Far away from the closed-off politics of Washington, a trip through rural America reveals some very different sources of empowerment.
Hitchhiking is a good means of finding a way to the cross-section of a nation. You spend limited time with your rides, who tend to open up as a result and are happy to talk with the confidentiality of a stranger. Meanwhile the simple and somewhat universal wish to help out or to have some company for a long journey means that in hitchhiking you encounter a broad range of people with different political — or apolitical — opinions.
When I set out through America, between New York and San Francisco, I’d been expecting polarisation to be the main feature of the political conversations I had along the way. This idea of a polarised nation continued throughout the election, with an October poll suggesting around 98% of those likely to vote would not change their voting intention before the election. But on the road, polarisation was far less present than apathy, frustration and political disenfranchisement. A Tennessee man, fairly rare in those parts as a nominal Democrat, had moved to find work (injecting cheese filling into snack foods) in the swing state of Ohio, where he drove me fifty miles towards Cincinnati. He hadn’t voted for two elections, and didn’t see much point going back to it. A truck driver told me he had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but wasn’t sure — somewhat endearingly — if that had been a vote for a Republican or Democrat.
In upstate New York I have heard rock solid and unionised Democrat dockers vituperate against the threat posed by Islam to the US. In Republican Arizona, meanwhile, a railroad worker expressed gratitude at having his decent, unionised job, but lamented that the country was no longer creating such jobs. Moreover, he lauded the culture of Mexico as more humane than that found in the US. In between that were asphalt slaves, truckers hauling rigs cross-country at a cent a mile; occasional sex workers addled by methamphetamine and plying their trade in parking lots; anarchists who had left society altogether and headed into the hills of Appalachia. Apathy or disengagement were far more present here than virulent polarisation. And whatever the numbers of the popular vote Clinton won by half a million ballots, or the demographic assessment of who voted for who, the statistics bear out this impression of apathy: Trump was elected on a turnout of 56.9%, with even this fairly high by America’s consistently low standards. Where his supporters would have dragged waverers to vote, Hillary’s were often so reluctant it was all they could do to drag themselves — precisely the problem that Bernie Sanders’ advocates had forewarned.
The role of television in shaping a British view of the US had never been so apparent as it felt when hitchhiking across it. Breaking Bad and The Sopranos showed depressed cities and grim, invisibly drug-addled suburbia. Orange Is The New Black put images to the ever-shocking statistic that 30 million Americans, one whole per cent of the US population, are in jail. The West Wing fetishised a politics ensconced in Washington DC. The problem with all of these dramas, though each full of its own merits, is that they are dramas — fictions based in life, but fictions nonetheless. Just as watching the film version will supersede the mental images and understanding we weave for ourselves in reading a book, it is significant that our ability to comprehend serious and very real issues rests ultimately in dramas we know are not true. Seeing the real America from the roadside showed up how problematic the impact of these portrayals can be.
Comedy news added a further element to this. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show spawned a genre that extended to Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and others all presenting a highly satirised version of the news. Each one offered the salve of laughter and a gateway drug on politics, but also helped bring crucial issues ranging from voter suppression to child labour into an accessible limelight. Doing so was a valuable service, but implicitly it was also shown that no grievance, no matter how grave, was not reducible to lighthearted comedy and politics being funny.
Reporting US politics as polarised is a way of tidying up the reality, and this plays out on the roads too
The US roads I hitchhiked along were not a funny place. Vietnam War veterans abound in truck stops, waiting on rides south to get warm for winter. Standing outside a shop in the hope of a ride, you’ll routinely be advised that begging is prohibited because — even though you yourself are not begging — it is clear that most of those before you were. A man waiting for a ride to California tells you bluntly that he’s hitchhiking from Texas, where a week ago he buried his mother — when you hear that, it is hard to figure out whether you’d rather be hearing the truth or being lied to in the hope you’ll give a dollar.
Reporting US politics as polarised is a way of tidying up the reality, and this plays out on the roads too; geography is a thing altogether less tidy and regimented than either media or abstract thought . It brings with it a random selection otherwise hard to find, and only in those random selections of information do patterns begin to form. The US roadside offered me one lasting impression of what holds up the ‘small-p’ politics of power in America and it consisted of three things: guns, meat and engines.
Guns were present in either: their outright visibility (talking about a new gun, over dinner in a restaurant); people’s desire to talk and ask me questions about them and my views or experience with guns; or their reluctance to discuss them at all because — in some cases — people hold guns dear and are suspicious of talking with outsiders about as much, often for fear of negative judgment. Whether in the tradition of hunting, the physicality of firing them at a shooting range, or the rhetoric of maybe overthrowing government, guns allow disempowered Americans to feel great power through a consumer purchase.
Meat is a more visible totem of power in the US; whether that be pork chops fried in chicken fat, huge steaks, wrapping one item of meat inside another item of meat, or the sheer ubiquity of meat in roadside restaurants. Meat offers up a sort of warriors’ banquet, three times a day at tables all across the US, bringing with it an impression of largesse. The production cost of this is also found at roadsides; in the acres of ranchland you drive by or — more impacting still — where you can see and smell great herds of cow, packed hide-to-hide and stationary in the mud around feeding troughs outside the industrial farms where they live and die.
Cars and engines were the final repeat feature. The size of the trucks, the sense of personality and masculinity many of their drivers invested in them, was ever present. The number of cars in a typical family driveway, the size of them and seeming indifference to ever sharing rides, the role of gifting them to youngsters coming of age, and then the owning of additional engines in the form of motorbikes, snowmobiles, quad bikes, smaller trucks and dirt bikes. The petrol engine — its convenience, adventure and sense of freedom — was the third ever-present found either at the roadside or in the lives of those I met.
The availability of each gave a sense of power, and a quite animal power, that politics and their system denied them
Consistently noticeable was the respite from powerlessness people apparently derived from the availability of one or a combination of all three things. People seemed somehow to relax with or through guns, meat or engines, to an extent not really imaginable in the UK. The availability of each gave a sense of power, and a quite animal power, that politics and their system denied them. What all of the pastimes have further in common is the ability for their costs to be externalised. Carbon emissions, food production diverted to animal feed, shootings in poor communities; engines, meat and guns take their victims either in the global environment, developing countries, or US communities with limited resources and insufficient national influence to change the dialogue on the Second Amendment gun rights.
The innocence of the country, despite all that, still persists. The vast space of America has given many the opportunity to buy land and start again. A Punjabi truck driver drove me 2000 miles, introducing me to the ways of the Punjabi and Gujarati trucking communities along the way, his own biography offering an American Dream that still has immigration at its heart and will outlast election cycles. There is a human tendency to report the negative out of a need to improve on it, but that trait becomes harmful rather than helpful where we begin to perceive a world that is more problem than solution. At a moment in American history when there is much to solve, a Punjabi trucker's belief in the better future which he could build there in the USA, driving his truck, is a welcome salve.
This article has been republished from Medium with the author’s permission.
Julian Sayarer is talking about his hitchhiking at Pages of Hackney in London, on Thursday 17 November. He will also be reading from the book, Interstate, which tells a story of the journey across the US.