Poll Dark

Presidential memorabilia

Previous US presidential memorabilia – Philadelphia International Airport, October 2016

I was listening to the thoughtful, but now mis-named New York Times podcast, The Run-Up last night as they picked over the entrails of their US election coverage. Three educated contributors agonised over how the media collectively had called it so wrong. May I offer some thoughts?

Are journalists educated enough about being uneducated?

As budgets tighten and journalists are expected to bear more of their own costs (acting as unpaid interns, etc), are they sufficiently in touch with different lifestyles to their own? Had they been, they might have more effectively picked up on the degree of discontent in the American nation.

An alien passing through Philly Airport where the picture above was taken would have quickly discerned that people in the more manual jobs tended to be darker skinned. When were you last flown by a black pilot in the West?

Well, I was that alien a fortnight ago. It is clear to those who have eyes to see that the American Dream is only working for some.

Media outlets are still over-reliant on polls

“53% of white women voted Trump”, according to an exit poll. Really? And we’re still trusting polls after this spectacularly wrong call? Granted, exit polls tend to be more reliable than anticipatory polls, but even so… Shouldn’t we be a bit more circumspect? And there’s another thing wrong with that assertion…

We’re still ignoring the elephant in the room

The biggest single chunk of the vote wasn’t cast – around 43% on current estimates as I write. An accurately worded version of the headline above would have read “53% of women who cast their vote did so for Trump”. Yeah, it’s clunkier, but at least acknowledges that elephant. The first thing I noticed when in the States a couple of weeks ago was the lack of passion for either main candidate (see my previous blog, State of Disunion).

The media tends to underplay don’t knows – I can only assume this is because voter disengagement leads to viewer/listener/surfer disengagement.

Just a few thoughts offered in humility

I didn’t call it right in the previous blog – but I did say how struck I was by the apathy. I can imagine a fair bit of delayed motivation fired up by non-Trump supporters now. But I’m not inclined to make any precise predictions!

Your thoughts?

State of Disunion

The ‘Don’t Cares’ Have It?

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My first awareness of America as a child was through toy vehicles.

A friend up the road from my home on the outskirts of greater London had some enviable examples. They were bigger and brasher than my British models: a black and white American police saloon with impossibly grand fins, a white Ford Mustang sports car with a red interior and a Thunderbird 2 fantasy transporter aircraft, among others. (Aficianados of the 1960s Thunderbirds children’s TV franchise will know that, like me, it was made in the UK, but for commercial reasons it was effectively, as its maker Gerry Anderson acknowledged, ‘an American show’.)

Fantasies die hard, and in recent weeks I had my own American dream to be a guy driving alone in the desert en route to something on a spectacular scale. It was an added fillip that I would be there in the run up to decision time in one of the most divisive election campaigns of recent times.

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I was visiting my brother, partner and family in Nova Scotia and while basing myself there decided on Phoenix, Arizona as my American target. It was truly temporary; there’s a kind of madness or arrogance to think you can explore any sizeable part of America properly in three days, as I did. All the more since only the middle day was complete, the other two being largely eaten up by the four- or five-hour flight from Canada (via Philadelphia).

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The goal was the Grand Canyon – reachable with three or four hours’ non-stop driving from my northern Phoenix Airbnb location. In the event I added further hours by stopping at the small, tourist-friendly town of Sedona in both directions.

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But here was the real revelation for me in the States this time (I’d been to New England and Georgia previously): for all the heat of the Trump/Clinton dust-up that we’ve been treated to for months, I met not one person on my American stay who volunteered any preference for either main candidate. We talk of compassion fatigue in matters of charity; this was passion fatigue.

The only conspicuous enthusiasm I came across was as I drove into and out of Sedona on the way to the canyon – and that was on the radio. Rabid right-winger (or conservative commentator – take yer pick) Sean Hannity was fulminating on 97.1FM The Big Talker about how, with 13 days to go to the election (as it was then), America needed to ‘wake up’ and embrace Donald Trump. As the underdog his election couldn’t be taken for granted (one thing most of the audience would agree with Hannity on). He then proceeded to go through numerous states – quite handy to develop relevance for his audience across scores of stations where his show is syndicated – explaining how precarious things were for the Republican candidate. Also, inevitably, an opportunity was never missed to dis Hillary (emails, Clinton Foundation, yatter, yatter).

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About an hour from the canyon (above), by which time Sean’s show had been rolling a good couple of hours, he welcomed onto the airwaves someone described as a friend of the show from Britain, and on a scratchy mobile phone came the unmistakably strident tones of Nigel Farage. 5,000 miles from home, I was being introduced to the three-time leader of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP). If I was in any doubt that Brexit – Britain’s upcoming exit from the European Union – has some international significance, this was the moment to dispel it. The very justification for Farage’s presence on numerous American radio stations was his success in agitating for Britain’s EU withdrawal and his part in delivering it. Trump fans are quick to seize on the parallels between their man and Farage, the latter an apparent underdog who broke through. They wish.

Ah, yes – Trump. What is left to say about this Twitter-tirade-made-flesh, a product (and purveyor) of extreme anti-social media? A joke, and yet a non-joke, putting two fingers up to the Establishment, yet (as I write, with 24 hours to go) still in with a chance of becoming the Establishment. The apotheosis of celebrity culture (describing himself on that tape as a ‘star’, even as he bragged about committing one or more sexual assaults). It’s easy to forget we have been here before, though – minus the reference to (or reality of) assaults.

I’m surprised former President Ronald Reagan – B-movie actor, in power from 1981-89 – isn’t mentioned more in this connection. But Trump has his work cut out, thanks to the electoral college – he would stand more chance under proportional representation.

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Also, he’s not necessarily liked among those you might expect to be his natural supporters. One extravagantly bearded truck driver from the Midwest (above) I met when I finally made it to the Grand Canyon self-described as a ‘red neck’, but said he wouldn’t vote for Trump as the property tycoon only cared about the big guys. Our trucker would have wanted to support Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon who had been in the running as a Republican candidate, but dropped out. He then nominated – you’ve guessed it – one Donald J. Trump. So my new redneck friend (along with my Airbnb host and many others) wasn’t going to vote.

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I drove south from the canyon after a couple of hours in a real (not toy) car, but it wasn’t a fin tailed native wonder from my youth – it was a Japanese Nissan. On the eve of the 2016 election as I write, it would be possible to find poetic images of the sun setting on American democracy that might sound a little contrived, but since Trump has promised to contest the result if it doesn’t go his way, and with even a successful Clinton starting with a negative poll rating, it’s perhaps not such a stretch.

Anticipating my cinematic drive through the desert – not quite man vs the elements: I had AC and GPS/satnav – I had imagined the soundtrack to be Ry Cooder on a slide guitar, à la Paris, Texas. In the event, the podcast Radiolab I was listening to on the journey back provided that kind of music played by a lesser name. It accompanied the story of a small Nebraska town so divided it pushed for a petition to end its own existence. The reporter offered this as a possible image for the state of the union, for the entire USA.

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With the sun setting I reflected that no matter how great the United States’ misdemeanours – from the treatment of the indigenous peoples to Vietnam to drone assassinations – there will always be something so intoxicating about so much of Americana for me and millions of others.

Okay, so I didn’t get to drive a Ford Mustang for real. But the affluence and sense of plenty it hinted at had drawn me again to its homeland.

America got me as a young boy, and didn’t let go.

Scotland the brave?

Some years ago I was in Glasgow and took my hotel up on their offer of a free transfer to the airport. I was the only passenger in the 12-seater minibus in this cross-city journey and struck up a conversation with the driver. I can’t recall how we got there, but somehow I established he didn’t vote. He seemed to be of the ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ tendency.

This was years before the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but the driver wasn’t fixated on Westminster as the source of all evil; he appeared to hate all politicians, local and national, as a breed. It was a classic case of working class political despair and disengagement – understandable in many ways, but still depressing.

As I write, Scots are on the eve of a momentous decision: whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom. I have no vote in the referendum, living in England, but I do have a great interest in it, both by virtue of being British and also being a quarter Scot. My grandfather, proud of his roots in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, used to make great play of extravagantly rolling his ‘r’s, half in self-parody, and then lapsed back into his southern English accent. He’d come to London decades before.

What can I add to the acres of comment poured out over the last 18 months of this protracted campaign? Well, a heartfelt hope that, whatever the collective decision, that there will be reconciliation between the people that get their wish, and the many thousands – millions? – who will be disappointed. Oh, and here’s my shock prediction: Scotland will be a cool nation whether it stays in the union or not.

But for all the duplication in the referendum commentary, not nearly enough has been said about the precedent of Ireland. The Irish Free State, formed in 1922, refused to pay land annuities to Britain, and this led to the latter’s levying of high trade tariffs on its imports from Ireland. This in turn gave rise to severe austerity in the new state and, I believe, disproportionate power being given to the Catholic Church. I can’t help feeling this imbalance led to classic abuses of power, and it’s arguable that you can draw a direct line from Britain’s punitive approach to Ireland’s breaking away and the tragic abuse of people supposedly in the church’s care.

I am not – repeat, not – saying that any of this is liable to happen if Scotland votes yes this Thursday. These are very different times, and Scotland is a very different country. But there have been some pretty mean-spirited attitudes voiced on both sides of the debate at various times, and the Guardian’s Martin Kettle has written convincingly – and worryingly –about possible punishment by England of the upstart nation that dared to think about going it alone, whether or not it actually does so. Try his columns here and here.

Whichever way the vote goes there will be an elite in Scotland, in politics, media and so on. The elite can look after themselves; they always do. My concern is for those who currently feel disenfranchised. I find myself thinking about that minibus driver. I trust he’s alive and well, and my hunch is that this is one vote he won’t want to miss. But my fear is that if he doesn’t feel his quality of life improves as a result of the referendum, it might be the last vote he casts.