Maybe American exceptionalism isn’t dead.
The world is watching the vote on Tuesday for a reason. The United States sets trends — whether they’re positive or not, whether the rest of the world likes them or not. And now the globe awaits news that either the US will continue to be a strong if flawed exponent of democracy, or whether it’s about to become something no one even here can quite imagine yet, with reverberations far beyond our shores.
Yes, America and what it does suddenly matter very much, again.
Like the UK’s Brexit, we’ve got to be careful with the generalizations we make about this election and what it means. It’s been easy for many to say, for example, that Donald Trump found his support among angry and traumatized people who missed out on the economic bonanza of two decades of globalization. But primary exit polls earlier this year showed that Trump supporters earn higher median incomes than Clinton supporters do.
However, it’s safe to say that Trump has locked in the “I don’t recognize my country anymore” vote, and the “free trade screwed me” vote.
I got a taste of this in the early 1990s, as news started coming in about the socioeconomic heartburn from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, and as Bill Clinton was signing NAFTA into effect. After reporting in West Africa for several years, I spent four years running the news department at a start-up community radio station in Plattsburgh, New York, a red part of the state.
If 2016 is a political petri dish in which the mold has obscured the agar-pink possibility of democracy, Clinton County, NY, in 1992 presented the early contours of this nasty bloom.
This is a relatively poor area just north of the Adirondack Park along the Canadian border. At that time, a lot of dairy farms had either closed or been brought into the fold of dairy conglomerates that had to compete on the global market because of GATT. One dairy farmer I knew at the time, Alice Eagan, was under pressure to up her yield using RGBH growth hormones. She was on the verge of giving up her farm because the diet and the hormones were starting to produce blood in the milk of some of her cows.
Many of the dairy farmers who quit their work found employment in the growing prison industry in upstate New York, which corroded the wall between urban ills downstate and rural misery upstate. Imagine what it must be like to shift your daily focus from silage and long days in cold barns to daily survival and schemes to smuggle drugs, weapons and sex to inmates in places like Chateaugay and Dannemora.
Plattsburgh is a 45-minute drive from a world-class foreign city, Montreal. Just as it is along the southern US border with Mexico, many from the Plattsburgh area have historic connections across the northern line to centuries-old French settlers.
At the same time, the biggest local story while I was there was the closure of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a symbolic severing of ties between the town and the world. It was a function of global affairs. The Cold War was over. The base services were no longer needed.
Clinton County had thrown its votes to the Republican candidates for president for elections past, and mostly sent Republicans to represent them in Washington and Albany. I worked and socialized with some of those voters. As a reporter, I was also meeting another conservative bloc. These were people who had been through some form of trauma: Veterans, people out of work, people who liked their guns, single mothers trying to avoid abusive boyfriends.
And then there was dairy farmer Alice Eagan, who was angry about NAFTA.
Fast-forward to October 2016, about 20 miles outside Douglas, Arizona, close to the Mexican border. I’m at the ranch of Ed Ashurst, who raises cattle.
Until last month, Plattsburgh was the last time I had spent time around cows. I was visiting Ashurst to talk politics; he’s voting for Donald Trump, but really was rooting for Ben Carson.
And in the course of my interview with him, I became aware of a blind spot in my vision as a reporter.
Here I was covering the globe for the past two decades, constantly considering outsiders’ perspectives on the United States. But I was kind of forgetting to put myself in the shoes of Americans who are affected by events beyond our borders that are out of their control. The American 99-percenters who have mostly missed out on the neo-liberals’ high-tech, low-labor embrace of the planet, while the families of people like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — the one-percenters — have benefitted from it, in one way or another.
I heard from a lot of listeners how refreshing it was to hear the voice of someone like Ed Ashurst on our radio show, a man whose life has been shaken to the core by regular trespassing on his property, by thieves and smugglers who seem to freely traverse the border in both directions.
This was eye-opening for me, much as living in Plattsburgh had been. The thing is, I thought my eyes were already open.
Years ago, I asked Alice Egan whether the forces of globalization ever made her rethink her line of work. That was the same kind of question I put to Ashurst about ranching. “Would you ever consider leaving?” I asked, meaning “leaving the business.”
But he seemed to think I meant leaving his land. “Why don’t you leave?” he said to me menacingly. “That’s the thing you people in Boston don’t get. Everybody thinks it’s my problem. It’s your problem,” he said, pointing at me for emphasis. “This is supposed to be America. Do I have to leave? So we give them 20 miles of America” — he was referring to the drug- and people-smugglers — “and next year we give them another 20 miles?”
It was that moment where he singled me out as one of those “people in Boston” that it really hit me: Ed believes that people like me, from another part of the country, don’t get what he’s going through. And he’s right.
Ed wants the border sealed up. I have my own thoughts about that. But no matter what happens on Tuesday, a program like The World — though we embrace the diversity of the globe outside and inside our borders — has to also hear the voices of people who don’t want open borders. After all, their grievances are much the same as people all over the globe. And maybe we can all learn from that.
Marco Werman is the host of PRI's The World.