Las Vegas—This is where irony goes to die—or get defibrillated. A state with two Mormon senators where the hookers and wedding chapels “accept all major credit cards,” and the airport greets new arrivals with a phalanx of slot machines. Long before the first crapshooter rolled the dice, Nevada had already clinched its place in American mythology as the home of the Comstock Lode—a silver deposit that formed the basis of the Hearst media empire, the Bank of California, and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. But the odds on success were long even then. A young Confederate deserter named Samuel Clemens came out from Missouri in 1861 with his older brother Orion, a Lincoln man appointed secretary of the territory. Failing to make his fortune as a prospector, Clemens became a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, where he adopted the pen name Mark Twain.
What would Twain have made of Bernie Sanders, scourge of “casino capitalism,” treading the embroidered carpets of the Wynn, or greeting his supporters after last month’s Democratic debate in the hotel’s Petrus Room? (In the nearby Tower Suite Bar, a 1996 Bordeaux goes for $400 a glass, or $3,790 for a full bottle.) Or the Clinton donor who boasted of winning $25,000 at poker before the debate began? Or Anderson Cooper, great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, challenging Sanders: “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
What might memory, or history, mean when most of the neon landmarks that turn the nighttime sky here into a huge billboard for greed and the main chance didn’t exist 30 years ago? Of the five casinos knocked over in the original Sinatra version of Ocean’s 11—the Desert Inn, the Flamingo, the Riviera, the Sahara, and the Sands—only the Flamingo remains. Most of the people here are new, too. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Las Vegas grew by 42 percent, making it the fastest-growing city in the country. Now it’s the foreclosure capital of the Southwest. Walking from the Strip to Binion’s downtown, I saw homeless people camped out under the freeways. What happens in America happens in Vegas, too.
That includes politics. Harry Reid’s claim that “nobody lives” in New Hampshire and that Iowa is “a place that does not demonstrate what America is all about” may have been calculated to please his hometown crowd, but he had a point. Nevada has more than twice the population of New Hampshire and is almost twice the size of Iowa—too big to rely on face-to-face politicking. And in a state where nearly half the population is nonwhite, talking the talk on diversity won’t cut it.
Neither will platitudes about the middle class. Journey a few blocks from the bright lights of the Strip, and economic insecurity hangs over the place like a toxic cloud. Nevada lost 186,000 jobs during the crash. Unemployment in Las Vegas is still at 6.8 percent—worse than in any other big city. “There’s a huge disconnect between the debate in Washington and the things that actually affect people’s lives every day,” says Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union Local 226.