Animosity and Shenanigans

To say the parties don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'.

"Do you know what the life expectancy of an Obama-Biden yard sign is 'round here?" a Tennessee Democrat asked me last weekend. "Two days. Doesn't matter, though. They just march straight back in here and buy another one, and that's another eight dollars for the campaign."

The odd thing is, I'd heard exactly the same story the previous week. Only that time, it was from a Republican.

To say the parties here don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'. Each is convinced, completely and whole-heartedly, that the other is trying to screw them. "They're plotting to steal this election like they did in 2000 and they did in 2004," one Democrat said to me last week. When I reacted with surprise - surely the last victory, at least, was fair and square? - she just shook her head, disappointed that I could be so naive. "They stole the election in Ohio," she said firmly.

And it's true, there are plenty of stories of electoral shenanigans circulating. Republicans surrounding polling stations with volunteers in police uniforms, to put black people off voting. Democrats registering Mickey Mouse to vote in Florida. And, in a stunt lifted straight from an old Onion story, Republicans warning voters that, due to overwhelming demand, election day is to be split, and anyone thinking of voting for Obama should come to the polls on November 5th. Both parties are planning to flood polling stations with lawyers.

Yet when activists talk about a friend or parent who's voting for the other guy, they're more likely to roll their eyes indulgently than start foaming at the mouth.

You get the feeling that, when people demonize the other side, they're not talking about the neighbours or family members who happen to disagree with their politics. They're talking about them, these strange, shadowy figures who want to destroy their way of life by taking away their guns and forcing their kids into gay marriage, or, conversely, forcibly baptizing them and sending their kids to war.

Attempts to get past this, and actually understand what the other guys have to say, are depressingly few and far between. One is the Ohio politics blog, run jointly by Obama hugging liberal Kyle Kutuchief and arch conservative Ben Keeler. Despite disagreeing on just about everything, the two of them have, so far, managed to work together without accusing each other of being mentally ill. And both reckon their debates have made their own arguments stronger.

The catch, though, is that they can only do this because they were childhood friends before they were political enemies. "When Kyle called me in 2004 after John Kerry lost, I really felt bad for him. But not that bad," says Keeler. But he adds: "We couldn't have done it if we didn't already know each other."

Kutuchief agrees. "When I was in college, my professors would talk about the great political leaders arguing tooth and nail all day and then going out to have a beer," he says. "That concept seems lost on our generation."

If it wasn't lost, I suspect, this election would need a lot fewer lawyers.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war