“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” —the Joker
“I’m going to become the Joker” is some of the Internet’s most poignant shorthand. Referencing Todd Phillips’s 2019 film noir, the phrase describes becoming so thoroughly disillusioned that one loses faith in everything.
The process is a dark descent: individual indignity after interpersonal insult after institutional injustice prompts a downward spiral from George Costanza screaming, “We’re living in a society!” to nihilists barking, “We believe in nothing, Lebowski” to finally just a depressed clown laughing at the idea of anything mattering at all.
Data about mental health suggests that even the most preternaturally chipper among us have tasted the Joker pill during the pandemic. But what if that Jokerfication isn’t fleeting? And what if it’s happening at a cultural, societal, and institutional level?
What happens then?
This is the epochal question — because both parties’ leaders have accepted Jokerfication as the new permanent normal, and the Biden White House is actively convincing a generation to believe nothing will fundamentally change.
The timing of this tailspin couldn’t be worse: an America still reeling from the meltdown of the early Obama years, the Trump presidency, and the pandemic seemed ready to hope against hope that Democrats’ unexpected Washington trifecta would provide one last opportunity to put the country back on track. For a brief moment, Democrats would have the lawmaking power to mitigate at least one of the myriad stresses — health care, housing, education, retirement, and climate survival — that working-class Americans must worry about every day.
But with corruption and capitulation winning the day in Washington, George Bush’s butchered aphorism describes the present mood of a demoralized Democratic electorate: “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice . . . can’t get fooled again.”
President Joe Biden started out in a much different direction. Right after being sworn in, he signed an American Rescue Plan that rejected President Barack Obama’s top-down bailouts for bankers, and rightly provided direct economic aid to millions of non-rich people. As poverty subsequently dropped, Biden’s poll numbers temporarily skyrocketed, seemingly halting the ascent of Republicans’ authoritarian mob.
But now less than seven months before the midterm elections, things have stalled, and Biden seems intent on accelerating — rather than combating — a rising tide of disillusionment.
Tossing the GOP a lifeline, he has reverted to his familiar formula that some warned about during the Democratic presidential primaries: amid intensifying crises, he promises big changes that could help the working class — and then prevents those changes from actually happening.
It’s occurred over and over again:
He blames Congress for gridlock but won’t pressure lawmakers or use his executive authority to do things.
The baiting and switching is a feature, not a bug — a deliberate strategy predicated on a corporate media ecosystem that ignores the gap between White House rhetoric and action.
Ensconced in a bubble of blue-wave emojis, Team Blue hashtags, and genuflecting punditry, Biden and his staff likely assume they can rhetorically placate voters and yet enrich the Biden campaign donors crushing those voters — and they expect nobody will catch on to the ruse. They appear to assume that as a pile of unsigned executive orders sit in the Oval Office, voters will believe his media loyalists’ claims that “there’s just not much President Joe Biden can do” about anything.
But despite the dearth of accountability journalism, the public seems to sense the gaslighting: Biden’s approval ratings are plummeting and anti-government sentiment has spiked as his strategy Joker-pills the country.
Mainlining the Joker Pill
In response to the midterm election trend lines, Democratic lawmakers and pundits are now panicking. Seeing a so-called “enthusiasm gap” among rank-and-file Democratic voters, party officials are lashing out at their own message machine and the disempowered left, rather than admitting Democratic leaders are putting the stick in their own bike wheel. As usual, “just do anything to help lots of non-rich people” is not considered by Democratic strategists to be a more viable political path than, say, unpopular deficit reduction, austerity, and donor enrichment.
As his poll numbers crater, Biden appears to be offering no course correction, and he still hasn’t signed a stack of executive orders on matters ranging from debt cancellation to drug pricing. The Delaware president — who used his first State of the Union address to gloat about hailing “from the land of corporate America” — is now just leaning in to a fuck-around-and-find-out nonchalance.
Caught between the electorate and Democrats’ campaign sponsors, Biden appears to have decided that he either can’t — or doesn’t want to — stop the spread of the Joker pill. So he is now just mainlining its active ingredients into America’s veins with bold promises and even bolder betrayals that seem deliberately designed to prompt voters to angrily smear their faces with circus makeup.
Consider a brief list that reads like a recipe to smash the last hopes and dreams of millions of voters:
- Biden promised to enact a $15 minimum wage, and then he and his party promptly abandoned that initiative, never to be heard from again.
- Biden pledged to halt drilling on federal land and spent the first year of his presidency promising climate action — all while he outpaces Trump’s drill-baby-drill initiatives and deploys his spokespeople to brag about flooding the world with fossil fuels amid the ecological emergency.
- Biden promised an “immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000 of federal student loan debt” — which he has the executive authority to do at any moment he chooses. But he’s been refusing to do it and has been trying to overturn bankruptcy court victories for the most beleaguered debtors — even as he faces polls showing one in five of his own party’s voters will not vote to reelect him if he keeps betraying his student debt promise.
- Biden pledged to protect traditional Medicare and “give Americans a new choice, a public health insurance option.” Then he never again mentioned the public option when he became president. Instead, he is helping his health care industry donors further privatize Medicare and reap even more federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies as insurers reduce coverage, rake in record profits and jack up premiums — and as data show middle-aged Americans are souring on the ACA. Oh, Biden has thrown in cuts to the VA medical system, too.
- Biden continues to insist he wants to lower the predatory cost of medicine and distribute vaccine recipes to halt the global spread of COVID. At the same time, he has refused to invoke his executive authority to reduce the price of medicines that were developed with public funding, and he has effectively abandoned his COVID vaccine pledge.
- Biden periodically gets lauded by pundits and liberal advocacy organizations for his promises to close tax loopholes, crack down on billionaire tax evaders, and bust Russian oligarchs — but he refuses to use his executive authority to shut down Wall Street’s most egregious tax loophole and force sanctions evaders out of the shadows.
- Biden portrays himself as a union supporter and promised to “ensure federal contracts only go to employers who sign neutrality agreements committing not to run anti-union campaigns.” And yet he abandoned his campaign pledge to rein in union busting federal contractors, he hasn’t implemented his own labor task force’s weak recommendations, and his administration gave Amazon a $10 billion contract while the company fought labor organizers.
- The Biden administration continues to incessantly tout deficit reduction, which helps austerians cast the end of the child tax credit as pragmatic belt tightening. At the same time, he is making headlines proposing massive increases in the bloated defense budget.
- Biden sat by as millions lost their pandemic unemployment benefits — and now his Labor Secretary is tweet-boasting about the decline in jobless aid.
- The Biden administration continues to claim the United States is on track to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, a target reified in an executive order one year ago. But Biden has been using his executive authority to ramp up methane-emitting natural gas exports (which have tripled since 2019), lease public land to oil and gas companies for drilling, and institute a “gag order” to quash any discussion of the clean energy tax credits legislation killed by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) last winter.
If this pile of Joker pills wasn’t poisonous enough, down-ballot Democrats have followed with an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em celebration of nihilism.
For example, when they haven’t been partying on a yacht or jetting off to California wine country, corporate Democratic senators Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been on a tour defending billionaires, fossil fuel companies and pharmaceutical conglomerates. Their Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, has been busy pushing a $52 billion no-strings-attached handout to tech CEOs that they can use to boost their own pay if they want.
Over in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a media spectacle out of defending legislators profiting off well-timed stock trades as they receive inside information from their government jobs. Her Democratic colleagues from affluent suburbs are also demanding self-enriching tax cuts that almost exclusively benefit their fellow coastal millionaires.
Out in the states, Democrats’ most prominent governors are generating local headlines by abandoning their health care promises, pushing hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies for a billionaire NFL owner, and defending tax giveaways to the rich.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) leadership has spent its time demoralizing the progressive base, some of which was already disillusioned both by Democratic Party officials’ vicious campaigns against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and by Sanders’s own deference to Biden. CPC members have mostly accepted the Biden administration’s capitulations. They’ve also betrayed promises to hold the line. And now they’re intervening in a high-profile primary to back a candidate who refuses to cosponsor Democrats’ major climate legislation, and who is being boosted by a super PAC that is bankrolled by an oil titan.
“Kind of Mysterious”
In the face of all this, Democrats’ campaign apparatus has gotten downright desperate. It is now airing ads boasting about a “historic middle-class tax cut” tax credit that has already expired and about an insulin price cap (for insured Americans only) that hasn’t actually been passed into law — as if no one will be infuriated by those realities, even though data suggests many voters already are.
Amid an explosion of child poverty following the end of the expanded child tax credit, the Washington commentariat sees solid macroeconomy data and wonders why so many polls show an electorate enraged at Biden and Democrats — and it’s certainly true that right-wing media has successfully duped a chunk of voters into not believing some basic economic realities.
But the real story here is far more profound than the Fox News Effect, the lingering pandemic, and inflation malaise.
It’s full-scale Jokerfication.
1) Though corporate media and the Democratic operatives are quick to boast about job numbers, the economy has been so rigged by regressive tax loopholes, trade deals, deregulation, and corporate subsidies that even with good macro data, many Americans are getting pulverized. Indeed, inflation-adjusted wages are declining, most people are still getting crushed by the costs of basic necessities, and the threat of climate ecocide is growing.
2) Politicians may say lots of encouraging stuff on television and Twitter feeds, but they are not doing what’s necessary to improve things for anyone other than corporate and billionaire donors — whose profits and net worths are skyrocketing.
You can see how these realizations are Joker-pilling the country by looking closely at three emblematic data points.
There is the poll showing Democrats losing their edge among voters who were cut off from the child tax credit. For a while, goodwill from this policy was actually improving Democrats’ standing among Trump voters. Now, they may even be seeing former beneficiaries of the tax credit turning against them.
There are surveys showing Biden’s plummeting numbers among core Democratic constituencies that feel betrayed by his policies and actions.
This latter collapse is the most telling of all — as is the response to it.
The Democratic establishment is evincing a glib attitude, exemplified by a party guru’s much-touted Politico piece scoffing at young people — an update on Biden himself eye-rolling millennials’ struggles.
The Washington press corps is concurrently stumbling around in a bewildered haze, doing their best Steve Buscemi impressions. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp this week declared that “Biden’s collapse with young voters is kind of mysterious” — and then quickly made clear he had zero interest in hearing any answers.
Beauchamp was one-upped by former Voxsplainer and current professional troll Matt Ygelsias, who theorized that young people are just moving away from Biden because they are “less settled in their political commitments,” pointing to a chart showing that Democrats lost ground among young voters in 2010. But Obama was never underwater with those voters like Biden is now.
CNN’s reliably out of touch pundit Chris Cillizza chimed in by saying “you really wouldn’t expect” such a precipitous decline in support among the kids.
The derision, confusion, and shock among Washington’s Gang of 500 illustrates the larger let-them-eat-cake attitude fueling the mass disillusionment not only with politicians, but with the entire media and political class.
Millions of young people face “almost no chance of being able to afford a house,” can’t afford the cost of having children, and are being hammered by college debt — leading the vast majority of them to tell pollsters that the economy is bad.
In short, millenials are quite literally “the unluckiest generation in history” — and every day, they see the president and an ancient political leadership lock their generation out of power, actively worsening problems that the gerontocracy won’t even be around to experience.
With that kind of lived experience, is it really surprising or a “mystery” why young people are so mad?
They may not be Arthur Fleck dancing down stairways to Gary Glitter’s anthem, but the Gotham City vibe of desperation, anguish, and rage is real — and it’s not hard to understand. It is being engineered by deliberate choices by Washington and the media.
There Is No Punchline
Heading into the midterm elections, both corporate media and the Republican Party see their self-interest in helping Democrats completely Jokerfy the entire country into believing absolutely nothing can be done — other than burn everything to the ground.
The former is lately focused on flogging the idea that inflation isn’t about what it’s actually about: corporations using monopoly power to jack up prices, lobbyist-written trade policies that off-shored supply chains, pandemic-related production shortages, and huge pay increases for the yacht set. Instead, media millionaires paid by billionaires are promoting all nihilism all the time, asking viewers to believe inflation is mostly the result of the government trying to temporarily help poor people survive COVID.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, are promising nothing but the business end of a legislative flamethrower.
The House GOP is proposing budget cuts that would light Medicare and Medicaid on fire. Medicare fraud millionaire Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) — the leader of Senate Republicans’ 2022 campaign — is proposing to scorch the poor with tax increases. And private equity mogul Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) — the alleged “moderate” who made his personal car-elevator fortune off retirees’ savings — suggested that rather than raising taxes on his fellow millionaires to better fund the safety net, America should consider torching retirement benefits in a country where four in ten people have less than $25,000 in retirement savings.
If this inferno feels familiar, that’s because it is. It was not long ago that Obama’s Wall Street fealty, Hillary Clinton’s “it will never, ever happen” campaign, and the Democratic establishment’s corruption helped Republican nihilists so disenchant voters that the country elected an actual edgelord Joker to the presidency.
That could have been temporary — and for an instant, it seemed like it might be when Schumer acknowledged mistakes that were made during Obama’s presidency. But it now looks like the 2020 election may end up being merely a momentary rest stop on a road trip hurtling toward 2022 and beyond.
That journey doesn’t mean all is lost or that nothing good is on the horizon. In fact, the accelerated disillusionment with politicians and electoralism may end up prompting a different, more direct kind of constructive politics outside the two-party system.
For example, it is no coincidence that as young people and workers lose faith in the political system, America has experienced an upsurge of labor organizing campaigns, and the population’s approval of unions has hit record highs. The same trend may happen with the climate movement and ballot activism for economic causes that actually help workers. In Joker America, more and more people now know that there’s no Bruce Wayne oligarch with a Batman suit coming to save us, and so they are taking collective action on their own — which is good news and long overdue.
But those positive developments will compete for attention, resources, and power with the noxious effects of the Joker pill — bigotry, xenophobia, self-centric greed, misinformation, right-wing vigilantism, and incitements to violence.
With Donald Trump as its clown face, the MAGA movement is already catalyzing those toxins with its grievance politics. The Right is channeling mass disaffection into ever-more-malicious culture wars that demonize minorities, the LGBTQ community, socialists, unionists, academics, protesters, and anyone else who can be other-ized and scapegoated. And on economics, the Right now sees Democrats becoming an affluent party as a new opportunity for the old Reagan trick — call it “worker-washing” — that launders oligarchs’ reactionary agenda with populist blue-collar lingo and jeremiads against “woke capital.”
Those right-wing tactics are so cynical they almost seem like a gag. But as Joker reminds us, there is no punch line. In a country where “I don’t believe in anything” is fast becoming the zeitgeist, the scheme is likely to work — unless those currently in power start delivering for the working class.