Chelsea’s had a baby; the bookshop has closed; Joyce has gone back to school; a medical school has opened. A great deal has changed in the Virginia town of Roanoke — a swing area in a swing state — since I spent three weeks there during the last presidential election. Back then I asked a black woman if she thought Virginia would elect a black man to the presidency. She paused for five seconds.
“If they really know how things are now they would … they should,” she said, desperately trying to convince herself.
They did. However, back then supporters of US President Barack Obama dared not believe it even as they worked night and day to achieve it. The Obama campaign office fizzed with excitement, reviving the energy of those who had previously been disaffected with politics and drawing in new blood from people who had never been interested. People traveled hundreds of kilometers from all over the country to volunteer in the town.
There were a range of reasons for this, not least that he would be the first black president and that his election signaled a departure from the war and the oligarchic impulses of the previous eight years.
The celebrations went way beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains in which Roanoke nestles. Throughout the Caribbean radios blared Mighty Sparrow’s calypso hit Barack the Magnificent; firecrackers went off in El Salvador; Liberians danced in the street. In Ghana the late John Atta Mills ran for the presidency with posters of himself standing next to a life-size cutout of Obama and won. In Brazil, at least eight black candidates took advantage of a quirk in electoral laws so they could stand as “Barack Obama” in elections in October.
This global outpouring was more than just a response against Bush (it is difficult to believe there would have been such an outpouring if John Kerry had won in 2004). At a time when electoral turnout was declining across most of the Western world and disaffection with political classes was at its height, the energy invested in Obama in Roanoke and projected onto him from afar marked resurrection of the fundamental notion that elections could change things and, in so doing, reconnect popular will to political power through electoral politics.
“People have been excited by Obama’s candidacy, but also by working together,” said Brian Corr, who had been volunteering between 10 and 15 hours a day from his home in Boston for more than 18 months. “Organized people are more powerful than organized money — we need to make sure that all that hope that we have talked about and seen is channeled in a progressive way.”
Given the glaring flaws in US democracy, notably the influence of money and lobbyists, one can debate whether that sense of empowerment was well placed. Obama was not the head of a movement, but a well-coordinated campaign. Those involved had no ownership of it. When the election was over the offices in Roanoke closed and the staffers left. However, there was no doubt that people did feel empowered.
The most marked political change in the last four years is the degree to which those who were once politically engaged no longer have that sense of possibility. Every Obama supporter I met in 2008 was less involved now than they were then. Most were not involved at all. Many had their reasons, primarily work and children. All of them thought he was certain to win, which may have been a factor. It would be difficult to replicate the excitement of that election. In the words of Sade: “It’s never as good as the first time.”
However, underpinning it all was a general sense of ennui not with him in particular — they all still loved him — but with politics in general: A sense that there was little point in investing energy in a political class or much faith in the electoral process that produces them.
“I never thought things could become more divided and there be more fighting,” says Ann Trinkel, echoing the frustrations of many. “But oh my gosh it’s just … gridlock. And I guess that’s what lessened the hopefulness for me and made me a bit more cynical, is all the money.”
It is not difficult to see why. The day I arrived in Roanoke in 2008, Congress voted against the bailout. It felt as though you could look out of your hotel window and see the nation’s economy implode. Wachovia Bank, the area’s fourth-largest employer whose name was emblazoned on top of the town’s only skyscraper had been laid low by bad debts and was the subject of an emergency rescue. In 2008 one in eight families in Roanoke lived below the poverty line and the town’s median income was three-quarters the national average.
Today one in five live in poverty and income is 70 percent of the national average. In the year before Obama was inaugurated, unemployment there leapt from 3.6 percent to 6.5 percent. Today it is 6.4 percent. The hemorrhaging has stopped, but for many a slow death continues. True, it could be worse. However, that was not the rally cry four years ago. Some of those who bought into the promise of change could be forgiven for demanding a refund.
Nationally, the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe the country is on the wrong track and a narrow majority believe Obama does not deserve a second term. In the four years between when he first declared his candidacy and the mid-terms in 2010, the median US family lost a generation of wealth. Wages are stagnant, unemployment high, social mobility slowing, poor white women are dying earlier than their mothers did and the gap between black and white is growing. A recent poll revealed that a slim majority of Americans define success as “not falling behind.”
“They talk about the rich and the middle class … they never talk about poverty. We’re living in total poverty. We have nothing right now,” Robin Barbour said four years ago in Roanoke.
Back then she was living with her partner, Fred Crews, in his mother’s basement and volunteering for the Obama campaign. Since Obama’s been president poverty has increased about 14 percent, but he has not delivered a single speech on poverty and mentioned the word just three times in all his state-of-the-union speeches.
Few, even among his own supporters, believe an Obama re-election will actually reverse these trends. They just think Republican candidate Mitt Romney will accelerate and exacerbate them. He is winning at present not because most people think he has done a great job (though many Obama supporters do), but because they think he has done the best job he could under the circumstances. The trouble is it is precisely those circumstances — gridlock, big money, polarization — that are turning them off and, with the Republicans set to retake the House and possibly the Senate, those circumstances are going to get worse.
That is not to say that nothing has changed or that it makes no difference who wins. In Roanoke, Chelsea’s son, Harrison, was born with two heart defects. Prior to Obama’s healthcare reforms, that could have meant a life of penury in which he could either be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, had to pay exorbitant rates or faced a lifetime cap on the amount his insurance provider would pay to cover him. Such changes, along with his executive order to halt the deportation of thousands of young undocumented immigrants or the Lily Ledbetter Act, protecting equal pay for equal work, or the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell for gays in the military, makes a crucial difference to many people’s lives.
So while one may argue that Obama’s impact has been too incremental or insufficient, it is untenable to claim that he has made no impact and no difference. Both parties have framed the coming five weeks as a choice between two different visions of the country. There is some truth to that. However, beyond the vague notion of “more fairness” or “less government,” few could tell you what those visions are. The problem is that neither choice actually answers the central and enduring problems the country is facing. Like Seinfeld, this election campaigns have become a show about nothing.
Meanwhile, the electoral industrial complex keeps churning out polls and analyses as though on a split screen, making the contest not about who or what will or could change, but just who will win, where and by how much. The horse race is seductive and not entirely avoidable.
However, my aim is to report from the other screen: where people live, love, survive and — all too rarely at present — thrive. To move beyond and between the narrow lens of two parties, fuelled by gaffes and donors, to gauge what people thought would change, think of what has changed and what they would like to change. To see to what extent they think this election will make a difference to their lives and what, if anything, that tells them about the state of the country they live in.