Just Us

During one of my myriad recent stints sitting around in either an airport gate or a hospital waiting room, I saw this “feel-good story” from CBS:

When a hungry Cameron Nelson walked into a Chick-fil-A in Avon, Indiana, last week he looked toward the counter and couldn’t help but stare — not at the menu, but at the young employee standing in front of it.

The teenager, Jakeem Tyler, was counting change on one hand. His other arm was wrapped in a sling and he was wearing a neck brace.

“We sneeze too hard and decide to call in, but he’s workin’ like nothing’s wrong,” Nelson thought to himself.

As soon as Nelson stepped up to the counter and placed his order, he asked Tyler, “What happened?”

Tyler explained he was recently involved in a car accident.

“He [said he] was working cause he needs the money and also wants to feed the homeless for Christmas,” Nelson wrote in a Facebook post that has since gone viral with more than 5,000 shares.

Nelson was impressed.

Jakeem Tyler seems like an impressive human being, so I can understand being impressed by him. But I have to say my immediate reaction to this story was mostly disgust, at CBS, for taking the story of a teenager forced to go right back to work after a car accident and turning it into some uplifting tale of perseverance instead of the absolute indictment of the 2016 United States of America that it actually is. What kind of a nation is this where we deny people the right to heal from a serious injury before they have to go back to work?

We have trillions of dollars to spend on all manner of tax cuts for the richest Americans and new instruments of war that don’t even really work, but we can’t create a society where someone can take a week off from their hourly part time gig after they’ve been in a car accident that leaves them in a fucking neck brace? We live in the richest country on Earth, and we can’t create a society where somebody other than A TEENAGER WORKING AT CHICK-FIL-A is responsible for feeding homeless people at Christmas? I applaud Jakeem Nelson’s sense of charity, but if you made a list of all the people in America who should be feeding the homeless, he seems like he’d be pretty far down the list. So far down the list, in fact, that if we worked through everybody ahead of him and finally got to his name, there really shouldn’t be any hungry homeless people left.

There’s a word I keep thinking about when I read stories like this and stories about the “starve the takers” policy agenda that Paul Ryan is salivating to implement over the next four years: injustice. American society has never been a truly just society. To be fair, I’d argue that no society has ever been truly just. But it ought to be a goal.


I’m not talking about criminal justice–ironically, our criminal “justice” system, with “justice” right there in the name, is one of the most fucked up, injust things about this country. But justice, broadly speaking, that’s what I’m talking about: equal rights, equal protection under the law, equal treatment, equal recognition of everybody’s basic humanity, equal respect. Why can’t the Democratic Party stand for “justice”?

I’ll concede that in some ways it already does. If you’re looking for which party supports racial justice, gender justice, sexual justice, environmental justice, the Democrats aren’t perfect but they’re a lot closer to it than the alternative. Economic justice? Labor justice? Well, those things may need some work. But I think a lot of the problem here isn’t policy, it’s politics.

What was the Democratic Party’s message in 2016? Donald Trump is gross? Where was the story about what Democrats are going to do for the American people? When is the Democratic Party going to offer voters a rationale other than “we’re not Republicans”? Invariably when you talk about the Democrats’ failure to connect with working class voters, the response is “look at the platform!” And, OK, there were some worker-friendly things in the platform, but when did we hear about any of it during the campaign? The party was so obsessed with carving some imaginary chunk of Reasonable Republicans away from Donald Trump that it abandoned any pretense of a real liberal message.

If you move past 2016, the problem is still politics. The most worker-friendly Democratic Party imaginable would still be doing workers no favors if it hoarded all its resources in Washington and starved state and local party branches to death. A party wholly committed to fighting for the 99% against the 1% would still be failing if it outright refused to run candidates, or refused to support candidates running, in districts it deemed too difficult to win. And this is where the DNC has been for the past eight years. Burying the message nationally and simply refusing to fight wherever the fight looked like it might be hard.

Political messaging doesn’t have to be that hard. In fact, the simpler the better. “Justice” seems pretty simple to me. But if we don’t have a party willing to take up that message and deliver it to every corner of the country no matter the odds, then we’re not going to get “justice.” Instead it’ll be just us, the 99%, the people getting screwed to one degree or another by 21st century America, without any political support at all. And Democrats can keep losing and keep blaming the voters, which seems to be the only thing they’re good at doing nowadays.

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