Returning to the US after a four year break in which so much had happened — COVID, the January 6 insurrection, floods, wildfires, economic depression — it was hard to predict just what might have changed. Donald Trump’s hold on something like 30% of the population must have had some effect on day-to-day life in America, but, let’s see. We were expecting to find that America was even more divided and dysfunctional than Australia has become. And, arriving just three days after Congress narrowly avoided shutting down the government, some apprehension was understandable.
To start with, there was abundant evidence of the depradations of recent years when we set out on a road trip across Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. Some towns were just hollowed out, with only a few enterprises bravely plugging along. While it has long been the case that the streets of America have become the last refuge for the homeless and the mentally ill, our impression was that this had worsened. Even in relatively prosperous towns — from Asheville in North Carolina to Burlington in Vermont –the tide of the homeless seemed to have risen.
On the other hand, America was not quite as exceptional as we might have expected. As we talked to people about how things were for them these days, we were struck by how familiar their stories were to us. In Barre, Vermont, we heard how the community had struggled to compensate for the neglect of the state as it recovered from the devastating floods of the previous summer. The closed shops and abandoned premises that dotted its streets reminded us of those we knew only too well from living in the Northern Rivers region of NSW.
As if the floods in the Northern Rivers weren’t bad enough, we had also seen the erosion of community as the cashed-up city dwellers, who had fled COVID by buying up property in rural locations, headed back home after the emergency passed. Properties were left empty or turned into Airbnbs, housing availability shrunk dramatically and prices skyrocketed. Local businesses struggled as the permanent population declined. We heard the exactly same stories from folks living in rural communities in the US. One woman we spoke with, who lived in Big Sky, Montana, told us of how the locals in her town, too, were struggling to survive the same kind of consequences from the incursion of wealthy city folks seeking a mountain retreat.
In both the US and Australia, the acceleration of inequality is a major social and political issue, although its effects are amplified there by the lack of a safety net for those who are its victims. The concentration of the nation’s wealth into the hands of an ever smaller fraction of its population has become one of the markers of the contemporary global economy. Little gets done to correct this. The nation’s citizens are left to deal with the social, political and infrastructural consequences of decades of misguided policy, the influence of vested interests, and the failure of political will.
America is only the most inflamed example of this. The chickens released by Ronald Reagan’s fantasy of ‘trickle down economics’ are coming home to roost.
But not out.
And yet. The Americans we met within the bars, the diners, the gas stations, the hotels, were no less friendly, welcoming, courteous and generally resilient than those we had encountered during the previous trips we had made over the last couple of decades. The rich repertoire of sociability to which Americans have access never fails to impress me; Australians are tongue-tied and gormless in comparison. But most Americans we have met are also typically curious, attracted to the unfamiliar, eager to ask questions, and ready to listen to the visitor. The stark contrast between this facility and openness in so much of everyday life, and the hate and venality that circulates through the veins of American politics, remains one of the great puzzles about the complex character of American society.
The safety net may be non-existent but we saw some notable expressions of care and everyday compassion for those who have been the victims of these times. In an outdoor café, where a bedraggled homeless man was seeking a seat but had clearly no intention to buy anything, the wait staff kindly found him a pleasant spot where he could rest out of the way and without embarrassment. On a number of occasions, we saw young folk stop and talk with a homeless person, ask if they were OK, and offer their help. I don’t recall seeing much of that here.
And there are still those classic moments on the street. So, in Boston, there was an older guy in a wheelchair who hung around outside the 7 Eleven near our hotel chatting to passersby; he was obviously a fixture, a neighbourhood character. One time, as we walked by, he was passing on some gossip to a young African-American couple; something bad had happened to a person they all knew. The guy in the wheelchair was filling them in, telling them that someone ‘had beaten’ this person ‘with a Pepsi can’. The African-American man was unfazed by this. His response: ‘You gotta drink Coke, man!’
It’s still America.
Photo courtesy of Christine Turner