I woke up at 4 AM this morning to a panic attack. I get them from time to time ever since living in Washington through 9/11, the anthrax attack, and the DC sniper. My usual trick is to sit on the floor with my dog, Monty, but that didn’t help so I went for a long walk.
Panic attacks aren’t only about the thing happening when you have them. For me, they tend to be triggered by something — like, say, a really important election — but also an expression of built up anxieties that I’ve white-knuckled through but can no longer keep at bay. Eventually, the brain’s motherboard shuts down and demands a reset of the mind’s CPU. It’s not pleasant.
I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who woke up this morning with the shakes, the palpitations, the sweats, and the feeling that the walls are closing in. We’ve all been white-knuckling through the last four years, and if we’re really honest about it, much longer than that.
In the span of two decades we’ve had 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and a global pandemic. We’ve experienced these horrors while the meager social safety net has been weakened at the same time our economy mints billionaires. Politics has so normalized avarice that our policy debate over health care is about whether or not to let insurance companies discriminate against sick people during the outbreak of a lethal virus.
We are surrounded by COVID death and climate destruction, and our government tells us everyday in so many ways that we are all alone — a feeling made worse by the physical isolation of quarantine.
This is a new “normal” — but it isn’t actually normal. It is obscene, it is unacceptable — and it is why our country has been having one giant panic attack for the last four years.
The Left Will Be Blamed or Shamed
During my walk, I kept trying to come up with ways to make myself feel like I know what is about to happen in the election. But, of course, I don’t. Nobody does, including the pundits who are paid to prognosticate about polls. We’re all just going to have to try to keep calm, knowing that nothing is under control.
One thing I can predict with certainty is that no matter the results, the Left will be blamed or shamed.
If Biden (god forbid) loses, we will be told that he went too far to the left, which alienated swing voters, but still did not generate enough enthusiasm from disaffected Bernie Sanders voters who can’t get over the outcome of the Democratic primary. If that fantastical tale sounds eerily familiar, that’s because it was the bullshit story told after Hillary Clinton lost the most winnable presidential contest in history.
And yes — it was bullshit then and would be bullshit now.
On everything from climate change to health care to corporate power, Biden is if anything more conservative than the general population. This is a guy who literally promised his donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” and was nonetheless enthusiastically boosted by every wing of the Democratic Party, including progressives. Indeed, while third-party voting was a minuscule phenomenon in 2016, it looks to be even more infinitesimal in 2020.
Though we’re not supposed to admit it aloud, we all know Biden didn’t really earn the lockstep support of Democratic voters with any of his policy proposals. He originally won the nomination mostly because past vice presidents almost always win their party’s presidential nominations. In the general, Biden has been backed by nearly every left-of-center group, but that’s really only because Trump represents an existential threat to the survival of our democracy and the planet’s ecosystem.
An inanimate object should be able to beat this out-of-control and brazenly corrupt president who has wildly mismanaged a lethal pandemic — and if Biden still somehow manages to lose, he has nobody to blame but himself. Almost everybody looked at his problematic record and his uninspired campaign and nonetheless sucked it up and fell in line for him because we understood the stakes — so if he still somehow manages to shit the bed, it’s on him.
If Biden (hopefully) wins, the narrative will be the opposite — we will be told that he won because he refused to fully embrace a progressive economic agenda. In this mythology, voters were supposedly desperate for a return to the kind of corporatism, incrementalism, and neoliberalism that defined the Obama era and that continues to define Beltway Democratic culture amid the economic, public health, and climate crises.
It is certainly true that Biden has repeatedly refused to support Medicare for All, promised not to ban fracking, and repeatedly boasted about how he defeated democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the primary. Those were all attempts to contrast himself with the progressive base of his own party — which is what he has tried to do periodically throughout his long political career, and which already has neoconservative Republicans praising his campaign.
However, Biden would win in spite of that triangulation, not because of it.
As millions of Americans lost their private health insurance during the pandemic, a Morning Consult survey showed support for Medicare for All has surged. While the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey shows that most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to end protections for preexisting conditions, the same group’s survey showed support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has remained relatively weak.
In fact, at key moments during the COVID outbreak, the ACA has actually lost support among the middle-aged, who may have suddenly discovered that Obamacare doesn’t protect them from higher premiums and the loss of job-based medical insurance in an economic downturn.
Similarly, polls show surging support for bold climate action as America has been ravaged by wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania — where Biden’s fracking position has been cast as a positive — polls show the majority of the state’s voters oppose the fossil fuel extraction process.
And for all of Biden’s gratuitous football-spiking about beating Sanders in the primary, the Vermont senator remains one of America’s most popular politicians, and more popular than Biden himself, according to YouGov data.
The point here is not merely that Biden is out of step with the public on specific issues — but that it would be patently ridiculous for anyone to depict a Democratic victory as a repudiation of the Left.
The election has been an up-or-down vote on Trump, with Biden the recipient of the down vote. He is the quintessential generic Democrat in this race — indeed, a recent Pew poll showed that the majority of Biden voters support him simply because “he is not Trump,” not because of any particular position he has taken.
A new Morning Consult poll shows that almost half of Biden’s voters say they are supporting him more as “a vote against Donald Trump” than an affirmative vote for the Democratic ticket. At the same time, the public broadly supports a progressive economic agenda.
If Biden wins, those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo will try to obscure this reality — but it is a reality.
Darkest Before Dawn
I walked east from my home in southeast Denver — east toward the rising sun, because I know for me it is most difficult to think clearly in the night. It truly is darkest before the dawn — and we are all right now in that darkness, deciding whether or not to wallow or push ahead.
It is easy to succumb to nihilism. My inner voice of negativity is a Rahm Emanuel–esque asshole, and it spent all night screaming a million reasons to give up.
But as the sky turned red and then pink, I saw this little tent on the horizon at the local community center. Cars were driving up as people were dropping off ballots.
As my friend Naomi Klein said in the Daily Poster’s live chat last night, we are taught to see voting as the ultimate form of self-expression, but it isn’t. It is one limited way to participate in civic life. But voting itself is an act of — dare I say it — hope.
Even in a democracy as limited as America’s, we vote because we still believe in the idea of self-governance, and in the idea that things can change. And weirdly enough, in an election offering two of history’s most uninspired presidential choices, we have what could be the biggest opportunity for change in my own lifetime.
Think about it: If Biden wins, we will have a relatively weak thumb-in-the-wind Democratic president who does not command the kind of worshipful fandom that past Democratic presidents have engendered. At the same time there are engaged activists, organizations, and movements that are not just going back to brunch when the election is over.
From the Sunrise Movement to Demand Progress to the Revolving Door Project to Black Lives Matter, there is more infrastructure than ever, ready to pressure a new president — and there are allied lawmakers in Congress ready to amplify their message.
The key thing to understand about this potential future is that Biden does not engender the kind of fawning that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama evoked when they were first elected president. He is rightly seen as a transactional and transitional politician — and that’s actually a good thing.
For too long, Democratic voters have seen their presidents as deities who should be immune from pressure and criticism. But it is far better for a democracy for a president to be perceived not as some pop culture idol or glorified Instagram influencer, but instead as an administrator that is supposed to work for us, not the other way around.
Biden’s low-key image makes it much more likely that we will finally view the presidency in those far more healthy and realistic terms — and then confront that White House with pressure rather than genuflection.
Will the pressure work? It is hard to say. But Biden does appear to be making some rhetorical shifts already — in the last presidential debate, he made an argument for deficit spending. It was remarkable to see given that Biden has advocated for budget austerity for decades.
Then again, there’s a difference between words and deed, and in recent years, the MSNBC-ization of politics and the rise of Brunch Liberalism means there hasn’t been much pressure on Democratic lawmakers to do much of anything — other than simply not be Republicans. But with climate, health care, and economic emergencies tearing apart our country, we need them to do far more than that. We need to force them to deliver in a way the party hasn’t delivered in more than a half century.
And here’s the thing to remember: nothing will be given. Campaign promises will not be acted upon on their own — they will only be fulfilled if there is constant pressure. Indeed, to achieve even the most minimal and necessary reforms to prevent more mass casualties and pain, lawmakers will have to face enormous amounts of organizing and pressure and activism.
The leaders of both parties in Washington have taught us over and over and over again that they will nonchalantly let us suffer and die — unless they are forced kicking and screaming to do something other than enrich their donors.
I walked back home thinking about how daunting a task this will all be. The pit in my stomach was still there from the panic attack, and thinking about how much work we must do made the pangs a bit worse.
But then I walked into the house and saw two kids — my six-year-old daughter finishing up her french toast and masking up for first grade, and my nine-year-old son working on his fourth-grade essay before yet another day of remote learning because his grades are on lockdown.
In their faces, I see the reason that despair and despondence cannot be our path.
Their lives and the lives of every kid is on the line right now — and our society is in a bad way. Our politics are deeply corrupt, our laws are driven by greed. The cultural and political panic and unrest we’ve experienced over the last year is all a predictable result of that.
But with our democracy and our ecosystem on the brink, retreat is not an option.
We’ve had our panic attack — now, hopefully, we get one more chance to move forward.