Dems in Vegas

The year-long “early state” phase of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process is drawing to a close, as candidates intensively court voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. The rationale behind this system is that it allows some kind of cross-section of Americans to get up close and personal with the candidates, peer directly into their souls, and vouch for them to the rest of the country. But in the Democratic Party that rationale is breaking down. The validity of the cross-section is now fiercely questioned, due to the overwhelmingly white populations of the first two states. And the early-state voters themselves have been doing less vouching: In their desperation to replace Trump, they have tended to look less for who strikes them best than for what they imagine everyone else will like, further down the line. Probably not enough peering has been taking place. Which is a pity, because the American electorate hungers for the very thing that might be found in that way: A president who is a recognisable human being.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump steadfastly failed to convince a majority of voters that they were “honest and trustworthy.” Polling in the tumultuous final weeks suggested that Trump, without ever rising above water himself, still managed to outperform Clinton substantially on this question. Democratic voters now broadly acknowledge her gross failures in the areas of transparency and human warmth. But the ability of Trump, in all his florid bogusness, to survive the same tests is still regarded as a form of black magic. Trump seems to be able to warp reality itself. There is a sense that only the challenger pure of heart – whose views, track record, and personal identity cohere in a solid and intelligible whole – can emerge victorious.

But the Democratic electorate, unlike the Republican electorate under Trump, is both ideologically and demographically diverse. The superstar left-wing Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has noted acidly that in many other countries she and Joe Biden, the initial front-runner for the 2020 nomination, would not be in the same party. And the demographic diversity is also increasingly difficult to negotiate. It is not easy to find a single person who appears equally convincingly to African American communities in the South, working-class whites in the post-industrial Mid-West, wealthy suburbanites, mixed-status Latino families, and wired urban millennials. And the verbal and theatrical formulas traditionally used to bridge those cultural gaps have become extremely well worn.

Nevada is the least talked about and least visited of the early states, despite being the biggest general-election battleground, and, significantly for Democrats, the most ethnically diverse. The reason for this seems to be that Nevada is so dominated by Las Vegas, and the wider American public simply doesn’t consider Las Vegas to be a real place. It’s important to point out that 2.2 million people live in the city or surrounding Clark County, and that the campaign events I attended over the last ten months mostly took place in high school gymnasiums and union halls like those in any other state. But it was still interesting to contemplate the candidates, as they tried to sell their own authenticity to voters, in the desert city that grew up around The Strip, where the only cultural rule is that things should appear other than as they really are, and the only reliable reality is money. Every detail of a casino building is designed, not only to entice, but to fool: To scramble the mark’s sense of value, even of space and time. They offer fake versions of New York, Paris, Egypt, Venice and Ancient Rome. Of the names in the shimmering skyline, only The Mirage is truthful. But another is indicative, too: It is that of the incumbent president, in 25-foot-high golden letters…

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Photo credit: Joseph Oppenheimer (



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