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The US Election: Loss In A Liberal Heartland

15/11/2016 11:43

It might not have seemed it back in the '70s and '80s when the Democrats were falling to crushing and entirely expected electoral defeats, the kind experienced in the UK by a Labour Party squaring up to Margaret Thatcher and a Conservative Party bamboozled by Tony Blair, but it's the hope that kills you. All seemed rosy on the morning of Tuesday 8th November. Hillary Clinton was back ahead in the polls with her much vaunted ground game fully primed, and the opposition had Donald Trump, an unelectable lunatic. Oh for that sweet misplaced optimism as the night wore on.

Fate swings on fine margins. A percent here, a county carried there, and the election goes another way. The unstoppable Trump train grinds to a halt and liberal America wins, albeit a diminished victory in a deeply divided country. That wouldn't have mattered to those in the Clinton heartlands celebrating wildly, but it was not to be. Instead, a mixture of shock, despair, anger and existential grief took over the day after. Politics, for all the nakedly careerist scheming, is more than just a game. It matters and it hurts when the country you live in refuses to endorse your views.

I felt it on 24th June, part of the dumbstruck remain voters, and I saw it firsthand last week from my new liberal heartland. Few places in America backed Clinton as resoundingly as the citizens of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 89.2% of votes went her way compared to 6.5% for Trump. It came as no surprise to find people in tears the next day. Others were full of rage; some said nothing, unable to find words to express the new world they found themselves in. The change was stark; elation to despair in hours.

Walking around the next day, I couldn't help but compare the mood to pre-election weekend volunteering in the swing state of New Hampshire. The final Saturday morning of the campaign and hundreds are flooding north from Cambridge in a ragtag convoy cobbled together on the spot. I'm one of the many, travelling with my brother and an Italian academic, determined to do our part in an election we otherwise lack the right to vote in. The organisers in Cambridge are surprised at the turnout; a little uncertain they'll keep it all in check, yet eager to push on.

First we go to the small town of Hampton, only to find the campaign office overwhelmed. They send us to a farm in the middle of nowhere, another office also awash with volunteers. The mood is upbeat. For all the wider belief Clinton represents the status quo, it's not felt by those on doorsteps. People out that day saw a glass ceiling to shatter and a progressive platform to deliver. While she may have struggled to whip up enthusiasm across the country, there was no shortage in pockets.

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Packed into a lopsided farmhouse, the roof intruding onto the taller people present, a mixed crowd of surprisingly normal people waited patiently for assignments. In the UK, political canvassing brings out a collection of enthusiastic oddballs. The sheer normality of everyone present for Clinton struck me. They were all ages, probably more women than men, covered in stickers and t-shirts emblazoned with re-appropriated insults dished out by Trump. A harassed organiser from California tries to complete our training, interrupted by the steady flow of new arrivals through the front door. A small dog and fat cat wander amongst the crowd, providing further distractions. The organiser gets us out the door eventually, clutching carefully curated scripts and a collection of leaflets.

Our route requires hours to take in only a small handful of houses. That's rural canvassing. Muddy paths leading past pig pens and farm machinery up to enormously sprawling domiciles prove the norm. It was a far cry from the compact terraces of the London suburbs I'm used to. Nearly everyone is polite, shaking hands and welcoming us. There's optimism in the air from the residents, at least the Clinton supporters. It's get out the vote time so we're only speaking to the already converted. One woman issued an open invitation to come and stay. Another wanted to discuss the recent court ruling on Brexit, delighted to find two Britons appearing as she's chopping wood. Some were frustrated at the constant attention, eager to see our energy spent on the still to be convinced.

Out in that bubble, the bigger picture disappears. Surrounded only by happy supporters and determined volunteers, the full extent of the battle becomes obscured. It's hard not to sense victory. The massed crowd could taste it. I could taste it. Come election day and students from the local universities are skipping class to campaign. In the urban areas Clinton placards dominate. It was easy to overlook the preponderance of Trump regalia outside cities, easy to dismiss the hardy souls standing by roads holding aloft Trump signs for passing motorists. When it feels like everyone is pulling in the same direction, the result takes on a tinge of inevitability.

Then it's the morning after and it all came to naught. Go to a Trump heartland on Wednesday and expect to find jubilation and more than a little disbelief. It didn't seem possible. An overreaction set in all day in Cambridge. One person went fully overboard, in tears contemplating the coming concentration camps. Others immediately took up a posture of resistance, only dimly aware they could never tolerate the same behaviour from Trump supporters were roles reversed. The level of hatred thrown at those who voted against Clinton proved intense, too intense for some. If not always excusable, it is at least understandable. Surrounded by like-minded people, it was hard to understand where tens of millions of Trump votes came from.

The intensity of feeling that swept over those waking to the bad news couldn't sustain. By the end of the day feverish conversations died down. Lost souls trudged about, trapped in personal defeat. Losing when the stakes appear so high is hard to bear. Losing to a force anathema to cherished ideals strikes at the heart of personal identity. There's a feeling of shame that's hard to grasp, a feeling of disappointment slipping easy description. It's why people were crying through a spin class at the local gym. It's why households kept Clinton signs out mournfully days after the election.

The defeated know the score, but if they can hold off the inevitable for just a little while longer they will. The grief is real because the choice stood so stark. Safe in the liberal heartlands it could hardly have been easier to make. How does that square with the fact not far off 50% of eligible voters didn't make it to the polls at all, and nearly 50% of those that did chose a vastly different path? It doesn't, it can't possibly. What they wouldn't give for a return to before the polls closed. Deep divisions have cracked open this country, deeper than many understood before. They know it at last. While one side celebrates, and everyone in the middle watches on uncertainly, the liberal heartlands grief for what could have been and what now is. Four years seems a lifetime away.

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