articulated by the liberal-minded members of America’s professional elite, whose honeyed (and moneyed) voices in the late twentieth century have blotted out the screams of the American underclass to become the controlling voice of the modern Democratic Party.
From this structural capture the curious demands, fixations, and preoccupations of America’s Democratic Party distend—mirroring as they do the demands, fixations, and preoccupations of America’s college campuses: credentials are fetishized, experience is fawned over, and the fundamental sanity of a system that hinges one’s ability to survive on one’s professional and educational credentials is again and again affirmed. And to the extent that the screams of the underclass can be heard at all, they are heard only to the extent that they can be captured, absorbed, and reconstituted by communications specialists into electoral capital, into flirtations with anti-corporatist policies and ideals, into “moral clarity” and “symbolic freight” and perennial talking points—but the party itself is somewhere else, has for the past half-century been somewhere else.
People whose lives are not on fire are structurally incentivized to not see fire.
The anti-corporatist voices that have achieved national prominence in the past half-decade—Bernie Sanders, most famously, but also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang—have been the lone figures to buck the trend and evade this suppression, to push back against what has otherwise been a near-total capture of the Democratic Party by an urban, well-educated comfortable class. This class is secular, this class is credentials-minded, and this class wields in its arsenal not only all the familiar implements of affluence but also “control of the narrative”—the comfortable class, insofar as its members make up the near-totality of our national media, write the first draft of our country’s history and will then go on to write all the others.
And here we arrive at the final capture, the conclusive evidence that we are never, ever getting off this train: it is the comfortable class that finally determines who among us will have a fighting chance at an audience with the American people—who among us will be indulged with attention and showered with airtime, will have their voices heard and their life stories fabulized, rendered first into supporting players and then into rising stars and at last into household names. “My ‘strategy’ is not strategy. My ‘strategy’ is that I seek to speak as deeply, articulately, and passionately as I can [about] what I see to be the deeper truths confronting our nation, challenging our nation to live up to them. I’m speaking from the depth of myself to the depth of the American in all of us. This is not strategy—the whole strategic mind is part of the corruption of the political system. I’m not trying to figure out what to say to get people to vote for me—I’m seeking to have the conversation that I believe we need to be having. These are very serious times—we need to be very serious, deep thinkers. I’m not trying to get shallow or superficial so people will hear me. I’m inviting the American people to get deep with me.”
This invitation was issued by Marianne Williamson on January 31, 2019, three days after Williamson announced her candidacy to be president of the United States, in response to a question posed by CNN’s John Berman about what Williamson saw as her “path to victory here for the Democratic nomination,” and the transformation of this invitation into its perfect opposite—the transformation of Williamson’s candidacy into a prolonged object of mockery, humiliation, and disdain by the insider class (“Why does she want to run? It’s a little tough to say. She writes on her website, ‘My campaign for the presidency is dedicated to this search for higher wisdom,’” wrote The Atlantic in December 2019)—has been one of the most interesting and poignant suppressions of a political message by the national media that I can remember in my lifetime.
In contrast to so many of the other candidates competing for the 2020 Democratic nomination who appear to view the presidency as the culmination of their professional self-actualization, the reasons that Williamson has cited for “why she wants to run” have in fact been apparent from the beginning—were apparent in 2011, when Williamson took the stage at an Occupy Wall Street rally to decry, among other things, the capture of our political system by well-funded lobbyists for America’s defense industry (“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we have a $700 billion defense budget every single year—and so when we talk about ‘where are we going to get the money to pay for education,’ ‘where are we going to get the money for healthcare’ . . . ladies and gentlemen, it’s not that we don’t have the money, it’s that if you have corporate subsidies the way we do, corporate loopholes the way we do, and tax cuts for the very rich the way we do, then of course there’s not enough left for everyone else”); were apparent in 2004, when Williamson led a national grassroots campaign to establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace during the height of the Iraq War (an idea which can trace its lineage back to Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early advocate for abolitionism, free public education, and the elimination of the death penalty); were apparent in 1997, when Williamson first espoused her support of economic reparations for the descendants of American slavery (“The idea that helping people—particularly people whose ancestors we have wronged, and transgressions against whom we have not yet fully redressed—is some liberal conspiracy promulgated by political Progressives intent on creating a culture of dependency, is itself but propaganda created to justify unjust economic policies”); and were certainly apparent by January 28, 2019, the day Williamson announced her run for the presidency (“It’s like when you look at television shows these days and you see these stories about some young person who ‘escaped’ poverty—she used to live in a car, she used to live in a homeless shelter, and now she’s going to an Ivy League school. Or you read another story about some young person who lived in the most dire circumstances but they ‘escaped,’ they ‘escaped’ poverty and now they’re living a wonderful life. We are American and we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why are there so many millions of children who have to escape?’”).
To examine with any depth or rigor Williamson’s decades-long exhortations against the transformation of American democracy into what she calls a “veiled aristocracy”—in her speeches and essays and policy proposals, in the innumerable interviews she’s given over the years about “the rise of an authoritarian corporatism that threatens to erode our country’s democracy,” in the two books she’s written about American history and politics (the first published in 1997 and the second in 2019)—is to encounter again and again one of the most forceful and evocative responses to the question “What do anti-corporatists want?” that I have heard in my lifetime.
“This orgy of deregulation began with Ronald Reagan, it began in 1980, but no Democrat since has too much to brag about—because the truth of the matter is, while in some cases (not all, unfortunately) the Democratic Party has slowed down the orgy of deregulation, it has never made a serious effort to stop it.” This was Williamson in 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street. “Because of the undue influence of money on our political functioning at this time, we’ve become a government of a few of the people, by a few of the people, for a few of the people. . . . The undue influence of money on our politics is like a cancer underlying other cancers, the issue underlying all other issues.” This was Williamson in 2014, during her unsuccessful run as an independent for Henry Waxman’s seat in California’s 33rd congressional district (now held by Ted Lieu). “Class warfare in this country is what already has been and is being waged against the middle-class and poor among us, and the prevailing system feels it has the upper hand in that war because our prison system is large enough to handle the expression of rage that inevitably arise among our most disadvantaged citizens.” And this was Williamson in 1997, more than a decade before Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helped turn mass incarceration into a subject of national self-examination.
Far from being the “vanity project” that vast segments of the American left deemed it to be after reading appraisals of Williamson in the national media, Williamson’s candidacy was in fact a natural terminus, the logical culmination of a life and career that—for reasons that might leave a bitter taste in the mouths of a secular class stalemated on Judaism or Catholicism but unambiguously inimical to anything that bears the schlocky whiff of “New Age”—has been structurally incentivized to “see the fires.”
More so than the stability of her political commitments or the richness of her political insights (which draw amply from a knowledge of U.S. history and global affairs that at the very least compares favorably to that of her contemporaries on the national stage), it is Williamson’s work as a direct service provider to HIV/AIDS patients as the founder of the Los Angeles Center for Living and later Project Angel Food—her demonstrated allegiance to seeing and paying attention to and at last trying to relieve the miseries of an otherwise underseen and underserved underclass—that lends her candidacy its singular distinction among the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
In this light: the absence of conventional artifacts of self-elevation—the Harvard Law degree, the political titles that obscure the many, many years behind closed doors spent shaking the right hands and cozying up to the right donors and consuming the right polling data—was a “feature” rendered again and again into a “bug” by a credentials-minded national media that had no real interest in examining Williamson’s candidacy at all beyond luxuriating in its “gall,” in its “anti-intellectualism,” in the embarrassment of it all.
It would finally be neither Williamson’s political message nor her humanitarian résumé but her career as the author of multiple spiritual self-help books that would be examined, dissected, and harvested for parts by a political media eager to produce, via a tapestry of decontextualized quotations from Williamson’s books and Twitter feed, the most sensationalized portrait of “who this fringe candidate was” and “what she stood for”—culminating in a hazy and ultimately spurious account of Williamson as anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, and anti-science, a bona fide danger to America’s mentally ill and disabled (and even to the HIV/AIDS patients Williamson once served).
Despite the frequent intimations otherwise (“Oprah’s spiritual advisor” was among the early diminutives lobbed against her), Williamson’s isolation from the insider class was so total as to render not only her anti-corporatist message—but the very fact that she had a message at all (“Why does she want to run? It’s a little tough to say”)—indecipherable to the American public. “Her style toggles from chummy to authoritative,” wrote Los Angeles Magazine about Williamson’s 2014 congressional run, in an early presage of how Williamson’s political ambitions would again and again be handled by the national media. “‘We’re doing fine. We’re cool,’ Williamson says of the American people. It’s the U.S. government that is bringing us down, she adds.
“Five minutes later she raises her fist and her voice to exclaim, ‘It’s time for us to repudiate an aristocratic system!’”
That the message of anti-corporatism is not a message taken seriously by either the corporate media or the political class is not a revelation peculiar to Williamson’s candidacy. And yet to watch Williamson’s obliteration from the national stage by the national media, first through silence and then through scorn and at last through alarmism and outrage, is to see the suppression play out against a vulnerable target (the vulnerability in this case being Williamson’s affiliation with “spiritualism,” a disfavored community) with arresting skill and alacrity—despite the fact that the content of Williamson’s message was regularly met with unbridled enthusiasm whenever it has been delivered by Williamson directly to the American public. “At group campaign appearances, [Williamson’s] talks are often interrupted by cheers, while other candidates receive only polite applause as they take their bows,” the Washington Post observed in a June 2019 assessment of her campaign that appeared in the Post’s fashion section. “But first, folks go pin-drop silent as they listen to her pull from her knowledge of history and quickly detail the path the country has taken to get to these troubled times. She exudes emotional intelligence without roiling the waters in which she swims.”
“I’ll—I’ll tell you this,” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah told Williamson in August 2019 after her closing remarks on his show was met with twelve seconds of uninterrupted applause. “You sound a lot more sane when you’re given more than a minute to speak.”
Her message, of course, was never the problem.
To talk about what our government would look like rooted in its love for its citizens and its love for humanity was never the problem.
To talk about what our politics would look like centered around the needs of the American people—and in particular the needs of the American underclass—was never the problem.
“You know the political establishment and a lot of the media establishment fulfill the same aristocratic archetype that’s at work everywhere else in America,” Williamson said on New Hampshire Public Radio in April 2019. “It’s the idea of a small club who seem to think they’re entitled, who seemed to think they’re the ones who ‘know’ and they’re the only ones worthy of our trust going forward.”
I found myself thinking about those words—about Adolph Zukor and Jose Leal and that anonymous man in Frank Luntz’s focus group—as I read an article posted to Los Angeles Magazine’s website on January 2, 2020, that began: “L.A.-based inspirational speaker and self-help author person Marianne Williamson believes in miracles (she even taught a course in them), but that hasn’t seemed to help her ailing presidential campaign. According to a New Hampshire news station, the Oprah-sanctioned guru laid off her entire staff today, but is not suspending her campaign. . . . Some are speculating this could be the beginning of the end for the self-proclaimed ‘bitch for god.’”
“Williamson’s been active on Twitter over the past few hours,” the article continued, “sending out dispatches about public school funding, mass shootings, and climate change, but she’s yet to comment on the layoffs.”
What do anti-corporatists want?
“Anti-corporatism” is a misnomer, but a necessary one.
To speak of anti-corporatism is to speak of a constellation of syndromes whose full name would be too cumbersome to say. It is in part a recognition that the distribution of power in America—economic power, political power, but also cultural power—is now arranged aristocratically in America. The national media, concentrated in New York, D.C., and L.A. and aided by a culture of celebrity idolization that has the sedative effect of propagandizing the aristocracy, is in many ways more powerful than the government—
(What are celebrities, anyway, if not a thousand or so immensely wealthy and influential people who all know each other, and who wield not only tremendous economic power, but—in the age of mass media—unprecedented social power? A thousand or so people who have managed to earn the sympathy of the masses, such that the masses now see their preferred politicians—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump—no longer as servants of the people, but as stars that deserve star treatment?)
—and yet the national media, despite its insistence on “speaking truth to power,” has yet to criticize itself with the same degree of watchfulness, forcefulness, and intolerance for bullshit that it rightfully reserves for the government.
(What is the government, anyway? Why does anybody want to run for office? Why does anybody want to “run the country”? I don’t want the president to “run the country.” I don’t want anyone who runs for office to have anything in mind other than service—unprestigious, unglamorous, unegoistic service.)
American mass culture is now held hostage by—to the point that it’s become virtually synonymous with—an “entertainment-industrial complex,” which flourishes on the pleasures it brings to the masses: this is how all aristocracies have historically operated, on “give and take,” on “you get yours and we get ours,” on what was back then, even in the age of aristocracy, a free and fair trade. The modern American aristocracy is nourished into life by the American media, which of course is now more consolidated than ever and driven by profit margins—who watches the news? Politically aroused people who want their views confirmed. Market forces incentivize media outlets to realign, producing more polarization. Of course we all know this.
Why is any of this a problem?
And here’s where economic despair comes in.
Corporations down the line favor public policies that benefit the interests of management over the interests of labor and over the interests of consumers—let alone the interests of the environment, let alone the interests of non-participants. There is now a near-total capture of our democracy by the aristocracy—but because so many in the national media are themselves members of the comfortable class, the media fails to recognize the breadth of the despair. And because politicians now enjoy star treatment (a national-level politician is transformed instantly into a celebrity, and therefore instantly into a member of the American elite), their interests are almost entirely—with the sole exception of politicians who have staked their names and reputations on identifying with this diagnosis, on identifying with anti-corporatism—aligned with elite interests.
The human cost to all this?
In addition to overlooking the underclass in our own country, aristocratic interests prop up a global war machine. The defense industry resembles the financial industry in how well its preferences are represented by the preferences of the federal government, while the troops on the ground remain largely drawn from the underclass.
“Corporatism” is the name of the culture that all of the above represents, and “anti-corporatism” is the name for the movement that, in the 2010s—
—has come alive to stop it.
January 8, 2020