There are things that I cannot wait to do when this pandemic is over.
I want to dance to loud music in a crowded room and feel the energy of the tunes and people pulse through me. I want to go to a popular restaurant with a long wait time and squish myself into an open space at the bar where it’s standing room only. I want to make aggressive eye contact with strangers on public transit and appreciate that they are in the b-roll of the movie playing in my head. I want to sit in the back of a packed movie theatre and eat popcorn with my hands. I want to high five bus drivers and my post man and UPS truck drivers and my trash collector and grocery clerks.
I want us to return to society with more gratitude and compassion. Gratitude for all that we have and the privilege of working remotely without getting furloughed or laid off. Compassion for those who did not have this privilege and risked their lives to be able to provide us with what we needed within the comforts of our home.
I thank the stars that my loved ones are safe and healthy.
I cannot wait for this to be over so I can see them again.
But I do not, under any circumstances, want things to go back to normal.
I’ve resisted writing this for a while because I feel incredibly uncomfortable with my privilege. I’m no longer observing and critiquing from the front lines but from my room, where I’m warm and dry and not worried about paying rent. I don’t know, frankly, what it’s like to save someone’s life. I don’t know what it’s like to choose between eviction and my health. I cannot even begin to imagine what that’s like.
For that, I am immensely grateful to my parents and also deeply sorry that our society is so unfair.
But before this, I did work on the front lines. I held trainings for volunteers. I registered people to vote. I knocked on doors. I marched with activists. I spoke with congressional hopefuls. I made hundreds of calls to voters across our country and to US territories. I learned first-hand what people are demanding from their elected officials; how communities are hurting; how they have failed year after year to get their message out; and how this narrative differs from the discourse we see on mainstream media and political pundits.
I’m young and new to the fight , but that doesn’t make what I relay any less true because it comes from our communities and our neighbors (and neighbors not limited by proximity here).
We all want a return to normalcy, but what hasn’t been breaking through the media narrative is that for many people, normal was never enough.
In the midst of the First World War over 100 years ago, Polish Marxist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the bourgeois, capitalist society was at a fork in the road and faced two options: transition into socialism, or regress into barbarism. Now, and even prior to the pandemic, I would argue that we were already at that crossroad. As the inadequacies of our market and government have been laid bare, we find ourselves relying on socialist-style policies to bail out the failures of our free-market. In the meanwhile, we see just how woefully underprepared we are to address this global crisis. It’s not just the inadequacies of this particular administration, although there’s plenty of blame to go there; it’s also the decisions made by administrations before us that caused our market to collapse and society to fail to protect every citizen of the United States. The most recent COVID-19 relief package addressed the gaps for contract workers, cash payments (a wholly inadequate sum, IMO), unemployment benefits, and sick leave, but there are several issues that have not been sufficiently addressed:
- The benefits you and I have are not afforded to inmates in prison, immigrants in detention, or those who are homeless
- Water consumption is a luxury in water-scarce regions or areas with polluted water
- The ability to obtain nutrient-rich food is now impossible in areas that are food deserts
- The case for better mobility to allow for people to get to where they need to go and easily if they don’t have a car or have a disability
Finally, of course, the working class who do the jobs for us that allow us to continue living day to day still lack the PPE and compensation they deserve. And yet, businesses and politicians are calling for a return to status quo as quick as they can, a status quo defined by our profit-maximizing, immigrant-deporting, war-mongering society, rather than thinking about how to move forward with a new worldview defined by democratic socialist ideals–one that doesn’t seem so radical anymore.
Even before all this, however, calls for normalcy were heard outside of the pandemic. As of Wednesday, 8 April 2020 Senator Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign. With a firmly established Biden v. Trump ticket, I anticipate that media will report with vigor and enthusiasm establishment Democrats calling for unity and a return to decency.
To be clear, I am not interested in what is.
But neither am I interested in what was.
@TinaXu noted that unity is just doublespeak for status quo. Right now, and as it has been since Trump was elected, status quo means a return to Obama-era policies. Not forging a new path, but back to what we already had. Normal is what the established Democratic Party see as the baseline of what the government can and cannot do. Proposals that push beyond are deemed too radical or fringe. Legislation that give the government more control over a domain is called out as socialist. Normal is the Goldilocks of the political spectrum—right in the middle.
If we use Obama’s administration as a proxy for what’s normal, then we can expect rhetoric about decency and hope, followed by an about-face on implementation. Obama signed onto the Paris Accord, but failed to stop DAPL, while fossil fuel consumption and production increased, along with subsidies to the fossil fuel industries and an expansion in fracking. We got the ACA, but millions of Americans are still uninsured. Wall Street got a bail-out and not a single person went to jail, while predatory lending practices are still around today. Income inequality, mass incarceration, and poverty increased while wages stagnated. Foreign policy was abysmal, and we had record levels of deportation.
Obama will be remembered, nonetheless, for being a fun dude. That’s the narrative that persists. And so we are not given the space to imagine an alternative.
US history as it is taught does not encourage us to have productive discussions about the present and future. We learn about the past as if it were static, despite the fact that every decision made today is predicated on what was, and our reality a mere continuation of what came before. If something isn’t working now, it’s not because there are forces acting within a vacuum; it’s because someone at some point made some judgment calls. If we then decide we don’t like our reality and want to see different outcomes, it’s incumbent upon us to seek out the root causes and adapt. These principles are true whether we’re talking about product design, business strategy, or personal growth.
Where I, many progressives, and I suspect many of you have failed to see growth is within our society and our country. I’ve harped on climate change since I was in elementary school, and yet the United States has not made meaningful progress to cutting down carbon emissions, reforesting land, or improving access to clean water or securing our freshwater sources. Homelessness has grown massively in metropolitan areas. Up until this year, US life expectancy was stagnating or declining. We have failed to see common sense gun control legislation even though the Columbine shootings happened over 20 years ago now. And yet politicians will have you believe that America was already great before 2016.
The tenets of society that we have come to hold as truth are so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we no longer question information if it comes from sources we have been told to trust. Industry leaders, technical experts, politicians, and public figures are all examples of authority figures that can influence policy with their words. But we don’t actually know any of these people. Our primary sources for understanding their perspective comes from stalking them on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn and reading their publications. More often than not, information pass to us through a secondary source, or mainstream media.
Yet as a secondary source, mainstream media has even more power in triangulating the information that we get. We know that data is fallible; it is neither truth nor objective. It is subject to manipulation. That’s why any good publication–quantitative or otherwise–will have a detailed section of what is included, what is not included, how the research was conducted, and why. I spent the majority of my dissertation introduction discussing what I did not do and why I made these decisions. Within the academic world, although this certainly applies outside as well, these disclaimers add credibility and legitimacy to what you purport to have authority on.
Media holds outsized influence over American society, politics, and consciousness because with our limited ability to go straight to the horse’s mouth, we have no other source for understanding the world. We see media outlets as individual pockets of information when behind the curtain, most of them are deeply interconnected. When corporations with special interests and fiduciary responsibility fail to disclose this ownership and provide the disclaimers I listed above as an assurance of its credibility, it’s hard to make the case that media outlets are not politically motivated. Many of us on the left ignore Fox News but have tacitly accepted the news coming out from CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, The New Yorker, and NPR as fact without bias. But while these leftist outlets play just as big of a role in inculcating its viewers as right-wing media, only explicitly left-wing outlets such as the Intercept, Current Affairs, and Democracy Now are called out as having an objective.
Everyone has an objective. Whether they reveal it to you themselves determines whether they’re trying to raise the veil of ignorance or shroud you in it. Progressives argue that mainstream media is structured to spread a narrative that’s aligned with an existing framework for understanding the world. We call them corporate media because they’re corporations working with special interests. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman call this media practice manufacturing consent. They argue that the media actively defend the economic, political, and social worldview of those in power (watch the first 12 seconds of that YouTube video for Chomsky and Herman’s thesis statement). Media outlets methodically include, exclude, and create political agendas for its viewers while hiding under the mantle of free press. The anonymity of these objectives, like the anonymity of neoliberal economic policies, is the root of its power.
I excoriate mainstream media because they do everything in their power to keep things normal, rather than allowing for room to imagine what could be. They broadcast misleading information or incomplete pictures of society because it doesn’t align with their interests or the interests of the ruling elite. Right now, Governor Newsom is being touted as a model for how to handle the pandemic and his exceptional—nay, presidential—display of leadership during these hard times. Six days ago, he and his administration also gave the go ahead for nine fracking permits in California. Similarly, Governor Cuomo, his reporter brother, and their team of Cuomosexuals will not be having a chummy back-and-forth about all the criminal justice reform rollbacks Governor Cuomo made just last week. These are two governors of extremely blue states making some questionable decisions off-screen that are totally unrelated to addressing a pandemic. I do believe they’re doing everything in their power to help their states; but it’s certainly not all that they’re doing. The narrative that comes through, though, will not be one that lambastes them for walking back on their liberal commitments to protecting the environment and criminal justice.
Coincidence, or capitalism?
I bring this up because I believe that Bernie suspended his campaign because the narrative coming from mainstream media was so vile that he thought staying in the race would do more damage to the progressive movement than running to force Joe Biden to the left (and trust me when I say you do not want to be a Bernie supporter on Twitter—the vitriol is fucking real). In the days ahead, thousands of people will be patting themselves on the back for a job well done while I sobbed listening to his livestream addressing supporters because I know there is no one of his stature fighting for what working class families and vulnerable communities deserve. I am not only ashamed of the political institutions and media exacerbation but also the people who bought into the narrative they sold without critically thinking about the people that Bernie committed his life to helping, and the institutions he aims to dismantle.
I honestly think that media is one of the primary reasons Bernie’s campaign failed. The days leading up to Super Tuesday and every day after were a master class in political punditry and media manipulation from the party that I call home. The timing of the dropouts and endorsements was well calculated and the party quickly fell in line behind a man who has a history of being against same-sex marriage (Pete…?), against universal healthcare, against federal funding for abortion (Klobuchar…?), against comprehensive climate action while having stood for segregation (Kamala you roasted him on this) and mass incarceration (Booker…?). Mainstream media covered these endorsements like it wasn’t expected that moderate candidates with no platform decided to support the only moderate left in the race. They spun Biden winning South Carolina like he wasn’t predicted to win. This renewed surge comes after months of the very same candidates and anchors questioning Biden’s ability to hold his own against Trump when he was slaughtered at every debate up until Bloomberg decided to make a run for the presidency. These very media outlets, at one point, published analysis showing that Biden performed the best when he spoke the least. But when it came down to it, every single one of these individuals and organizations would prefer to push through a weak candidate that aligns with them ideologically than give equal treatment to another candidate (and both Bernie and Elizabeth were gaslit by the media. Elizabeth less so, but nonetheless). Meanwhile, Biden’s appeal to black voters is explained by his vice-president position to Obama. He’s called the pragmatic vote, even though Bernie fought for civil liberties his entire life (literally arrested in 1962 protesting segregation in public schools in Chicago, marched with MLK, supported same-sex marriage ~40 years ago, voted against the PATRIOT Act, etc.). You’ve probably also heard all the time about the vitriol that Bernie bros spread, but you never heard about how the Bernie campaign actively forbade its staffers from saying anything negative about any of the other candidates. The campaign maintained very strict talking points, which were passed down from staffers to the volunteers. Beyond people who are associated with his campaign, a university professor has already used quantitative data to disprove the myth of the Bernie bro (here’s a related article). But if you google NYTimes Bernie Bro you’ll find a whole trove of articles outside of the op-ed section using anecdotal information to paint a broad portrait of an entire campaign. Mainstream media will cherry-pick examples that they find online without reporting the other side. We argue that they’re biased against Bernie but when we speak up, we’re criticized for being too loud. When we don’t, we’re criticized for not doing enough to foster unity. Meanwhile, until it was picked up by Buzzfeed, dozens of Hillary For America staffers were planning on attending a ‘Bye Bye Bernard’ celebratory Zoom meeting to toast Bernie’s departure from the race. This is despicable and also a complete double standard. Imagine if Bernie staffers did this when Elizabeth Warren dropped out. Just imagine the kind of shit we would have gotten.
Even if you don’t believe that there is a powerful, center-left force that’s united against Bernie, biased, rather than balanced, reporting should not be held up as the pinnacle of truth. When this information is knowingly broadcasted to sway voters, it’s propaganda.
That said, of course, we also made mistakes within the campaign. Organizing is fundamentally about bringing marginalized communities into the fold. From my experience, we succeeded in our outreach to indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. We have broad support from youth who recognize that our planet is burning and older, white liberals who’ve been fighting since the 60s and 70s. The two broad groups that were not as represented, however, are older black voters and white suburban voters. I think the rationale for this is because Bernie and the campaign needed to be more explicit about how Bernie’s policies will help everyone. For example: we’ve used economics as the starting point for how we can address upward mobility to create a more just society, but we haven’t discussed the reality of minorities still having significant disadvantages because of internalized racism. This nuance needs to be disaggregated in conversation, rather than tacitly grouped into the realm of things that economic viability can solve. When racism, prejudice, and exclusion are baked into our social fabric, it’s something we need to explicitly call out to ensure that we’re acknowledging the challenges that black Americans have faced for decades. An analogy I’ve used in conversation with people is the discourse around black lives matter. All lives matter, of course, but we need to name the problems that we’re seeing and give agency where it’s due.
Similarly, the campaign needed to better emphasize that the moderate vision of returning to 2016 is not a viable solution for the problems we’re facing today. We’ve learned that Trump is not the disease—he’s merely a symptom of the 40 years of neoliberal policies that the Democratic establishment has touted. For individuals and families without the economic woes of vulnerable communities, structural overhaul seems extreme. We know it’s the logical solution to the issues that we’re facing today, but the thread hasn’t been explicitly connected by the campaign. It’s important to call out neoliberalism for what it is on a wider scale to break down the myths that persist around our free-market economy. This is, again, a more nuanced aspect of the messaging that does exist but must be further disaggregated to specifically speak to the concerns of a subset of voters.
I’ll end my analysis of things related to the campaign here but will probably write more post-mortems in the days to come.
With Bernie gone now, calls of returns to a pre-Trump era will trumpet louder than ever. So let me say, once more, for the people in the back.
A return to Obama-era policies is not appealing. I do not, under any circumstances, want a scenario in which we normalize neoliberal policies at the expense of working class and immigrant families. Our embrace of free-market policies is what fostered the conditions that gave rise to Trump in the first place. If we return to that, then we’re prolonging when another Trump comes into power. Democracy stands at odds with unfettered capitalism, which is all about power and wealth consolidation, whereas democracy is about giving power to all. Under these circumstances, where everyone has a say but money talks, those with more money will naturally have more say. I discuss this in Chapter I of my manifesto. Plato’s critique of democratic governments in his theory of the five regimes lie in these contradictions. Instead of standing together, we stand for ourselves. When individual liberty becomes more important to preserve than collective liberties, our freedom becomes our chains. We lose the ability to think and move as a community because we are more concerned with bettering ourselves through material gains. Rather than following a higher, moral, social order, we would rather choose self-preservation and short-term wins. Society descends into chaos, out of which a tyrant emerges, promising to restore order.
Be that as it may, I’m optimistic. I hold that humans are good. That they can make good decisions for themselves and their communities. Things are changing today because everyday people have the courage to organize and speak up. Striking workers are slowly making CEOs capitulate to their demands. Landlords are facing strong blocs of renters refusing to pay rent. But I hope you will agree with me that corporations are not yet doing the right thing for their employees, and our government not yet doing what they really can to help the people. What we the people received in the COVID-19 relief package pales in comparison to what corporations and industries received. Democracy stands at oods with unfettered capitalism because we are no longer a democracy. As I said in Chapter II of my manifesto:
We’re a crypto-oligarchic country hiding under the veil of liberty. Economic power has dominated society for so long and our government is so subsumed under the economy that our politicians are making decisions based on personal interests, beholden to executives with deep pockets. Our economy and society are run solely to make profits for the few, rather than to meet public needs.
Trump may be a tyrant, but our descent into tyranny began long before. In losing sight of how society can become better than what it was pre-2016, we lost a second chance to break out of this vicious cycle because establishment Democrats, mainstream media, and political pundits would rather hold on to their power and wealth than relinquish them in service of millions of Americans. What people called Bernie’s platform was not his; it was (and still is) an aggregate of demands that progressive activities and communities have been demanding for generations. Bernie elevated these issues to the national stage for the first time in 2016. When people get excited about Bernie, it’s because shines a spotlight on what’s been in the dark for generations. Without him, these communities worry that the issues will go back to being on the fringe because before Bernie, they had no voice.
In many ways I regret that Bernie did not register and run under a new party because I, and many people, have lost faith in the Democratic Party. I have identified as a Democrat since grade school but the Democratic Party is no longer my party. The ineptitude, the corruption, the hypocrisy of this party yielded what we’re seeing in office today. I call myself liberal in the way I’ve defined it in the manifesto but to them, I’m radical. The voices and choices of the youth are being stamped down and erased as the Democratic Party continues to coalesce around a man who has no plan, no platform, no presence.
I hope more people see now not only how unjust our society is, but also who would fight to keep it that way. In his livestreamed speech, Bernie said that the ‘greatest obstacle to real social change has everything to do with the power of the corporate and political establishment to limit our vision as to what is possible and what we are entitled to as human beings.’ If you believe that the government should be doing more during this pandemic, then I implore you to understand that we are only in this bad of a position because of those limits set by the 1% on what the government cannot do in normal times. Even now, when lives are on the line, the default choice is profit. We have a military-industrial complex, a prison-industrial complex, a media-industrial complex and we need to Shut. It. Down.
Unfettered capitalism has brought our democracy down to its knees and anointed it an oligarchy. For all of the exultations of the free-market, we are at a point where socialism is saving our society. If we turn away from the fork and go back to capitalism, we are choosing barbarism.
If you feel yourself getting radicalized by this pandemic and thinking about what society could look like, then I implore you to reject the status quo narrative.
If you agree with me in the objectives I seek, then you must understand my methods of direct action. You may not choose to pursue the same route, but you must understand why many people now are choosing not to vote for Joe Biden. Let me be abundantly clear—we will carry this fight far beyond the bounds of the November presidential election. We will do my part to ensure that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.
My political obligation exists on a longer time frame. It is inclusive of generations to come and generations of the past. So I will base my decision solely on utilitarian concepts and the communities that I have now committed to fighting for. If I choose not to vote for Joe Biden, it will be because millions of people were hurting before Trump because of Democratic policies. Remove him, and the injustice will still be there, masked with civility. What Newsom and Cuomo allowed in the midst of a pandemic is no less dangerous than what Trump would have done, only the latter is overtly cruel, whereas the former two undermine what it means to be liberal, and will be called presidential after this.
If I vote for Biden, I lose the power that we have to signal to the Democratic Party: I don’t want your style of politics. I want something different. Not for me, but for everyone I’ve met in this process. Everyone who was brought into the political fold for the first time. Those who joined the revolution in 2016. Those who have been protesting since the 70s and before. Those who defined the feminist agenda to give me what I have today. Those who were here long before we built on their hallowed grounds. Those who are undocumented or voiceless.
To those people, I say:
I stand with you on stolen land and borrowed time, but in solidarity nonetheless.
I believe we can continue to fight the good fight, but no longer within the confines set for us by the powers that be.
I believe that through our methods of direct action, we can still create a more perfect union.
I will see you on the battlefield.
(Artwork by Lisa Sterle)