Embrace of yoga, veganism, meditation and more can appeal to voters and help candidates deal with stress
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.
"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 YorkTimes 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.
But Williamson is 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 President Donald Trump.
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), ate 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 to take part in a hardcore circuit training workout for select members of the House.
Sen. Kamala Harris is a professed lover of SoulCycle, the spin-class-slashlifestyle-choice where you shout out affirmations and strive for both your personal best and euphoria all in 45 sweaty minutes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who dropped out of the race after failing to qualify for the September debate, has done bench presses with 25-pound weights for the benefit of reporters .
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced that he was running via a Twitter video of him running in a charity race.
Former Rep. 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."
O'Rourke is so wellness-oriented that he's held an 8-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," said Amy Larocca, a New York Magazine writer who's working on a book on the wellness movement for Knopf.
The search term "selfcare," according to Google Trends, hit a five-year high in the week after the election and peaked in September 2018 during the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. 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," said 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.
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.
By partaking in wellness culture, Democrats are in manyways speaking to their base, which is not the same base that delighted in Bill Clinton leisurely jogging to McDonald's.
"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," said 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 Ryan — the Ohio congressman who authored 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 asserts. 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."
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 said.
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 family life. And that's in an average year without 20-some candidates.
"Decades ago, presidential campaigns didn't go on for two years," said 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 said. "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."
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 pushup 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 6-mile walks with her dog, Bailey.
Sen. Michael Bennet may have the best strategy of all. He talks about meditating sometimes, sure, but offers 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 recently, "I promise youwon't have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time. ... So you can go raise your kids and live your lives."