About this series: What's happening in America? What does it mean to be an American? These are questions defining a campaign unlike any other. For nearly 35 days, we crossed the nation looking for answers. This is what we found.
When Mary Beth Walz picked up a shovel and started to clear the pathway in front of the home of 92-year-old Doris Eriksson — that was a moment when much of the campaign rhetoric this election year seemed hollow. This small gesture occurred in the town of Bow, south of Concord, a few days before the New Hampshire primary. Walz was canvassing for Hillary Clinton in a heavy snowstorm, the footing uncertain enough that later she would slip and lose her car keys in the snow, but it was obvious that there was zero correlation between the votes she was trying to get and the walk she would work to clear. It was just what she did.
Some of it may have had to do with the quaint values of a small New England town, but there was more to it than that. Walz and her husband, Harry Judd, both lawyers in their 60s, had been invested in the well-being of the people of Bow for more than a quarter-century. They were not angry. They were not trying to make America great again. They had strong convictions and were what you might c all political animals, but they were not interested in living a life of us-vs.-them in a divided country. To classify them as establishment or anti-establishment was beside the point. They were doing what they could, pragmatically, dutifully, their quotidian efforts overshadowed but not overtaken by the grandiosity of the national political story.
Walz previously had served as a state representative, a job that paid a whopping hundred bucks a year and meant she was dealing with 399 other people holding the same title, the largest state legislative body in the country. Her husband spent a few nights each week on the Bow Planning Board and other volunteer town committees, and on Friday mornings he helped prepare food and coffee for the Rotary breakfast meetings at the Old Town Hall. They both worked as election officials whenever there was a vote to be held, and seemed to know everyone in town, from the young woman who serves as police chief to the big ol’ guy in the hunting outfit who was the leader of the local National Rifle Association chapter.
When Walz left the state legislature a few years ago, she thought it was a different place than it once had been. She prided herself on working with Republicans to get things done. One of her favorite people at the statehouse had been the House clerk, Karen Wadsworth, an old-school New England Republican who before taking the clerk’s job had served as mayor of Lebanon and as a state representative for 10 years. That morning, Wadsworth was at the Rotary in Bow, sitting near Judd, Walz’s husband. She said she felt like an endangered species as a Republican Christian who was “neither extreme nor born again” and who believed in getting along with people regardless of political affiliation.
There had been much talk this year among Republicans about a longing for something that seemed to have been lost in American culture, but what did that mean? To some, like Donald Trump, it sounded as simple as winning vs. losing. Some would say it was a sense of American strength in the world. Or a dilution of national identity because of immigration or multiculturalism or political correctness. To Wadsworth, it was something else. “I keep coming back to the word ‘respect.’ Respect for others, for other ideas.”
She thought that social media, while allowing people to communicate more freely and widely, also had made the public conversation nastier. “You keep seeing things that are personal rather than discussing the issues,” she said. Were individual people angrier than they used to be, and more negative, or did technology and culture combine to make it easier for them to project the angriest and least tolerant sides of themselves? Wadsworth said that she did not have caller ID, so she always picked up her telephone when it rang and was distraught by the nature of the incessant campaign calls. “It’s all, which issue frightens you the most? Nobody says what’s going on that’s hopeful, but what do you fear? I usually say none of the above.”
A variation of that conversation was playing out at the University of New Hampshire over in Durham, where Joe Sweeney, a young Republican in the most literal sense, at age 22 a member of the state legislature, had gone to watch a Democratic debate. The scene was the Phi Mu Delta fraternity house, a dingy hangout, up a creaky set of stairs, with eight boxes of pizza, plastic boxes of chocolate-chip cookies, stools circled around a flat-screen TV that was balanced on two dinged pieces of furniture pushed together.
The debate itself between Clinton and Bernie Sanders was being held minutes away on campus, and somehow the notion of watching politicians discuss debt and health care had transfigured itself into must-see entertainment. Rep. Sweeney, with his pinchable cheeks and plaid shirt, was already in his second term and thinking of running for a third. He had a sense of politics beyond his years, going back to the days when he was an adolescent and watched his mom speak out against floodlights being added to a baseball field. Even he longed for the good old days that he never really experienced, before congressional gridlock, before Republicans and Democrats at the statehouse seemed so determined not to associate with each other.
He found politics equally fascinating and frustrating, a sensibility he shared with his friend Sarra Vallon, who was there watching the debate with Sweeney and his fraternity brothers. The notion of people building taller silos, avoiding the other side, was something they could not and would not do at the university. They were Republicans on what they considered a lefty college campus and were used to no one agreeing with them. “Every day I try to have a conversation with someone I disagree with,” Sweeney said. “It’s made me a better person.”
“9/11 happened when we were in second grade, and back then, it was all ‘God Bless America,’ ” Vallon said. “And then, at some point, people started getting angry.”
They took time from studying to meet candidates and tried to balance stories they found on Fox News Channel with similar stories from the BBC. They liked watching Democrats, even though they agreed with little they said. And they wondered what kind of world, what kind of voter would ever support a man like Donald Trump. “We were just talking about what we’d do if he won,” said Vallon, who considered maybe sitting out the general election. “I just don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense. I guess people are really angry and just uninformed.”
A lanky fraternity brother with shaggy hair and glasses walked into the living room.
“Is Bernie on yet?” he said.
This was Jon Brown, 19, a civil-engineering student who had started volunteering for Sanders. Before the campaign, he said, all he knew about the senator from Vermont was that “he was an independent socialist who used to come on ‘Stephen Colbert.’ ” But now, as Brown faced tens of thousands of dollars of debt while pursuing his degree, he had become an unabashed supporter. He said he understood why people were so angry about the government. He was among them.
“If you look at Republicans or Democrats, you are looking at 10 years of things people don’t trust,” Brown said. “Before, we could trust our government, but then we had the NSA wiretapping, and while the world is getting bigger, our politics are getting so much smaller and more corrupt.”
The debate was about to begin. Cookies were being eaten. A Blue Moon was opened. The crowd was all white, but a mix of genders. The only thing everyone could agree on was that Clinton was untrustworthy and power-hungry. Aside from Sweeney and Vallon, most were supporting Sanders, except for one young man who said he was voting for Carly Fiorina, prompting a mocking retort from Sweeney.
“You say you are supporting Fiorina, but you are wearing Marco Rubio shoes!” he teased, noticing the prominent heels.
The debate started.
“Ooh, drama,” Vallon said.
“Did she just give Bernie Sanders some shade?” said another.
“I just think Hillary Clinton says everything Bernie says after he says it,” Brown said. “She just wants to win.”
“Wasn’t Hillary, like, a massive failure in the ’90s?” said one fraternity brother.
“Did Hillary just claim she’s not a part of the establishment?” Sweeney said. “How can that be? Her last name is Clinton!”
On a commercial break, Sweeney began to pry.
“I can understand not liking Hillary,” he said. “But why do you support Bernie? His plans are going to cost a lot of money.”
“The big issue for me is money in the political system,” Brown said.
“If you raise the corporate tax rate, all the companies will just go overseas and we can’t bring jobs back to America,” Sweeney said.
“I just can’t see Bernie Sanders talking to Vladimir Putin,” Vallon added.
They stopped as the debate continued. It became progressively less interesting.
“I need to study.”
“Thank God! It’s over.”
By the time the final question was asked, only Brown and Sweeney remained in the room. They could not tell who won, or even whether it mattered.
“Everyone’s giving up because people are unwilling to compromise, and you look at Congress and it sucks,” Brown said. “We get angry at politicians and we all feel like we have to choose sides.”
“But we can have these sorts of disagreements because we were brothers first and it became easier to respect conversations with each other,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think Americans know each other well. And that’s a part of the problem.”
In a sense, the thing about America, in Sweeney’s estimation, was that it was really one big fraternity.
“The coolest thing about being American is it’s not a nationality or a genetic thing, it’s more of an idea,” he said. “It’s a struggle of finding the balance between the collective and the individual, and that’s what makes it hard.”
“We’ll get it one day,” Brown said.
* * *
Another night, back in Bow. Counting the Danish visitors in Richard Swett’s living room. They’d all come to look for America.
Or at least the New Hampshire version of it, which was unrepresentative demographically, just as Iowa was before it, yet so condensed and local and hyperactive in its presidential primary that it served as a valuable small-d democratic laboratory. That is why the Danes had descended on the state in full force, a few dozen consultants and journalists and officials fascinated by the American idea. That and the fact that Swett, a former Democratic congressman, had been the U.S. ambassador in Copenhagen during the final two years of Bill Clinton’s administration.
How odd it was for them to discover that Denmark could play a role in the American conversation. A few days earlier, they had attended a rally for Jeb Bush, and were listening to the warm-up act from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, when suddenly their little European nation was Target No. 1. The big-government plans of Democratic candidates, especially Sanders, Graham said with alarm, sounded like “Denmark on steroids.” And now the Danes had gathered at Swett’s house, where they sat on white folding chairs and commodious couches to watch a Republican debate on television, and right out of the box came a question quoting someone as saying that Donald Trump was so trigger-happy that the first thing he would do as president is “nuke Denmark.” Nervous laughter all around. But still.
The Danes came with questions that night. They wanted to know whether the excitement about Sanders could be transferred to Clinton if she finally won. They were puzzled by the mystique of Trump, and wondered whether it intersected with the Sanders movement in any strange way. There was another question: Could Europe’s debate about what it meant to be a European illuminate the struggle over competing ideas of what it meant to be an American?
Despite all the agitation in the United States about immigration, and the talk of a weak America that had lost its way, the consensus among the Danes was that the issues in this country seemed more rhetorical than real, especially compared with what they were facing across the Atlantic. They sounded more confident about America than many Americans. The United States, they said, could absorb everything, and that is what made it special. “The financial crisis, the refugee crisis, it is all much more dramatic in Europe,” said Lars L. Nielsen, the public affairs director for a communications company in Denmark. “There are some echoes in the U.S. debate, but they are contorted, distorted here.” The question in Denmark, he said, and in most countries in Europe, was not so much what it meant to be a European but what it meant to keep a national identity, “what it meant to be French, or German, or Hungarian, or Danish.”
The group vs. the individual, the whole vs. the parts. The balance of this tension had been at the core of the American idea from the beginning, eventually creating a mosaic of nationalities and races that had coexisted and melded into a vibrant nation. Europe was struggling with that concept now in a new way, but so, too, once more, was the United States — the divides seeming wider and the fractures more painful.
* * *
Paul Garver woke up that very morning thinking that maybe at last the revolution was upon us. He was 75, a retired union organizer with a white goatee and a cheery disposition. He had watched people from his generation grow disheartened by modern politics, and felt that way himself until Sanders came along. Now here he was, driving up from the Boston suburbs to volunteer in Portsmouth on the New Hampshire seacoast for his fellow democratic socialist, energized not only by conviction but by a sense of possibilities.
“He could be the next president,” Garver said. “I always felt that it would take a mix of old leftists and a new generation to bring about the change we always talked about. I’m just glad I can get to see it before I’m gone.”
On the way north, Garver picked up two graduate students at Brandeis. One was Ben Kreider, a 32-year-old with a dirty-blond goatee, who knew Garver from the labor movement. And Kreider brought along Steven Siegel, a bespectacled 26-year-old working on an MBA in nonprofit management. Over his red hair, Siegel wore a blue skullcap with a bow on it — a nod to the rest of the world that he existed outside the gender binary. Siegel, who has no preferred gender pronoun, had never canvassed for a presidential candidate before. In Sanders, he saw a bit of himself — a Jewish democratic socialist who wanted to go into politics.
For these leftists, the past eight years had fostered seasons of love and lament. They had become angry at Republicans who tried to block President Obama’s initiatives and mad at the president himself for disassembling his community organizing arm, “Obama for America,” even as so much of his agenda languished amid partisan gridlock. Obama was not the fundamental disruption they had wished for — and it left them wanting more.
“I knew when Obama appointed Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff that he would not be the president we were hoping for,” Garver said. “He was an outsider and he chose a Washington insider to protect him. The problem with Obama was he did not have a fundamental critique of power. He played along with the system too much.”
Said Kreider: “Bernie’s ideologically pure. People know Republicans have been bought by special interests, and there’s a feeling that Hillary might be bought, too. But Bernie is definitely not bought.”
As they drove up I-95, Siegel questioned what to do if Clinton — whom he thought of as careerist, super-PAC-loving Hillary — ended up defeating his candidate.
“Then you do what I’ve been doing for years,” Garver said. “You hold your nose and just vote for the best Democrat.”
“But to me,” Siegel said, “voting for someone as the lesser of two evils feels bad.”
The conversation took an awkward pause. A Clinton presidency was not an America he wanted to imagine.
The America that Garver’s passengers grew up believing in just wasn’t working for them. Kreider had degrees from Bowdoin and Georgetown but said he could find a job only at a think tank that paid $15 an hour in the months after he received his master’s degree. He now had $35,000 in student-loan debt. The dream of two kids and a picket fence seemed like either the implausible vestige of another time or the realities of those who found themselves in the wealthy 1 percent. Owning a home like the one he grew up in seemed out of the question. He wondered whether he would ever be able to afford to raise a family with the advantages he had enjoyed.
“I did everything right and I’ve still had to struggle, so I don’t think America is really working for me,” Kreider said. “And if it’s not working for me, then it’s got to be extremely hard for someone who did not have that privilege — that privilege of growing up white and male in a middle-class suburb.”
Siegel’s dream was to start a nonprofit organization that used video games to teach science and technology, as well as life skills, to underprivileged teenagers. He had no generational wealth to fall back on — his mother died when he was 13, and his father was in an assisted-living facility. He never wanted to make a lot of money.
“I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity that I could as being a perceived man and white, and still I feel straddled,” Siegel said.
“Your generation’s debt is our generation’s draft,” Garver told them. It spurred middle-class whites to reconsider their stations in life and ally themselves with those who had less, he said, when they realized the fundamentals of the country were misguided.
Garver grew up Republican. A key moment in his political evolution came when, as a graduate student at Harvard, he was dispatched to teach classes at Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge. He saw black students pushed through the education system so superficially that they came to college illiterate. They slept in roach-infested dorm rooms and ate spoiled food in dining halls. When they wanted to rebel, he taught them “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd” — a 1960 tome that discussed angry youth and the corporate system that held them back. His experience at Southern helped mold him as he joined the labor movement and began to push for progressive politicians to run for president: McCarthy, McGovern, Jackson.
All lost. And many of the lefties of his generation lost hope. There were times when Garver thought that maybe he should give up, too: During Ronald Reagan’s union-busting in the ’80s, which began to strip away the most powerful and accepted collective groups in the nation, and during George W. Bush’s push for the Iraq War.
The rise of Obama gave him hope that young people would be able to carry on the work. The young people are sometimes dismissive of him, he acknowledged, treating him as an out-of-touch, rambling old man. During the car ride, Kreider and Siegel humored his annoyance at the GPS — “I don’t like, what’s it called, Siki? She’s always yelling at me” — and his reluctance to make U-turns (“Just do it, Paul!” Kreider chided).
When they reached Portsmouth, they were assigned to knock on the doors of voters who were leaning toward Sanders. They drove into a wealthy suburb with large garages and sprawling treehouses. Garver stayed with Siegel to watch him canvass for the first time.
First door. A woman answered. Siegel had said he wouldn’t need to follow the script, but now he froze.
“Don’t worry, I’m with you,” the woman said. “Hillary is untrustworthy. Bernie’s my guy.”
Then came a man who didn’t want to be bothered and said he hated both Democratic candidates. Then another who appeared at the side door to say that he wouldn’t be voting because the system was too corrupt.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in the candidate,” Siegel told him. “I would suggest you Google him.”
“How do I know how much of it is true and how much of it isn’t?” he said.
Siegel clomped through an ankle-high pool of snow on the front porch of the last house to get to the door. A lanky man with brown hair answered it. “Don’t worry about a thing,” the man said. “If there’s a blizzard, I’m going to walk over there. I never thought I’d live to see the day when a democratic socialist could win! Good job, comrade!”
* * *
Among all the candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich stood out. His campaign was in effect a way of looking at things from the perspective of the people out there, not from above. It was a strategy, to be sure, the most effective way for Kasich to operate without the media attention of the others, but it was the reality nonetheless. He was not surrounded by a protective cordon of aides and security agents the way Sanders and Clinton were. He did not hold rallies in cavernous arenas and talk without listening, as Trump did. On this day, he was cracking the hundred mark in terms of town hall meetings in New Hampshire.
As the vote neared, these events seemed more like group therapy sessions — shelters from the storm. The stoop-shouldered, aw-shucks governor as the Oprah Winfrey of this disorienting political moment, trying to make people who were anxious, confused and even angry feel a bit better. “We have to slow down,” he said at a town hall meeting in Nashua. “We have to slow down our lives. There are people with no one to share their victories with; no one to share their tears. There are people who are lonely. Can we slow down and listen to our neighbors? Can we listen to our friends?”
The questions were not staged. The first one came from a liberal woman who asked him about reproductive rights and why he would not fund Planned Parenthood in Ohio. Kasich’s answer did not satisfy her, nor did it demonize her. “I have never been an enemy of people who don’t think like I do,” he said.
At every stop, someone thanked Kasich for running a positive campaign. Some people left dissatisfied, unmoved by his soothing approach. Jim Miller, a retired accountant, walked out of the Nashua session with a stern look. He didn’t like it when Kasich said he would not try to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. “The people who should be getting citizenship are the people who understand the traditions of America,” he said. In his retirement, he sometimes volunteers to help people with their taxes, and some of them don’t know how to speak English. “They want to have Mexico here.”
And at every stop, someone also proved Kasich’s point about loneliness and the desire to connect. These are competing human impulses — to disconnect and differentiate from the other, and to connect and feel the commonality of humans. They coexist in most people, and in the body politic this year more than ever. A week and a half later, a video of Kasich hugging a young man would go viral and be seen by millions. He did that every day in New Hampshire. On this day, he encountered Lydia Johnson, an 80-year-old woman who had Alzheimer’s and neurological problems and came hobbling up in her walker to meet him after all the questions were done. She said she once lived in western Pennsylvania, near where Kasich grew up. She thought she was more of a Sanders person, until she saw Kasich on television and decided she had to meet him. The governor leaned over and smothered her in a warm embrace for more than a minute.
There was a bit of deja vu to what Kasich was doing and saying. It was reminiscent of another governor, or in this case a former governor, who moved through New Hampshire trying to feel people’s pain. Bill Clinton in 1992. And now the former president was back, a silhouette of his former self, at the side of his wife. Here he was at a rally in Manchester the next day. The rally itself seemed like a therapy session at first, with the crowd chanting “I believe that we will win! I believe that she will win!” as though saying it enough times might make it so.
Bill Clinton was approaching 70 now, and was a vegan, and had endured heart surgery, and looked more brittle and slower than he used to, both in his mannerisms and in his analysis. He had lived the life of a survivor, his career alternately riding along waves of hope and against currents of dispute. So much of the chaos and anger and disruption of this year had been building for the quarter-century since he staked his ambitions in a New Hampshire comeback. And now, campaigning for his wife, he said one thing that lingered as he sought to explain some of the discontent washing over the country. It was a William Butler Yeats quote from “Easter 1916”: Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.