Forget the caricature - US democracy is alive and kicking

Voters are more engaged than in Britain. 

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This election is not what it seems. The main story we are being told is that it is a contest dominated by lies, fear and anger, and by the two least popular candidates for president in history, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. According to this story, it is a travesty of democracy – the worst election ever.

But when I talked to US citizens of all different types in New England over the last few days, I saw another side to it. True, the first thing people tell you when you ask them about the election is that they’re tired (this has been an extremely long presidential election season). If they are against Trump, the Republican nominee, they will also probably express some fear about the result. And there is a general mood of wariness. People hesitate to talk politics because of the real divisions unmasked and exacerbated by this election.

But if you keep talking, something else happens – something which reveals American democracy to be deeper, more grounded and more civil than it appears at first glance. 

In Maine, citizens are not just voting for who gets to live in the White House. They are being asked to vote on six mini referendums or "ballot questions". The issues they are being asked to decide are important: gun control, a minimum wage hike, a tax rise to fund schools, marijuana legalisation, electoral reform and spending on infrastructure.

I talked to a Trump-supporting small business owner in Westbrook, Maine, who is opposing all six measures. I asked him why, fully expecting a blunt dismissal of anything with even the faintest whiff of liberal elitism. Instead, I got a full tour of the many different ways he thought these complex proposals would affect not just his life, but the lives of those around him. The minimum wage hike would affect his margins; the tax rise to fund schools was a badly-worded measure that would not channel the money to where it is needed; changing the voting system would be unconstitutional; and so on.

Later, I spoke to a Clinton-supporting single mother in Lewiston. She opposed legalising pot because she feared that the measure was more about corporate profit than public health. And she supported voting reform because she hoped it would bridge the divide in politics and lead to more working across the aisle at the state capital in Augusta.

These were deep and nuanced responses to difficult questions. I thought back to the debate in the UK on the EU referendum earlier this year, and I struggled to remember any conversations with voters which displayed this level of engagement with the issues at hand. All around the US, voters are being asked similar questions (although in some places, such as San Francisco, the sheer number of mini-referendums makes it too hard for citizens to get to grips with them). Everywhere, voters are discussing and debating the laws by which they wish to be governed. There is surely much we can celebrate in that.

Later I attended a Barack Obama rally in Durham, New Hampshire. It was a big and joyful event. People were there to celebrate a popular president, but also to celebrate his office on the eve of an election when they get to choose who fills it next. It reminded me of the deep respect still held by so many Americans for the public offices to which they elect their fellow citizens. The centrality of democratic politics in the US still beats anything on offer in the UK. 

The anger, ugliness and divisions of the presidential election are real, and cannot be ignored. But on the day of the election itself, let’s not forget that democracy is real as well. And in the US, it’s alive and kicking.

Will Brett is Head of Campaigns at the Electoral Reform Society and a councillor in Hackney