How many yogis does it take to fill a Democratic presidential primary?
On a single-night, triple-header CNN event this summer, two out of three candidates professed their love of the self-care arts. Almost up there with the number of dentists who recommend Crest.
“I love doing hot yoga!” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said during one of the news network’s many “Presidential Town Halls” while detailing the multiple seven-day silent meditation retreats he’s gone on. Rep. Seth Moulton, who has since dropped out of the race, echoed Ryan’s sentiments.
It’s not enough for candidates to feel America’s pain right now; they apparently have to prove that they can feel their own pain first. We’re in the Kale Smoothie Era of Democratic politics.
They seem to be responding to the sizable wellness-oriented portion of the American electorate that’s now a Twilight Zone away from a few election cycles ago, when politicians were scrambling to be the one you’d most want to knock back a beer with.
If the #selfcare movement has an avatar in this 2020 campaign, it is, of course, Marianne Williamson: spiritual adviser to Oprah, author of 13 self-help books (four of them No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, including 1992’s “A Return to Love”), and the only person in the world powerful enough to help Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler break his drug and alcohol habits. Williamson may be Goop personified, but she’s hardly alone in a field of vegetable-munching, weightlifting, mantra-chanting Democratic hopefuls out to show not tell that they can be America’s healthy alternative to a technically obese president who tweet rants at 4 a.m.
And because this is an age when follower count presumably leads to votes, these private, individualistic rituals have taken on the cast of 24-hour Instagram theater:
Sen. Cory Booker, a vegan who meditates daily (“I find it centers me,” he said), had to restrict himself to fried PB&J sandwiches on a stick, instead of the standard pork chop on a stick, at the Iowa State Fair.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a vegetarian, has done an interview in the ocean while surfing and is the only female “grunting gym rat” to take part in a hardcore circuit training workout for select members of the House.
Sen. Kamala Harris is a professed lover of SoulCycle, that spin-class-slash-lifestyle-choice where you shout out affirmations and strive for both your personal best and euphoria all in 45 sweaty minutes. (She’s said she won’t join boycotts of the brand because its owner threw a fundraiser for President Donald Trump.)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who dropped out of the race recently after failing to qualify for the September debate, has done bench presses with 25-pound weights both for the benefits of reporters and impressive, if tonally deaf Twitter videos.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced he was running via a Twitter video of him literally running in a charity race.
Former congressman John Delaney, easily the most jacked of all the candidates, regularly posts Twitter videos of his workouts doing dead lifts (“Got to be strong to beat Trump”) or doing 10 pullups (“Easy!”).
Then there’s Beto O’Rourke, who, as he contemplated running for president, took his own journey of self-discovery that took him all the way to the Santuario de Chimayo, a chapel built atop an ancient holy site in northern New Mexico and home to what is believed to be magical dirt with healing properties.
“I went in,” O’Rourke said. “And ate some dirt.” (This isn’t exactly encouraged.)
As a candidate, O’Rourke is so wellness-oriented that he’s held an eight-mile bicycling town hall, and inspired a recurring Jimmy Fallon Web sketch called “Beto Breaks the Internet” in which Fallon impersonates O’Rourke doing, say, an Instagram story of his “12th workout of the day.” In it, Fallon-as-O’Rourke declares, “Doctors say the chemical makeup of my sweat is closer to Gatorade than water, so I just leave it on the machine just in case anyone needs a little boost.”
“Wellness is not an idea that is exclusively left, but definitely the 2016 election was when you really saw the term explode on the left with the idea that the world was just too traumatic and too difficult and you have to take care of yourself,” says Amy Larocca, a New York Magazine writer who’s working on a book on the wellness movement for Knopf. “If you look at Instagram mentions of self-care, they increase exponentially after the election of Trump.”
The search term, according to Google Trends, hit a five-year high in the week after the election, and peaked in September 2018 during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. More than 6 in 10 Americans report the current political climate to be a stressor, according to a 2018 report from the American Psychological Association.
“Mental wellness is by far the biggest trend in the U.S. wellness market — whether it’s the big spike in meditation, the explosion in cannabis and CBD, or the new obsession with sleep,” says Beth McGroarty of the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit that researches the $4.2 trillion global wellness economy. “We seem to desire more than anything to be unconscious, the only time we’re not in front of screens, social media, and divisive, insane news cycles.”
McGroarty says there’s also been an increase in interest in what might be considered “woo-woo spiritual wellness” such as astrology, crystals and tarot reading since Trump’s election. That’s self-care in 2019.
A 1988 quote from African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde can be found paraphrased and misappropriated all over Instagram: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She was referring to her life of marginalization because of her identity. This moment probably wasn’t what she hoped to inspire.
Soon after the end of the first night of debates in Detroit, Williamson’s followers gathered in a half-moon in a nearby concert hall, singing “Amazing Grace” and waiting for their long-shot candidate to bless them with her presence.
She greeted them with an impromptu speech about angels, demons, love, hate and, somehow, Abraham Lincoln. Then a voice rang out from the crowd: “We need to make an offering!” Spiritual? Religious? Pagan sacrifice?
Whatever the person meant, Williamson understood. “Tonight I don’t do that,” she said, but she did encourage them to show her their love in the form of enough $1 donations to meet qualifications for getting onto the next debate stage in Houston. (Williamson passed the donor threshold, but did not meet a polling requirement by the DNC’s deadline.)
By partaking in wellness culture, Democrats are in many ways speaking to their base, which is not the same base that delighted in Bill Clinton leisurely jogging to McDonald’s.
And they’re speaking to a mainstream culture in which the language has been Oprah-fied and Michelle Obama-fied. People talk about therapy and holistic betterment or the HeadSpace app in everyday conversation. (Hey, even Clinton is now mostly vegan.)
“The Democratic Party this time around is not trying very hard so far to appeal to working-class voters because in Democratic primaries there aren’t as many as there used to be,” says William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who’s worked on six presidential campaigns, including Clinton’s. “What you see in the concentration of yoga, meditation and working out is classic tropes and habits of the urban upper middle class.”
The U.S. wellness industry is set to reach a market value of $179 billion in 2020, and it stands to reason that people who can pay for yoga class have enough spare change to donate to a political campaign. Williamson has met constituents in a yoga studio. And Tim Ryan — author of the 2012 self-help tome “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit” — held a yoga fundraiser in New York City. (“We raised good money!”)
There’s other coding involved, too, Larocca says. Candidates can signal who they are by what kind of wellness activities they engage in. “There’s an idea that it’s a progressive thing to look after yourself. A lot of these wellness tropes get associated with political movements: Veganism is associated with an interest in climate change, and good health is associated with a moral correctness now.”
Much of the wellness world is based on the idea of ridding yourself of things that are toxic, a word that liberals have often applied to Trump and the current political climate. “So the search would be for something clean,” Larocca says. “And it’s set up in opposition to someone like Trump.”
But another reason we’re seeing so many Democratic candidates seemingly obsessed with wellness might be simply that they need it.
“Campaigns are exhausting. They frazzle your soul. … It’s like trying to ride a bicycle in an earthquake,” Galston says.
Candidates might arrive at one state in the morning and wind up in another at the end of the day, all while trying to do their day jobs as senators, governors, etc. and maintaining a life with his or her family. And that’s in an average year without 20-some candidates.
“Decades ago, presidential campaigns didn’t go on for two years,” says Kevin Lewis, who worked on Barack Obama’s first campaign and was his post-presidency spokesman. Exercise or an outlet such as meditation or journaling is vital, he says. “You’re burning the candle at both ends and if you don’t find ways to put that energy in the right place, it will manifest itself in the wrong place, like in the middle of a debate.”
Ryan, who’s selling himself as the working-class Ohio candidate, got into yoga to deal with old injuries from his college football days, and said in an interview he’s found downward dogs and meditating every day to be beneficial.
“To me, it was something I really, really enjoyed. Especially in this business with your mind going a million miles a minute just trying to keep up with social media and all its negative effects. This is an antidote to that stuff,” he said. “Plus it builds strength. When my buddies would tease me and I’d tell them each, ‘Come on, big boy, let’s do a workout. See if you can handle it.’ “
What we really might be seeing, Galston suggests, is a shift from identity politics to authenticity politics. Gone are the days when a president could be in a wheelchair and half the country would not know it. Booker’s veganism probably won’t be a selling point among cattle farmers in the general election (“It’s easier to be for someone who’s like you than someone who’s not like you,” Galston says), but he can prevent it from being too big a liability by owning it, being upfront about who he is, and flooding his Instagram with shots of veggies.
“My friends joke around with me about being a vegan,” he said in an interview, “but I love it and wouldn’t change a thing. It’s part of who I am, and I think people understand that and get it.”
At least, unlike a certain former president, he likes broccoli.
And then, if you’ve already hired a millennial to run your social media strategy, why not put that bike ride, that workout, that eagle pose out there? The first rule of a social media strategy, Lewis says, is to keep feeding it content. And the second rule is to keep followers engaged by showing your candidate letting their hair down. Wellness content allows for all of that, though Lewis says not to read too much into it.
“Candidates who are polling low and looking for traction, they’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping to find any opportunity to have anybody pay attention to what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s probably the main strategy on their front.”
Being a wellness candidate, though, isn’t necessarily a winning strategy. Bill de Blasio insists on being driven 11 miles every day to work out at his old YMCA in Brooklyn — and it’s easily the least popular move he’s made in a string of unpopular moves as New York’s mayor.
It’s rather notable that none of the front-runners seem to be overly performative about their self-care routines.
Sen. Bernie Sanders once talked about chopping wood for exercise in 2016.
Former vice president Joe Biden has challenged Trump to a push-up contest and said he’d “take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him” if they were in high school. (Biden later said he regretted that tough talk.)
Elizabeth Warren goes for six-mile walks with her dog, Bailey.
And if you’re searching for a picture of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in a gym, the closest you’ll get is him posing in a button-down shirt and tie while visiting a high school.
It may, in fact, be Sen. Michael Bennet who has the best strategy of all. He talks about meditating sometimes, sure, but earlier this month he offered himself up as a kind of salve for the country, the human equivalent of burning sage from sea to shining sea: “If you elect me president,” he tweeted, “I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time. … So you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”