The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,” he said. “Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
I remember watching a live stream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen – as I do – with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, somehow, to foreshadow the result.
In May 2015, Bernie Sanders, a 73 year old Senator from a small, rural state – Vermont – launched an unlikely bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Fourteen months later, he conceded defeat to Hillary Clinton. But not before he had chalked-up 13 million votes, 23 caucus and primary victories, and nearly 2000 pledged conference delegates, far exceeding both his own initial expectations and those of the Beltway press.
Sanders’ success in the Democratic primaries should have set alarm bells ringing at the top of the Democratic party. He was a political outsider with little support on Capitol Hill. He was adept at using social media to communicate simple messages to a mass audience. He was a critic of free trade. He spoke the language of economic populism. He charged the “donor class” with “rigging the system” against middle and low income Americans.
Bushwick in Brooklyn is a remarkable distillation of inequality in modern America. Walk five minutes west from Jefferson Street towards Manhattan and you’ll find white students in coffee shops tapping away on expensive MacBooks. Walk five minutes east and you’ll encounter all the familiar markers of metropolitan – in this case, black and Hispanic – poverty: inadequate housing, understocked grocery stores, and big plots of empty, overgrown land.
Bernie Sanders grew-up on the other side of Brooklyn, in Flatbush. Once a predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbourhood, Flatbush is today a broader mix of American immigrant communities. One of the largest ethnic minority groups in the area is Haitian. Sanders left Brooklyn in 1960, transferring from Brooklyn College to the University of Chicago, where he studied politics, before decamping permanently to Vermont, the small north-eastern state for which he is now a two-term United States senator. But he is still every inch the Brooklynite. You can tell by the way he talks. “He speaks Brooklyn,” one of his former high school classmates told The New York Times recently. “He’s not a phoney, and that shows.”
On East Grand Boulevard in north-east Detroit stands the Packard Automotive Plant – or what’s left of it, at any rate.
Once the most advanced car manufacturing facility in the world – at its peak in the 1930s and ‘40s it employed 35,000 workers – the plant is now little more than a concrete frame sheltering thick layers of rubble and dust.