Eve of the Election

Jonn Elledge attends an Obama rally in North Carolina filled with passionate and unlikely Democrats.

It takes a certain strength of character to vote against just about everyone of your skin colour because of something you see as a moral issue. So to go to an Obama rally with your mouth covered with red duck tape bearing a slogan accusing the senator of killing babies must take a quite colossal nerve.

I almost admired the young black man waiting inside the rally enclosure, staring fixedly at the crowd as it filed in. But still, the guy was wasting his time. We'd already been confronted in the hour long queue by four anti-abortion campaigners, standing silently holding posters of aborted foetuses, while the ring-leader harangued us through a megaphone. But all they got in response was a rousing chorus of, 'Yes we can'.

'Oh yes we can murder babies, you mean?' he yelled, but someone shouted back, 'You need a bigger speaker man, we can't hear you.'

This wasn't really his audience. The night before the election, in the brand new swing state of North Carolina, this was a crowd of true believers who just wanted to catch one last glimpse of their leader before the campaign ended.

They stood for an hour in the driving rain, listening to a succession of lesser speakers explaining the need to get the vote out or running through the roll call of local Democratic candidates.

These guys would have waited through anything for that moment when Obama finally appeared on stage. The girl next to me had driven three hours from Georgia, on her own, just to see him in the flesh. When the rain began, the hundreds in the queue surged forward, breaking through the first line of security barriers. Once close enough to see, they stood waiting patiently, just like everybody else.

In the crowd I spotted a woman with a buggy bearing a sign reading, 'Obama rocks me - born Democrat 2008.' There was a boy in a t-shirt reading, 'Obama is not a muslim, but I am - and I approve this message.' There was a girl telling her friends that her mother in Alaska had been handing out bumper stickers reading, 'Wasila moms for Obama-Biden.'

There were hundreds of young black men and women, who the numbers say would not normally be voting at all. Yet when one speaker asked the crowd who had cast their ballot, almost every hand went up.

The Senator spoke for about twenty minutes. He talked briefly of his grandmother, who had died the previous night, and for a moment seemed to be crying. But otherwise it was the same stump speech I'd already heard a dozen times on the TV and radio over the last fortnight.

The words weren't what mattered, though. What mattered to these people was that Obama had come far enough to be able to speak to them: Democrats who had lost hope that anyone who wasn't called Clinton could ever beat the Republican machine and African Americans who had never really believed they would see this in their lifetime. Without complaint, they put up with the queues and the cramp and the protesters and the rain, just to see him speak.

Before the event, my photographer had told me that he was so thoroughly sick of the whole thing that, were he an American, he wouldn't vote for either of them. As we drove away from the rally, he admitted that he'd changed his mind.

Once it was over, without so much as a second's pause, the crowd turned to leave. A few lined the nearby roads, on the offchance they would see his car pass by, but most were happy just to go. They'd got what they came for.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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