Diagnosing the Morales Campaign Meltdown

Diagnosing the Morales Campaign Meltdown

Diagnosing the Morales Campaign Meltdown

It all sounds like a bad family therapy session. What does the psychiatric literature have to say?


The complete meltdown of Dianne Morales’s New York City mayoral campaign was like a live-action parody of Tolstoy’s opening line from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Family really shouldn’t have had anything to do with it, but it sprang to mind precisely because Morales herself invoked the F-word in one of her many multi-paragraph servings of BS: “I sat with campaign staff—many of whom I consider family—for hours to listen to concerns on a myriad of issues.” Anytime someone likens the employment relationship to a family, it should set off alarm bells. Seeing a supposedly anti-capitalist campaign engage in rhetorical manipulations long derided as the tools of the oppressor confirmed that it was all a farce. Put simply: You don’t have to pay your family. Domestic workers—the very Black and brown immigrant women Morales repeatedly claimed to represent—have specifically rejected that framing because it’s how their employers have historically denied them formal workplace protections.

As Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back, explains, “The history of the family is the history of women’s unpaid work, so the idea of ‘work is like a family’ is saying that it’s not real work. It’s extraneous. Something you do for love, not money.” Big Tech’s variation on this ploy offers tempting pay but positions work such that it supplants domestic life itself: Employees get all their needs met on the job—laundry, meals, counseling, even a social life. And like the language that’s become endemic to progressive campaigns—where every e-mail seems to end with “Join our movement!”—everyone from conventional corporate overlords to grassroots upstarts is trying to foster a higher purpose in order to extract more time and devotion from willing hands. The goal is total enmeshment, so that employees derive their entire sense of worth from work.

In Morales’s case, she used movement-speak to avoid paying her staff appropriately, leveraging her identity as an Afro-Latina running a so-called revolutionary campaign to skirt accountability. It’s plainly ridiculous, but she got pretty far with it, thanks to her incredibly young, preprofessional staff, who by their own admission allowed her to violate basic workplace norms.

When they revolted six weeks before Election Day and spontaneously formed the Mayorales Union—which was a Twitter handle, not a certified union—they sank her campaign, while claiming to be “doing the work” the campaign was ostensibly about. Most incredibly, they stated their desire to return to the campaign under new, wildly aberrant conditions, including equal pay for everyone regardless of skill and taxpayer-funded severance for those who might not wish to continue. They burned sage and incense, posted photos of group hugs, and issued impenetrable statements citing “harm” and “safety” without ever specifying what actually happened.

On top of it all, they demanded validation for this circus from people not even involved: “The media and some folks are not aware of the hurt and pain these past 5 days the @mayoralesunion had. Personally I feel betrayed. Gaslighted. I held Dianne in my arms while we both cried on Tuesday. I believed her.” The endless heart emojis on Twitter and threads citing “trauma” and the need for “healing” further skewed the already therapized discourse.

This was clearly not a workplace, so maybe Morales wasn’t that far off in calling it a family, albeit a highly dysfunctional one. There’s no doubt that campaigns attract passionate people who find fellowship and community around a common purpose. But things took a particularly frenzied turn here: Campaign staffers appeared to experience personal betrayals driven by expectations well beyond the limits of work. This emotional intensification shows how social-media-inflected affects have distorted reality, and also perhaps reflects a broader need for something we can’t and shouldn’t get from our employer. At the risk of extending the metaphor too far, the diagnostic literature offers some (very conditional) insights into how the campaign took on a family dynamic.

The psychiatrist Murray Bowen, best known for his family-systems theory framework, first described his concept of “fusion” in 1978: Those who don’t achieve sufficient self-differentiation from their family of origin can develop maladaptive relationships with others. A “fused” subject, still soldered to their family, is prone to recreating unresolved dynamics at work, failing to establish appropriate boundaries and expectations, and finding themselves less capable of coping with conflict. This lack of what Bowen calls “self-regulation” results in the breakdown between feelings and thinking systems, leaving people more emotionally reactive compared to, “a clearly defined sense of self and an ability to thoughtfully adhere to one’s convictions even when pressured to do otherwise.” Such a person becomes preoccupied with acceptance and rejection.

We generally recognize this as immaturity, but the conventions of social media have exploded the tendency into a full-blown pathology. In a social feed, the experience of politics is one long stream of consciousness, even public therapy, with some performative “shitposting” to signal passion, but mostly self-righteousness. The algorithms are quite literally calibrated to play to our most extreme feelings, and they condition a charged response to any number of scenarios that could be managed with less intensity in real life. Because candidates couldn’t campaign in person this past year, politics for many young people went fully digital, merging—fusing?—with the very online existence that already characterized much of the left. Your politics is now an extension of your personality, fully branded on Twitter with your chosen campaign’s colors. The Mayorales Union logo, with its inverse gradient of the candidate’s once-ubiquitous flaming sunrise, immediately signaled a new brand identity. In poaching progressive rhetoric for a personal image-building exercise aimed at eager acolytes in search of a collective experience, Morales only proved the value of good branding over actual substance.

Some staffers fled to the Maya Wiley campaign. Although she lacked Morales’s Pied Piper appeal, Wiley offered something better: paid time off, full health benefits, an employee handbook, and standardized salaries for staff at the same level. This was never something she boasted about or wore as a badge of honor, because it’s, quite simply, basic.

But if you believed the Twitterati, Wiley wasn’t the real progressive. The Internet gods are false, indeed.

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