Like many a New Yorker, I am prone to anxiety. Sometimes this manifests itself in milquetoast nightmares like the recurring one about needing to retake a calculus exam 20 years after graduating high school. Fittingly, the night before a 3.30 a.m. wakeup call to get to the airport to campaign for Andrew Yang in Iowa, I dreamt anxiously: what if they’re all awful people? It would be my first meeting with any of the campaign staff in person, my first encounter with the candidate. In my dream I imagined a nightmare so terrible that I would loudly declare my support for Amy Klobuchar.
The reality was quite the opposite. ‘We thought all this snow would cancel your flight, but you made it!’ said the cheerful young staffers who met me at the Cedar Rapids airport. From that moment to two small-town rallies that day and to cheap red wine late at night in a roadside hotel, my whirlwind 24 hours with the Yang campaign were nothing short of inspiring. This surprised me. We hear so much about the backstabbing and ratfucking, the negative stories one candidate plants about another. The Yang staff were so darn positive they barely mentioned other candidates. When I cracked a joke about Tom Steyer’s wacky plaid tie, it wasn’t met with the ‘oh, that guy’ cynicism I’d expected. This was a young team with little to lose, a genuine commitment to changing the world and a work ethic more driven than any I’d ever seen. I’ve spent my career in digital media, much of it on tech startups. Compared with the staffers on a grassroots campaign, the ‘move fast and break stuff’ hustle-porn crowd look like sloths. I had a newfound faith in the American political system.
Then came the crazy. Fast forward 10 days, and the Iowa Democratic caucuses were in enough of a meltdown to liquefy the snow. Pete won. Bernie won. Wait, no he didn’t. Joe collapsed. Only Elizabeth seemed to fare as well as the polling had indicated, but even that was a downward swing from last summer, when it seemed she could run away with the nomination. Either way, the caucus-app fiasco dominated the news cycle for what felt like months. The Yang camp slyly (and fairly) pointed to his commitment to improving America’s tech savviness, but were too late to improve his disappointing showing. Less than two weeks later, Yang’s campaign ended chaotically after a similarly weak finish in the New Hampshire primary.
Many of the Extremely Online People in our media forget that American electoral politics have always been batshit crazy. Given our propensity for epic disaster, the real surprise in Iowa would have been an app that did function. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration was widely reported to have been a drunken brawl. The election of 1876 was so contested that finding a winner required both a congressional commission and major concessions to the Democratic party that reversed most African American progress since Emancipation. The only silver lining in the 2000 Bush vs Gore chad fiasco is that we didn’t have Twitter then. Lest we think the local level is any less colorful, in summer 2018 an Independent candidate for the governorship of Rhode Island decided to fly a campaign banner off his yacht to attract support from beachgoers. He hit a rock and the Coast Guard had to rescue him. Those unhappy with the results of 2016’s presidential election say our democracy is under threat. I say it’s working pretty well, considering everything. America is improbable. We’re a sprawling country with huckstering and trickery in our blood: read Walter McDougall’s Freedom Just Around the Corner or Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland. We have no problem retaining bizarre institutions like Groundhog Day and the Iowa caucuses (which resemble a game of Red Rover in a high-school gym). The politics of the 21st century haven’t made us go crazy. They’ve just shown us who we’ve been the whole time. If anything, it’s liberating: the control-freak national parties will never have the power to rein us all in.
What awed me about the Yang campaign, and still does, was its ability not to just ride the waves of crazy but to let them carry it to improbable heights. Yang, the subject of an early profile called ‘Random Man Runs For President’, found traction in the media’s Wild West of podcasts, Reddit and memes. When I was with his staff, it occurred to me that not a single one of them could have foreseen that they’d still be in the running — even if, alas, they were about to run out of road. When Yang was onstage at rallies, his young kids would evade their sitters and sprint up to hug their dad, completely derailing whatever he was talking about. He’d stop, let the kids do their thing and eventually get back to the speech.The undercurrent I picked up carries far beyond Yang’s 2020 campaign. This wasn’t scripted. This was never meant to be scripted. The people who try to make it scripted — the mass media, the handlers writing feel-good talking points, the national-party candidates that are spoon-fed to us — are cheating us all. For better or for worse, I can think of nothing more American.