World

Letter from America

In Vermont’s remote northeast, signs of the anxious times

Nic Dawes (Photo supplied)
By Nic Dawes
20 Aug 2020 0

A corner of the United States where a thousand shades of red and green live in natural harmony, Vermont is a deeply bipartisan state. And yet, there are signs that the wedge driven in by the White House, right-wing media, and Facebook is doing its work.

Dear friends at Daily Maverick,

This letter comes to you from the quarantine bubble of the American northeast, where the pandemic is relatively contained, but its impacts are not.

Across the green, wooded hills of northeast Vermont last week, the first tentative signs of fall were emerging; a hint of chill in the morning air, a few harbinger leaves turning, corn standing fat and ripe. Much less tentative were the lawn signs, a thicket of contending candidates’ names staked out ahead of primary elections this week on the great sweeps of fresh-mown grass that signify solid citizenship across rural America.

Rural Vermont (Photos by Nic Dawes)

For an outsider, these professions of enthusiasm aren’t immediately legible. Colour is no guide – there are Democrats with red signs and Republicans with green ones. The slogans are determinedly vacuous.

It took a little research for a summer visitor to learn which candidate was pursuing the Republican gubernatorial nomination from a stump far to the Trumpian right of Phil Scott, the popular incumbent, and which was a Democrat running on a platform of community-owned broadband and rural revival in the liberal bastion of Greensboro.

More obvious signals of the political season are on hand though, strung on milking sheds, fluttering from flagpoles, hand-lettered and screen-printed: Trump 2020, Black Lives Matter, Don’t Tread on Me, Dump Trump to Make America Great Again.

It would be easy to see in this stark divergence evidence that the polarised national weather had settled over deeply bipartisan Vermont, the draft-dodging hippies and back-to-the-landers on one side, farmers and blue-collar workers on the other, as intimate as it gets at the far end of a winding dirt road beyond the limits of cell coverage.

Photo: Vermont (Photo by Clay Kaufmann on Unsplash)

And to be sure, there are signs that the wedge driven in by the White House, right-wing media, and Facebook, is doing its work.

Sparsely populated and decently managed, Vermont has done well at containing the pandemic, with around 5,000 cases in total. Visitors from areas with a higher prevalence rate must quarantine, and a mask mandate is in force statewide. At businesses with a tourist clientele – in the mountain bike mecca of East Burke, or at the celebrated brewery Hill Farmstead – staff ask visitors with out of state licence plates to “explain your situation”.

That attitude is far from uniform, however.

“I educate myself,” of course, is the cri de coeur of the digitally radicalised across the country, wrapping local concerns – septic tank regulation, milk prices, internet access – into a tangle with national debates over race, sexuality, and trade policy.

In the achingly pretty village of Craftsbury there are two shops, one serving summer people and urban refugees, the other, everyone else. At the tonier general store, masking is strictly enforced, all orders are curbside pickup, and the (delicious) yoghurt costs as much as it might in Brooklyn. Just across the street at the rival outlet, staff are unmasked, and so are most of the customers.

You won’t hear much politics in the easy chatter, but it isn’t exactly hard to find nearby.

One recent Saturday morning, shaggy and unkempt after months of quarantine, I saw at the bottom of a steep driveway a sign advertising barbering.

I made the right turn and pulled up before an immaculate log home with sweeping views of pasture and forest, distant wind turbines churning the quiet air. I masked up, knocked and entered.

“Are you here to rob me?” came a voice from the kitchen counter. Its owner was 60-ish, tan and fit, wearing a convincing mock scowl: “because you have a mask on”, he explained.

Let’s call his wife Peggy, because she didn’t ask to be quoted. She did a good job with my hair for $12. She also laid out, in the most relaxed and friendly terms, her worldview: evangelical Christianity, deep suspicion of medical authority born of a bout with Lyme disease, fierce self-reliance, and a dash of homophobia: “I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I educate myself and I am starting to believe that this thing is a conspiracy.”

“I educate myself,” of course, is the cri de coeur of the digitally radicalised across the country, wrapping local concerns – septic tank regulation, milk prices, internet access – into a tangle with national debates over race, sexuality, and trade policy.

The dynamics of the area are far more complex than an outsider’s reading of lawn signs and local stores might suggest, however. Bernie Sanders’ political biography – fierce independence from the Democratic Party, early support for gun rights, socialism – makes a good deal more sense when you have spent some time on the back roads of his home state.

The signs of that change are everywhere. We rented a farmhouse long-since vacated by its owners, where the sweet-smelling hay is mown, baled up, and shipped to horse barns hundreds of kilometres south. It was all very tidy, and impossibly beautiful, but a few months of Airbnb income, and $4 hay-bales will not sustain the region, or spread to the pockets of deep poverty that these valleys scarcely hide.

And his appeal makes more sense too, when you get beyond the easy tropes of liberal coast and conservative heartland that so much analysis of the last election reached for.

What Sanders saw before most mainstream Democratic Party figures was that the restructuring of US life to favour the wealthiest over the past 40 years had not only halted and reversed the progress of the civil rights era and the Great Society, it was structurally weakening the capacity of this country to provide for people’s rights, defend their freedoms, and respond to compound crises of racial injustice, climate change, and health.

Photo: Hardwick Gazette office in Hardwick, Vermont (Photo by Nic Dawes)

In rural Vermont, structural decline looks different from New York City, where I ordinarily live.

The dairy industry has been in a slow-moving crisis for more than a generation, one farmer explained to me: “Farms with small herds have been dying since the 1970s, but the pace has accelerated in the past 20 years.” Even organic milk no longer earns a premium, and it is the largest operations that keep their cows indoors that seem likely to survive. 

The signs of that change are everywhere. We rented a farmhouse long-since vacated by its owners, where the sweet-smelling hay is mown, baled up, and shipped to horse barns hundreds of kilometres south. It was all very tidy, and impossibly beautiful, but a few months of Airbnb income, and $4 hay-bales will not sustain the region, or spread to the pockets of deep poverty that these valleys scarcely hide.

Nor will a scattering of hip breweries, cheese makers, and mountain bike trails keep at bay its epidemic of opioids and under-employment. Remote workers will not be flocking to a place with little cell-coverage and spotty broadband.

At the Democratic Party convention this week, Sanders offered an unambiguous endorsement of the Biden-Harris ticket, declaring, “We need a movement of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency and against greed, oligarchy and bigotry… many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered ‘radical’ are now mainstream”.

What the convention showcased above all else was the belief across all shades of opinion in the party, and few Republicans, that those trends have converged in the person of Donald Trump to a degree that represents a civic emergency. As Michelle Obama put it, in the most widely watched and quoted speech of the convention so far:

“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

Consensus among the party’s elite, and swathes of the voting public, that things are this bad may be the most radical shift in the national conversation right now.

I am back in the city today after a long drive south. Here the immediate crisis is more visible, in shuttered storefronts and an anguished debate over the reopening of schools. The pandemic is now the backdrop for a growing acceptance that 40 years of a shrinking public sector investment, gilded-age inequality, and structural racism has made New York deeply vulnerable. The dimensions of the US’s long crisis that Sanders’ politics – born in Brooklyn, but honed in whiter-than-white Vermont – originally missed, those of racism and immigration, are starkly evident here. Little is on offer from Mayor Bill de Blasio by way of imagining what a thriving, equitable city might look like in two years’ time, or 10.

That, however, is a topic for another letter. 

I hope that in South Africa, where the focus is properly on corruption and mismanagement at present, that people are applying themselves too, to thinking about what a more functional future might look like, beyond the absence of a bad or rapacious government. I have seen what it looks like when freedom is conceived only as the absence of the state, and I promise you, it isn’t working. DM

Nic Dawes is the former Editor of the Mail & Guardian. He now lives in New York where he was until recently Deputy Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

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