Double your cuts: the coalition is threatening to make a second round of cuts. Picture: Daniel Malka/Gallery Stock
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The economic consequences of George Osborne: covering up the austerity mistake

How did the coalition government manage to transform the media debate on macroeconomics so comprehensively - and what will happen now they have?

The coalition defined itself as a government of austerity or, as its members preferred, as a government with the courage to take the hard decisions necessary to deal with the deficit. In its first two years it did what it had promised to do – and more – and as a result inflicted palpable harm on the economy. The recovery was delayed, costing the average household the equivalent of at least £4,000. In 2012 the government departed from its earlier plans and eased up on austerity, but pretended it had not.

The numbers are stark. GDP per head, a far better indicator of prosperity than GDP alone, grew on average by just 1 per cent a year between 2010 and 2014. The average growth rate from 1950 to 2010 was close to 2.25 per cent. Even under the last Labour government, average growth was 1.5 per cent, and that period included the global financial crisis. The past few years, as we recovered from the crash, should have been a time of above-average, not below-average growth. Even growth in the past two years has been only average by historical standards.

A government entering an election with that kind of performance should be trying to avoid talking about its economic record at all costs. Yet the opposite is the case. Indeed, the Conservative Party has an election platform that promises to repeat exactly the same mistake it made 2010. As a macroeconomist, I find it very easy to explain the impact the government’s mistakes had on the economy. I find it much more difficult to understand how it might, in three weeks’ time, get away with them, let alone promise to make the same mistake again.

The first important point to note is that austerity was not forced on the coalition. There was no market pressure that required it to embark on rapid fiscal tightening. There was a government debt crisis in 2010 but it was confined to a few eurozone countries, for one simple reason: none of those countries has a central bank of its own. If the markets refused to fund their governments they could not ask their own central bank to do so instead. From 2010 until September 2012, the European Central Bank refused to play the role that economists call “lender of last resort” and as a result interest rates on Irish, Portuguese and Spanish government debt increased substantially. In September 2012, the ECB changed its mind and promised (with conditions) to act as a lender of last resort. Interest rates fell and the eurozone debt funding crisis came to an end.

Outside the eurozone, governments had no problem funding their deficits. Interest rates on UK debt and that of other countries fell steadily. Yet to listen to many City economists is to be told that we should not take the markets for granted. Had austerity not been imposed, these markets could have turned on us at any time, and therefore it was right to reduce the deficit sharply as a precautionary measure. There is, unfortunately, a good deal of self-interest in this advice. If we have to fashion our economic policy to appease an unpredictable market, it adds to the influence of those who profess to be able to interpret its mood.

So let us imagine what might have happened, had the UK not undertaken austerity in 2010 and if the markets had started to worry that it might default. That would have put upward pressure on interest rates, as markets required some compensation for the possibility of default. However, the Bank of England was at the same time buying large quantities of UK government debt under its quantitative easing (QE) programme, which was designed to keep rates low. Any market panic would have been quickly offset by the Bank’s actions as it bought more debt. Unlike eurozone countries, the UK can never “run out of money” and so is not at risk of default.

Embarking on austerity was a choice for the coalition, not something it was forced to do. But large deficits cannot be sustained permanently. At some point they need to be reduced. And yet, since the time of Keynes, standard economics has recognised that cutting government spending or raising taxes reduces aggregate demand. So is there ever a good time to reduce the deficit?

There is a simple answer to that question. Although cutting the deficit will reduce demand, this can be offset by the central bank cutting interest rates. Fiscal austerity need not damage the aggregate economy as long as monetary policy is able to push in the other direction. The big problem in 2010 was that this was impossible because interest rates were already as low as the Bank thought prudent. So there is one set of circumstances in which it is unwise to cut the deficit and these circumstances were exactly those that prevailed in 2010.

Although the Bank felt it could not cut interest rates any further, it did have the policy of QE. Could this substitute for the inability to cut short-term interest rates? The answer is that economists had very little idea, essentially because QE had not been tried before. To embark on austerity, and hope that the programme would offset its effects, was therefore a large risk to take.

What happened was that the recovery in output that seemed to be about to occur in 2010 did not materialise. George Osborne would say that this poor performance was the result of things outside his control, such as the eurozone crisis. However, here we can turn to the Office for Budget Responsibility for guidance. The OBR calculates that austerity reduced GDP growth by 1 percentage point in both of the first two years of the coalition government: therefore, the level of GDP was 2 points lower in the second year. As growth did not return until 2013, at the very least that indicates that austerity led to a cumulative output loss of 5 per cent of GDP, which is about £4,000 per household.

How firmly based is the OBR analysis? There are very good reasons for thinking that its numbers are rather conservative. They look at the average effect of austerity over the past but, as has been noted, monetary policy is often able to offset the impact of fiscal consolidation on output, whereas on this occasion monetary policy’s hands were tied. We also have good econometric evidence that austerity has a larger-than-average impact in periods of recession. So, you could easily double the £4,000 number.

Osborne originally intended to eliminate the deficit within five years. However, in 2012, with the recovery nowhere in sight and tax revenues lower than expected, he changed the plan. Since 2012 there has been  much less deficit reduction and, partly as a result, the recovery began – three years late – in 2013.

 

***

 

This is all straightforward economics of the kind taught to every economics undergraduate around the world. The government chose a policy that many economists said in advance would do considerable harm. When that harm materialised it had to change its policy. That should have meant the government suffered a large blow to its reputation. The delayed recovery is one reason why living standards have suffered, so this is hardly an academic issue. A government with this woeful record should not be campaigning on economic competence. So, how has it managed to turn complete failure into the appearance of success?

There are four critical steps in how this was achieved. The first was to equate government budgets with household budgets. A consequence of recession is that many individuals and firms have to tighten their belts, so it seems intuitive that governments should do the same. This will be painful but individuals know that putting off their own adjustment can make things worse. It is part of every economics student’s initial education to learn why this analogy between individuals and governments is wrong – but most people have not studied economics.

A second key step was to blame the deficit on Labour profligacy. You do not need an economist to tell you that the main reason for the increase in the deficit was the recession created by the financial crisis. It is the case that the later years of the Brown chancellorship were not as fiscally prudent as his earlier years. But just before the recession the government debt-to-GDP ratio was lower than in 1997, which hardly indicates profligacy. Some have tried to suggest in hindsight that 2007 was a massive boom year (implying the need to run a budget surplus) but most evidence suggests otherwise and that certainly was not what most people thought at the time. There is enough here to make the profligacy charge vaguely credible, however, to people who do not look at the numbers.

The third stage in the austerity deception was to pretend that the policy change in 2012 was not a change in policy. The truth is plain to see in the data, but it was vital for Osborne not to admit that he was easing up on austerity. If he had admitted to changing his policy, he would have had to say why: austerity was delaying the recovery. All this stuff about a “long-term economic plan” can be seen as part of the effort to cover up the reversal and, therefore, the austerity mistake.

Pretending there had been no change in policy also allowed the fourth and final stage of turning failure into success, which was the most audacious deception of all. This was to claim that the recovery in 2013 vindicated the austerity policy. To see how absurd this claim is, imagine that a government on a whim decided to close down half the economy for a year. That would be a crazy thing to do, and with only half as much produced, everyone would be much poorer. However, a year later when that half of the economy started up again, economic growth would be around 100 per cent. The government could claim that this miraculous recovery vindicated its decision to close half the economy down the previous year. That would be absurd, but it is a pretty good analogy to claiming that the recovery of 2013 vindicated the austerity of 2010.

This was how the government could turn economic failure into apparent political success. The strategy also had one further consequence. It redefined the meaning of what good macroeconomic policy was. If you asked any economist what the aim of government policy should be, he or she would probably say it was to increase the welfare of the public, or, more specifically, to raise standards of living. A government that had presided over the longest fall in real wages in modern UK history would be in deep trouble. However, for much of the media, the goal of macroeconomic policy has been redefined as how effective the government has been at reducing the deficit. Macroeconomics as portrayed by the media is so different from the macroeconomics of the textbooks that I call it “mediamacro”.

Nothing illustrates mediamacro better than Ed Miliband’s 2014 Labour conference speech, in which he forgot to mention the deficit. In terms of what influences national prosperity, the real news over the past five years has been the stagnation in UK productivity. Yet when David Cameron failed to mention the productivity slowdown in his conference speech, hardly any journalist bothered to highlight this huge omission. When Miliband forgot to mention the deficit even Jon Snow lambasted him.

How did the coalition government manage to transform the media debate on macroeconomic policy so comprehensively? I have some idea of the ingredients involved but much less idea of how important each is. Of course having a partisan press is important, if only because it is capable of setting agendas. It also helps that the BBC can be easily intimidated. When its former economics editor Stephanie Flanders dared suggest that a lack of productivity growth might be a problem, Iain Duncan Smith made a formal complaint.

There is a further problem with how the media generally get their economic expertise. The economists you are most likely to see in the media are those who work in the City. It is, after all, part of their job to get media exposure; they’re always on hand to give a reaction. To be fair, when it comes to the daily ups and downs of the market, they are also best qualified to play this role, though in fact no one knows why markets move from day to day. But on issues of macroeconomic policy, City economists can present a biased and distorted view.

At the beginning of 2014, the Financial Times conducted a survey of economists; one of the questions it asked was: “Has George Osborne’s ‘plan A’ been vindicated by the recovery?” As I have already suggested, this question has an obvious answer. The 2013 recovery could not possibly vindicate the 2010 austerity because it is exactly what you would have expected to happen after austerity initially reduced GDP growth and was eased as a result. Among the academics answering this question, there were ten clear nos and only two clear yeses. However, among the many City economists who answered the FT survey, the numbers of yes and no replies were more evenly balanced.

Granted, it is regrettable that academic economists cannot speak with complete unanimity on the matter, but a 2/10 split is as close to a consensus as these things go. It is also the case that almost all academic macroeconomists would argue that the cuts in public investment that occurred in 2010 were a grave mistake. As the New Statesman reported in 2012, many of the minority of economists who originally supported immediate austerity have since acknowledged that cutting public investment in 2010 and 2011 was a grave mistake. It was these cuts, such as halting repairs to schools or reducing spending on flood defences, which most damaged GDP.

The austerity mistake involves basic macroeconomics. Cutting spending will reduce demand and is not to be undertaken when interest rates cannot be cut to offset its impact. The Conservatives, if elected, plan further sharp austerity in the early years of the next parliament, at a time when interest rates are still expected to be at or near their floor. Whatever your views about the desirable size of the state in the long run, to cut spending when the economy is still vulnerable in this way is to take a huge risk. It is exactly the risk that materialised from 2010, except today there is not even a hint of market pressure to cut the deficit quickly. Being able to cover up the earlier mistake is bad enough. Planning to repeat it is pure folly.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economics at Oxford University

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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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