The Slatest

This Is the Most Remarkable Political Ad of 2018

Kaniela Ing sits on a beach in Hawaii.
An ad for Hawaii congressional candidate Kaniela Ing. Screenshot via YouTube

Hawaii voters will go the polls Saturday in the state’s midterm primaries. The most watched race is perhaps the Democratic contest in the state’s Honolulu-area 1st Congressional District, where a crowded field of candidates is running and the Democratic nominee-elect will very likely win November’s general election. A poll last month suggested the state’s Democratic moderates have a lock on the race. Former congressman Ed Case was in the lead at 36 percent. Current Lt. Gov. Doug Chin was in second at 27 percent. Former state Senate President Donna Mercado Kim came in third with 14 percent. But it is the fourth-place candidate, 29-year-old state Rep. Kaniela Ing, who has received the most national attention.

Ing has been endorsed by the progressive group Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America as well as democratic socialist and Democratic NY-14 candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stumped for Ing this week. The team behind a viral ad that brought Ocasio-Cortez to national prominence earlier this year has been making ads for Ing as well. The first, a largely biographical ad released late last month, highlights housing costs in the state, student loan debt, and Democratic political complacency. The campaign’s new ad, released Wednesday, is more abstract—almost existential in its concerns. It is one of the most remarkable campaign spots released by a major party candidate in recent memory.

As he sits on a beach at sunset plucking away at his ukelele, Ing offers nothing short of a new way of living:

When we talk about policies like Medicare for All, universal health care, housing for all, public education through college, cancelling student debt—these are policies that would just make everyday working people’s lives dignified, and would make sure that they’re not just living just to work.

[…]This idea that we just need to grind, grind, grind, grind—you have billionaires that barely lift a finger. The money just works for itself. There’s more than enough resources to go around for everyone. […] If you ask people the question, “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about finances and you had your basic needs met?” the answers are amazing. People would start businesses. They’d get into art, they’d get into music and all these things that are lacking in our world. All this stuff is possible.

There have been a lot of debates over the past several months about whether the policies being advocated by self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually amount to socialism at all rather than a return to the welfare state liberalism that defined the Democratic Party from the New Deal through the 1980s. What Ing offers in this ad is bona-fide Marxism. It is a case for policies like single payer not just to materially benefit the middle class and workers, but to allow them to radically de-center the role of work in their lives—a case for the redistribution of wealth specifically with the intention of enabling leisure. The history of post-work leftism is long; an early text is a section of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The German Ideology:

[A]s soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

It goes without saying that this kind of talk has few precedents in mainstream politics. We are used to politicians who go out of their way to venerate work. If Ing pulls off a stunning upset on Saturday—July’s poll put him at 6 percent—it will be one of the most significant moments in the Democratic Party’s ongoing ideological and rhetorical realignment. Even if he loses, the rise of the socialist left seems likely to produce more candidates willing to speak this way about our working lives. And given decades of flat real wages despite rising productivity and Americans working longer hours, it’s possible that many voters won’t find rhetoric about ditching the “grind” all that radical.