Fear, Apathy, Passion, Hope, Hate: The American Spirits Rise in Iowa

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Fear, Apathy, Passion, Hope, Hate: The American Spirits Rise in Iowa

(Note: This is Part 2 of the Iowa Caucus dispatches, which will run Monday and Tuesday. Read part one, an angry Q&A explaining the caucuses, here.)

I’ve come to Iowa because there are brief moments in time and space when the American underbelly is exposed, unguarded by mythos and ego and violence, and we can experience the raw, nerve-jangling rush of encountering its living ghosts. We can let the apparitions darken us like a cloud—gone is the mere hint that we’re being controlled. Gone is the inference that we’re powerless to history. Now, the ghosts occupy us, and we can really see what’s true. We can feel which way the wind blows, where it’s going to scatter us, and how it’s going to scatter us—to grow or to wither.

There is no unifying American spirit. Fear is always ascendant, at least if you were born in 1983. Apathy gains ground all the time. Passion can’t be quelled. Hope rallies against the odds, and hate is always there to meet it. Each one touches the other, symbiotic or parasitic. Apathy is a function of fear, and the absence of hope. Hope is a challenge to fear, and hate, and the absence of apathy. Passion and hate feed each other and make rage, even when they pose as enemies. Hatred and fear are the dark swirling helices that suck the energy from the others; entropy’s special strand of DNA, for when you need the job done fast.

We’re a cyclone. We’re a revolution. We’re a strange beast. And we’re bracingly alive and gasping in Iowa, because tonight’s Democratic caucus is critical, not quaint. Quaint is a myth. Anything you don’t feel in your guts is a myth, and if you listen to your guts right now you’ll know that quaint is made up by con artists who try desperately not to see the ghosts. Quaint is a fabrication, the emotion attached to tradition. Tradition is nothing but a way to deny the reality of change, and change is personified by the figure of death. Who will not be ignored.

No. This is sinister, and this is exciting. This is the death rattle of the caterwauling nation backed into a corner. This is an American drug, and I’m here for the contact high.

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What does Iowa mean?

Driving from the tiny airport in Dubuque to Iowa City, Sunday late afternoon. Ninety minutes to figure it out. Less, because I feel like driving fast.

Low stratocumulus clouds. Rolling hills, fields of slaughtered corn, stumps all haphazard until you’re perfectly perpendicular, and then you see the order, the rows. Big fat bales of hay that you could eat. Shining steel silos. White stately farmhouses with their own wind turbine towers. Red stately barns, some with low barrel roofs, some with sloping gambrels. Cop cars flashing their lights, always on the other side of the highway, convincing me I’m invincible. An endless repeating landscape, and the blue SUV in your rearview mirror stays in your rearview mirror, politely keeping a 100-yard buffer so that you’re not sure if it’s really blue, or an SUV.

I want the feeling of this place, and the radio in the rental car—white Dodge Dart—is set to the country station. The new country, that is, the shitty stuff divorced from folk and blues. I’ll make the 90 minute drive with this as my background, I decide, because maybe that’s the flavor here. Osmosis, you see? I’m going to assimilate.

I last two and a half songs. Fuck you, Keith Urban. You don’t represent anyone. Instead it’s silence, and I take the opportunity to curse myself for not coming a day earlier, when Vampire Weekend and Foster the People played a free show for Bernie Sanders in Iowa City.

The sun gets lower on my left, and I think wait—why is the sun on my left? The setting sun on my left means I’m driving northwest, and I’m supposed to be going southwest. Then, finally, US-151 bends left, and the sun obeys natural laws and swings to its proper position on my right. That’s where it dies, in an orange flaming ball, ten miles outside Iowa City. Its fading light projects onto the southern clouds, and changes along the way, making a purple sunset.

I have no idea what Iowa means.

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I am a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I’m saying that now because it would be useless to play the fake objectivity card when my real agenda would be obvious to anyone with even sub-mediocre discernment skills. (Relevant: One of the top three comments from readers when the New York Times endorsed Clinton, with a whopping 2,210 likes? “Uh, yeah, we know NYTimes, you’ve been making this perfectly clear.” Readers aren’t stupid.)

“Supporter” might not be a strong enough term. Maybe I’m an addict. I’ve given enough money that my wife has become annoyed, and I’ve attached a headset to my cell phone in order to call up unfriendly Iowans as part of his phone banking volunteer corps, and I update the Sanders Reddit page 30 times a day to read new polls and new stories and to suck in all the new information. I live and die by the thousands of opinions expressed across the Internet, favorable and scathing, none of which will make a lick of difference to the outcome. I post too often on Facebook and Twitter to no effect, except that I’ve probably alienated friends. I’ve read three books on the guy, and hundreds (thousands, now?) of articles.

And here’s the thing: I can’t monitor my tone anymore. I lack the forbearance. Politics might not be good for me, mentally speaking, because it’s frustrating and stressful and I get too invested, but here I am in Iowa, so I might as well shoot my wad. What follows won’t be polite or sedate, but I’m also pretty positive that I have a coherent point that I may or may not arrive at sometime in the next 1,500 words. About why tonight really, really matters, and why it’s a last chance.

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Let’s start here: If you care about politics, my stance on Sanders has probably provoked a strong reaction.

No, false start, let me revise: If you care about politics and reside on the American political left, my stance on Sanders has probably provoked a strong reaction. (If you’re on the political right, you’re probably just puzzled or amused by the idea of a popular socialist…but give it a few months, bucko.)

If you also support Bernie Sanders, I’m betting you experienced a sense of affinity and reassurance at finding a like-minded soul in these times of discord. If you support Hillary Clinton, perhaps something very different came to mind. Maybe you classified me as a “Bernie Bro,” that clever put-down invented by Clinton’s online army—many of them disguised as objective journalists—to convince themselves that Bernie’s significantly larger online army does not rally around progressive politics, but misogyny. As though Sanders is nothing but a convenient excuse for straight white boys to form a beer-swilling, hyper-sexist social club.

It’s nothing but a defensive maneuver from a group that feels threatened, of course. But it’s a damn good one—awfully convenient as a rhetorical tactic. It throws a cloak over Clinton’s massive shortcomings, and also over some other annoying facts—how a majority of women under 45 support Sanders, and how he’s received far more donations from females in general. Glenn Greenwald wrote about this, so I’ll leave the rest of the defense to him. Except to say that it has one other indispensable asset: It’s easy as hell. Just watch:

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I bring all this up because I had a memory, on that short drive from Dubuque where I failed to intuit the meaning of Iowa. A memory of 2004. John Kerry, flailing through his own chance at the presidency. A war hero getting swift-boated by the snarling right-wing attack dogs who played henchman for a rich kid that stayed out of the fight. A smart, experienced politician being re-cast as an effeminate patsy who was, essentially, as French as his French wife (who was not actually French at all). I remember Kerry looking helpless, and the rest of us looking helplessly on, as he got railroaded by an enemy he couldn’t understand, much less anticipate, much less fight, much less beat. I can still see the couch where I mourned on election night. I can still see my friend, mourning beside me. Days of pain.

I remember some people got depressed after that election, clinically so. I wasn’t depressed, just angry—how could we be so weak and feckless? How could they bater us around so badly? For the poor lefties, watching stunned, one thing was clear: From now on, it was Us vs. Them.

How did it change in the span of a decade? Today, it’s Us vs. Us, and it’s just as nasty. “Them” is an afterthought, especially in this cycle. We’ll have to worry about Them later, but it feels very much like the real battle is happening on the left, and the soul of the movement is at stake. If you’d predicted this in ‘04, I would have called you a nut. No chance. Not unless an especially divisive figure emerged; someone to inspire an unprecedented degree of disharmony and mistrust in the liberal ranks. Someone to really tear us apart and take our eyes off the prize.

Enter Hillary Clinton. The perfect storm.

You may disagree with the following sentiment, and you may be offended. That’s okay, because both sides have thrown caution to the wind. Everything is fair game, so here’s my theory: If Hillary Clinton were a man, and also not a Clinton, she’d have zero traction in modern Democratic politics. The country would see her inherent economic conservatism, her Wall Street ties, her war-hawk behaviors, her constant flip-flopping on gay rights and free trade and the environment, and they’d say: “Oh, another full-of-shit politician.” And everybody could move on.

But Hillary Clinton is a woman, and that counts for an awful lot. The numbers don’t lie—any national poll you look at shows that Sanders leads by about 20 points with men, and Clinton leads by 20 points or more with women. There are really only two ways to explain the imbalance: Either a huge chunk of men are misogynists (as the “Bernie Bro” enthusiasts would have you believe), or some women really think it’s time for a female president.

Who can blame them? They’re right. It would be great. It’d be historic. And it’s too bad that their only option is a progressive’s nightmare, crooked to her bones, with less authenticity than a Ted-and-Heidi smooch. Too bad in 2008, and too bad now.

“I wish ?#?BernieSanders? were a 35-year-old, gay, Mexican lesbian, frankly,” wrote a friend of mine on Facebook, and it’s easy to see how he got there. The simpler fantasy is, “I wish Elizabeth Warren were the nominee.” Then we could all vote for a progressive and a female, and this whole thing would be much less combative. We’d be marching to a progressive drumbeat and shattering the glass ceiling, instead of being forced to choose at gunpoint between the two.

And Hillary Clinton is a Clinton, which means she has name recognition for all those voters who aren’t as engaged or hopeful as the young and working people rallying behind Sanders. If you’re afraid of the word socialist, as polls have shown older voters are, or if Sanders is unfamiliar, as he is to a high percentage of minority voters, then you support Clinton.

That’s the coalition of identity politics and ignorance that make up a huge portion of her base. Just as it did in 2008, when her gender and last name led to a knock-down, drag-out fight with a once-in-a-lifetime inspirational candidate who put her to shame time and again. It should have been a blowout, but it came down to the bitter end. Even as Obama soared to rhetorical heights while Clinton resorted to race-baiting, showing that she was exactly who we thought she was—a morally decrepit lifer whose sense of decency and restraint had been reduced to a question of perception and cynical calculation: How much can I get away with before the people really start to despise me?

Now it’s happening again, except this time, the upstart is an actual leftist, with almost no establishment support, who built an organizational structure from scratch while taking endless shots from Clinton, her mercenary super-PAC (led by former conservative barracuda David Brock, who was responsible for slut-shaming Anita Hill when she had the audacity to point out that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her), and all her allies in the corporate media. This time, Clinton is eight years wiser, and has maintained a narrow lead in Iowa despite a similar surge by her challenger, and a similar slow crumbling of her base. This time, she’s throwing as much mud as she can, as often as she can. Sanders uses the word “shouting” in an obviously generic way? He’s a sexist who thinks women should shut up! Sanders points out that Planned Parenthood, an organization with whom he holds a 100 percent voting record, is part of the Democratic establishment? He’s attacking women’s rights! He loves guns! He hates Obamacare!

This time, she has upped the fear factor, promising pestilence and famine if Sanders takes the nomination.

This time, the bullshit might stick.

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And if it sticks, Sanders supporters might say to hell with her when the general election rolls around. And if it doesn’t stick, Clinton supporters might say to hell with Bernie. The left united behind Obama in 2008, because it felt so good to be winning again, to be off the back foot for once, to watch the Republicans scurry around in a blind panic. It was like seeing a juggernaut crumble, but do we still feel that way eight years later? Can the GOP 30-man debacle inspire the same dedication to the common cause? Can we repair our differences after the internecine fights, or are these scars permanent?

You can already see the win-at-all-costs mentality filter down to the rank-and-file. Beyond wild claims of misogyny, the prevailing argument for Clinton among those young, educated supporters who find themselves surrounded and outnumbered in their demographic, is an appeal to fear. It takes several shapes, but generally we hear one of the following:

—Bernie can’t win a general election, which means the Republicans will appoint three new Supreme Court justices, the world will go to hell in a handbasket, and we’ll lose that precious incremental change that Clinton advertises in place of anything bold or visionary. “Elections have consequences” is the favored maxim here.

—Even if he is elected, Bernie can’t get anything done with a Republican congress.

The rebuttals here are obvious. Sanders polls better than Clinton in hypothetical match-ups against the GOP, independent voters seem to hate her and like him, and as for Republicans in Congress, there is no figure they despise more than Clinton—and that includes Barack Obama.

“Here’s a wild idea,” I wish I had written. “Vote for the candidate you agree with.” (I didn’t write that—Hamilton Nolan did.)

It doesn’t matter. The battle lines have been drawn, and the way we choose a candidate is no longer intentional, or even ideological. Instead, it’s personal, and it’s tribal. Clinton supporters resent when Sanders supporters—especially the male ones—try to discuss the issues, because all they hear is the implication that they’re less informed and Mister Mansplainer is flying to the rescue. Outreach is condescension, outreach is sexism, and thus their resolve is hardened. #StandWithHillary becomes a hashtag, because this is about fighting to the end and defending the captain because…well, she’s the captain. You’re with her or against her, and this isn’t the time for mutiny. Even when she’s wrong.

As for the Sanders crew? We live in terror that we’re about to be cheated out of a rare opportunity.

Where did he come from, this incredible old Brooklyn Jew, this long distance runner and college activist, this Vermont transplant who ran futile third-party campaigns in the ‘70s just to make a point, who won a mayoral election by ten votes to spark a career, who somehow beat the odds to reach the House, and then the Senate, and now stands on the precipice of a miracle, all while preaching the same song and shunning big money and holding fast to his core principles in a way that nobody in Washington does? He’s come about this in an illogical way, an anomalous way, a totally impossible and unbelievable way. A candidate like Bernie Sanders shouldn’t exist in 2015. He’s a desert oasis that is somehow, inexplicably, not a mirage. Nothing about his trajectory makes any sense, and the fact that he’s here at all is a stunning, beautiful error.

If people would just open their eyes and really see what’s in front of them, we tell ourselves, then he can’t lose.

But of course he can. And if he does, bitter won’t begin to describe us.

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He’s also 74, and there’s nobody like him waiting in the wings.

That’s my big, bold point: If we can’t do this now, we’re never going to do it. Never never never. Money will have won, and the victory will be definitive and permanent. You’re going to see a lot of people stop caring about politics, including me, because I can’t go through this devastating cycle of hope and letdown again.

So here, in Iowa, we see the American spirits assemble for a thrilling and possibly final confrontation. Sanders vs. Clinton is passion against fear. Hope is on his side, apathy is on hers—low turnout will doom Sanders, and the Iowa caucuses—an abomination, as we established this morning—are known for low turnout.

As for hate, that’s the generative force. There have been calls for decorum, especially from Sanders supporters who advise turning the other cheek and taking the high road in the face of vicious low road behavior from the opposition. Those calls increasingly go unheeded, and the left has fallen into a state of fracture that could result in a sneaky general election loss.

Most of the reporters that came to Iowa will be sitting in a room in Des Moines, tracking the results on computers and TVs. I came to Iowa City, lovely university town, to observe a caucus and to see if the kids are going to turn out like the Sanders campaign hopes. If they don’t, it’s likely that the dream of a populist surge is fizzling out all over Iowa. If they do…who knows?

What happens tonight is only the first skirmish for the heart of the left, but the sad irony is that due to the structure of the party primaries, it might also be the decisive blow. Sanders will have a tougher recovery than Clinton, but both will stagger on to the convention regardless—Hillary with her corporate war chest, Sanders with his record-setting three million individual donations. Still, the months to come might just be an extended denouement. Iowa could be the whole kit and caboodle.

Iowa…

Goddam, Iowa! What an unlikely battlefield! What a place for the ghosts to throw down! What a place to make history, or to see history shot to pieces! It’s going to feel good, or it’s going to feel really bad. But elation or depression will come later, in the gray aftermath. For now, I want to mainline the tension, inhale this absurd depraved perversion of dignified democracy, and let it shake me from the inside as we careen into Tuesday’s odd future.