US election: Letter from Canton, Ohio

 

If the polls are accurate, Canton, Ohio, is the kind of place that will help decide this year’s Presidential election.

The largest city in Stark County - the largest swing county in this most critical of swing states - it was once a thriving manufacturing centre bang in the middle of America’s midwestern industrial heartland. Only twenty-four miles up the highway is Akron, the birthplace of the storied Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

But in 2010 Canton was classed as one of the country’s most miserable cities by Forbes magazine, based on a host of indicators including unemployment and violent crime (it has since dropped off the top twenty and this year it’s Akron’s turn in the rankings). In a historical twist, the city was named after what was then called Canton, China. Today, we know it as Guangzhou, a bustling manufacturing hub in Guangdong province. 

Talk to small businesses and residents here and it doesn’t take long for them to open up about how hard it’s been, and just how hard it remains. A florist in downtown Canton summed it up thus when asked how business had been over the last four years: “Horrible.” 

Talk some more and it becomes clear that moving in lockstep with (and perhaps feeding off) the hard times has been a corrosive polarising force. A couple of conversations in and that rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention by the-then Illinois Senate Candidate Obama - “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America... There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America...There is the United States of America” - seems depressingly distant. 

Instead, whispers abound about the motives of those who seek to unseat President Obama. Robert Capestrain, an ex-county commissioner who supports the incumbent, was blunt. “It is politically incorrect to admit that [there is racism at work in some of the opposition to the President], so nobody admits it, but it is below the surface,” he said to nods of agreement from his friends (all fellow Democrats) at a local grill yesterday. 

On the other side of the political divide, you could pick up distrust of the campaign for early voting (which tends to favour Democrats). By some, it was spoken of almost as some kind of conspiracy against conservatives (who, to make another sweeping generalisation, tend to vote on election day).

This chatter is not scientific, nor is it in any way conclusive. But it does speak of a broken place - a broken place that will help make the next President. 

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