Danny Dorling on the young: They are being taken for a ride. Photo: Getty
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Danny Dorling: If you are young in Britain today, you are being taken for a ride

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion.

If you are young in Britain today you may well be being taken for a ride. Your parents also know this is happening to you but they don’t know what to do. In the media they learn of anonymous “Whitehall sources” claiming that the government already knows there is a strong risk that the next generation of adults will end up worse off than today’s older generation. They drip-feed this news out, managing down expectations.

The anonymous voices explain that many children and younger adults face the prospect of having lower living standards than those of their parents. These were the same sources that released the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report of autumn 2013 explaining that now, for the first time ever, a grandmother in her eighties can expect to enjoy higher living standards than someone in their twenties who is in work. They said it was because housing costs for the young are now so high and wages, if you are young, are usually so poor. But that was not the only reason the young are worse off. Another factor is that the rich see them as an easy target.

Today a few older people are making ever more money out of a lot of younger people. Look at the steep and accelerating rise in private renting in Britain, especially the increase among families with young children. If you are a young couple today you may well find yourself bringing up your new family while moving from one privately rented home to another. Soon a quarter of all children in Britain will see this as normal. Most do not stay longer than a year or so in any rented home. They continually have to move schools and lose friends. And why is this all happening? It is so that a few mostly older and much richer people can become very rich by renting out homes that used to be bought by those same families. It began under New Labour around 2003 and it has accelerated with the coalition. It is as if the wealthier old have convinced the young to look away from their money and towards the poorest of their own younger generation to blame for their plight. The young are told to blame other young adults for taking the dole.

It is in London where the young are most gullible and to which the affluent young flock after graduating. New findings from the Office for National Statistics show that the average age of people in the capital has recently fallen to 34 and that the average London wage is now £613 a week. However, half of all Londoners, including almost all younger adults, don’t receive this much. And that much is just £15 a day more than the national average wage of £506 a week.

For the median worker, London weighting is a “bonus” of less than £15 a day. Even if you have a good job and are paid as much as people often older than you, is this extra £15 enough to pay for you to live in London as a young adult? House prices in London now average £425,000; the UK national average is £242,000.

At the current rates of change, London house prices, inflated by the forces of globalisation, will be twice the national average within just two years and rents will rise to an even higher ratio. Average prices in London are already more than six times two average people’s combined wages. House prices in London are rising by 8.1 per cent a year, prices in the UK overall by 3.1 per cent, wages by less. If these trends continue, the cost of housing in London will be three times higher than the UK average by 2025 and ten times higher by 2050.

We can tell that the current housing-price trends are unsustainable just by looking at what would happen if they were to continue. By 2050 an average three-bedroomed home in London would cost £7.5m and the same house elsewhere in the country would fetch £750,000 – ten times less! But this is only if prices continue to rise as they are doing. The rich know that never before have prices risen so high for so long. But they also know it does not matter to them, as long as they cash out in time, or so long as they are the ones lending the money rather than borrowing it. It is as if the rich are trying to get the young into ever greater debt because the young are such a good “investment”. The young have so many years ahead of them to pay the interest.

A few people are making a great deal of money out of young adults in Britain today. At the same time many of the crumbs that were given to the young to compensate for harder times to come have been taken away. Until recently many youngsters received the Education Maintenance Allowance to help with the costs of going to college and, on a much smaller scale, a child trust fund to build up money for entering adulthood. Now these are mostly gone and the basic child allowance has also been cut for families in which any parent earns twice the average wage (over £50,000 a year). But if you think high earners need to contribute more, why make savings only from families with children? Why did the government not decide to raise money from all people earning over twice the average wage, and not just those who are parents? It has to be because they see they can get away with discriminating against the young.

The young are discriminated against in ways in which it would be illegal to differentiate between men and women, or between more and less disabled people, or on the basis of race or religion. Young people can be paid a lower minimum wage if in work, and a much lower wage if they are an apprentice. If aged under 30 and on low pay or no pay, a young person receives fewer housing benefits than would someone in the identical position but aged 30 or over. However, the greatest recent take from the young has been based on exploiting their gullibility, hope and optimism: university fees.

Half of all young women in England go to university and just over a third of young men. The tuition fees increase will hit women harder than men, but crucially it will not affect people now aged over 20, although it might add to the incomes of a very small minority. For all the many losers to come, there are a few potential winners waiting in the wings. When student loans are privatised the company will be bought by rich investors who will expect to profit from the interest that current students will pay in future.

Some potential investors in the proposed privatisation of student loans may be private pension funds. Those funds mostly pay out to richer pensioners. Hardly any young adults have private pensions and the numbers who do are falling. Only 2.9 million (mostly quite affluent) people have a private pension, half the number in 2000 and the lowest number recorded at any time since 1953. However, although the numbers of better-off future pensioners are small and falling, what they expect to get in pensions is large and rising. The pension funds need new sources to “invest” in. Student loans are one such source.

As private money moves from the young and poor towards the older rich, so public money, too, is being diverted in that direction. The government’s £12bn “Help to Buy” scheme helps maintain the value of housing prices. It is especially important to London, to upholding the assets of the rich, as it encourages younger people to borrow and to try to buy a home of their own. It allows a young adult to borrow to buy property worth up to £600,000, money that almost always then goes to older adults. If that scheme and other such subsidies for the rich are to be funded from the public purse and taxes are not to rise, in future our government will need to make more cuts for the young. It has begun by proposing to cut their benefits entirely, but this will just make matters worse.

Cutting unemployment benefit for under- 25s is the wrong policy because it damages the power of the market: it makes the market dysfunctional. When there is a dole, young people do not have to take any work, no matter how bad it is. A floor is put on quality. It is a very low floor. A job worth less to you than receiving £8.11 a day (Jobseeker’s Allowance for those aged under 25) need not be taken; £8.11 is not much, but at least there is a limit below which you need not go.

At present, people aged under 25 are told they are asking for too much in seeking to claim the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) of £56.80 a week. David Cameron proposes removing this altogether if a Conservative majority is returned at the next election. He always looks first to the children and to adults younger than himself for efficiency savings. There are 1.09 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in work, education or training in the UK. But if a young adult was unlucky enough to claim the dole for a whole year they would receive just £2,927 to live on.

Cutting benefits for young adults will have a hugely detrimental effect on education and training because of the way it will remove the element of market choice from provision. We know that when the compulsory Youth Training Scheme (YTS) for school leavers was introduced in the 1980s, its impact was detrimental to the long-term well-being of those who were forced to take part. Parasuicide rates among young men who were unemployed were between ten and 25 times higher than for employed young men.

The compulsion on employers to take a scheme also had a long-term damaging impact on the reputation of the word “training”. It was from the start of the 1980s that “training” began to be associated with failure, and it was also from then that the adjective “higher” began commonly to be put in front of other forms of education to make it clear that there was a continuum from “training” through “further” and up to the dizzy heights of “higher”. Education was no longer a general good. Some types of education had become much better than others. More and more, the message was that the people at the bottom were being trained to do jobs to serve those above them. And if they didn’t do those jobs there should be no other option –no dole.

A year ago analysts noticed that the longterm youth unemployment rate was rising and that the sharp rise in the charts matched perfectly the introduction of the Work Programme in June 2011. The chart on page 27 shows a tenfold rise since then among the very long-term young unemployed. By September 2013 over 25,000 young people in the UK had been claiming JSA for more than two years. Hardly any did so in May 2010.

I grew up in Oxford, where David Cameron was a student, in the years when he was a student there. But I am a few years younger than he is, and was educated on the other side of that city before I went to university, too. I left school, signed on and then took a job working on a children’s play scheme during the summer before I went to university. I did this for three summers in the late 1980s. The play scheme operated only when the children were off school for six weeks. I was at university in Newcastle, where the terms were shorter than school holidays. The dole filled the gap when I was not being paid.

I can see that if you’ve never been turned down, if you’ve never found it hard to get a job, if you’ve never needed some space and time, you might find it hard to understand that asking for £8 a day to live on is not asking for much. I can see that if you’ve never had a job on a below-average wage, or are so rich that you think mortgages are for the lower orders, you might find it hard to understand why housing costs are unfair.

The Prime Minister claims that his policy is not callous; I agree with him, because callous means unfeeling. It is not unfeeling. It is not the result of his indifference to the suffering of others. I believe he feels strongly that young people should not get the housing benefits and dole to which they are entitled at present. It is obvious that he believes they are not suffering enough when they are living on JSA. He thinks the young of today need to suffer more if they are to be persuaded to try hard enough. I think the proposal to cut state benefits for the under-25s is calculating and cruel. It is calculating because it is aimed to secure more votes than it might lose. Does he think that it is possible to tell the young to wait because one day they, too, will be able to exploit those younger than themselves?

People err towards being optimistic; many think that these benefit cuts will not hurt them, or that they will not harm their family and friends, but in future they will. If at first they cut the rights of those aged under 25, how long will it be before they cut rights for older people, and rights to other things we once took for granted? How long before there are student loans for education at ages 16 and 17? In the future, what else will they cut that in the past they suggested was safe?

The Conservative message relies on optimism and on people not thinking too deeply. It relies on a majority of Tory voters, or of putative Tory voters, believing that somehow they or their children could all become as affluent as the minority of Conservatives who run their party. They call that “aspiration”. The Conservative message relies on at least 10 per cent thinking they can get into the top 1 per cent – or, if not them, their offspring. In truth, the message relies on innumeracy.

Take the housing market, but look at it from afar. Michael Goldfarb wrote recently in the New York Times about terraced houses in the area of London where he lives that have tripled in value since 2000. This is where two-bed-and-a-boxroom homes cost over a million pounds and where people in their fifties begin to live more on the money they make from remortgaging or selling their property than on any income from work. “It’s as if the whole British economy is based on housing speculation in the capital,” wrote Goldfarb. And all that speculation relies on the young being naive and buying at inflated prices on enormous mortgages, or paying inflated rents and never being able to save.

The Help to Buy scheme has been introduced as a short-term measure to try to keep the housing market rolling forward to the next election. Right now you don’t need to save to buy a home in London, as long as a parent will give you 5 per cent of the asking price – say, £30,000. But most people do not have such rich parents. Most people who buy housing in Britain today, and especially in London, are not younger adults, but increasingly a small subset of older ones – the landlords. By some estimates, landlords make up as little as 2 per cent of the population, yet they are taking a rising share of our money.

The Conservative message can be conveyed convincingly only by someone who believes in it. However, that someone needs others not quite to understand how 10 per cent cannot fit into 1 per cent. They need to turn the majority, who once fought for and won the welfare state, against welfare. They need to convince most people that if someone wants to say no to doing a job, any job, it is because they are lazy.

Work gets better only when we have a choice to say no to some work. We need to be able to say that it is too demeaning, too poorly paid, too dangerous or too dirty. Then the employers need to offer us enough money in return if they want that work done. That is what a well-functioning labour market looks like. It is what you get in a good society –a truly free labour market in place of servitude.

For work to be good work, there needs to be choice, including the choice to say no to bad work. The same is true of education and training. Young adults need a choice. It can become good when there is a choice not to take it, when there is a selection of provision and when there is no provider of last resort that you have no option but to endure. No sin-bin unit for the losers.

The same is true of the housing market; it works best where people have a choice, and some housing is regarded as unfit. Markets work when we have a choice to say no. The housing market does not work when governments spend billions to inflate prices artificially so that you have to buy whatever tiny dilapidated property you can afford, and are then made to feel grateful for being able to borrow so much money from people so much better off than you. House prices should have been falling as wages fell but that would have reduced the wealth of the richest.

Good choice can be provided in a private market, or in a mixed market, or in a wholly state-owned market, as was the case with the National Health Service when you could still choose your doctor and there were enough NHS dentists between whom to choose. Good choice is supposed to be the hallmark of the private market but it does not exist if most of those who are supposed to be choosing have no proper options. Make the poor much poorer and push more of the average towards poverty, and you reduce the power and energy of the majority to wield influence in all sectors of society.

If the Conservatives win a majority at the next election, all under-25s will lose the right to housing benefit. Yet 45 per cent of young housing-benefit claimants are parents. Young parents are the very opposite of the fictional, indolent youths with nothing to do. Because young families also need a room for their children, it is those young parents, mostly single mums in their twenties, who claim the large majority of the housing benefit that Cameron is seeking to cut. Those mums claim it purely to hand over to their private landlords, who then let them live in what are invariably among the poorest flats and houses in town.

What will happen when all these benefits for the under-25s are cut, should the Conservatives win an outright majority in 2015 and implement their proposals? How much more overcrowding will there be in the poorest homes? How much more hunger? How poorly clothed will the poorest become? How easy will it be for any unscrupulous employer to find cheap labour to work any hour of the day and night at any job? The employers might still have to pay the minimum wage, although even that is lower for those aged under 25, but they do not have to provide a minimum-quality job. They know their employees cannot say no.

Already it is compulsory to take any job offered should you be claiming JSA; however, you have a little freedom for a little time over which jobs you might apply for, and then a little choice over your enthusiasm at the job interviews because you are not yet required to lie and say how much you’d like to do a job you’d hate.

At the sharp end, cutting benefits for young adults makes us all worse off. All those who will be working as teachers and trainers on the schemes that become mandatory should know that many of their pupils do not want to be there. All those employing people to do those jobs that both they and their employees know should not be done on such low wages should realise that their workers despise them and would not choose to work for them freely. And as for the cuts to housing benefit, how much more stress, violence and abuse will continue in households because a young adult cannot leave home until he or she turns 25?

It is the very poorest of the young who are suffering most, but the living standards of the average young person in Britain are also deteriorating and young people’s hopes are evaporating. Young people who do comparatively well are also being hit hard. The £9,000-a-year university tuition fee looks very similar to a 49 per cent marginal rate of tax for future graduates, a rate being held in reserve, ready for when they achieve a modest income in the future. However, unlike a general tax that can be used for the common good, their 9 per cent top-up tax rate will go to the rich who buy the loan book.

Finally, what of the most successful of university graduates, the ones who go on to get a starter job in the City, and look to buy that tiny flat close to work? What will happen when they take out their 95 per cent mortgage and start repaying one-twenty-fifth of the borrowed capital out of what they take home after tax? For a few years they might be able to do it, just – until interest rates rise.

The vast majority of our young people are being ripped off. Have we taught them so badly that they do not know it?

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford

JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser