Image credit: Rachel Berman

Eric G. Berman has worked for the United Nations and the Small Arms Survey on arms control as well as peace and security issues, with a focus on Africa. He is currently working on a study on Boko Haram and peacekeeping efforts in the Lake Chad Basin region.

My move from Switzerland to the United States to support Democratic candidates and progressive causes did not go as planned: most of ‘my’ candidates lost … and baseball was played without fans in the stands. Yet I gained a new appreciation for both the challenges to American democracy and the prospects for a brighter future.

I chose North Carolina as the state, the tenth most populous, was considered ‘purple’—i.e. in ‘play’ on the Electoral College map. This was so even though the Republican Party (frequently depicted in ‘red’) had won the presidential contest all but twice over the past 50 years against the (‘blue’) Democratic Party. The state’s junior senator, a Republican, was also up for re-election and seen as vulnerable.

My five-month sojourn consisted of three distinct activities. First, I engaged infrequent Democratic and unaffiliated voters in an effort to encourage them to vote. Second, I registered new voters without regard to any party affiliation (but focused on neighbourhoods that leaned to the left on the US political spectrum). And third, I worked for a Democratic candidate running for the General Assembly in Raleigh, the state capital. I knocked on some 7,500 doors, spoke with perhaps 1,000 voters, and registered about 200 people.

I experienced greater voter antipathy toward Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. The electorate in North Carolina certainly includes white nationalists (many households in the state proudly and prominently display the Confederate flag), Q-Anon adherents, anti-abortion proponents, and Second Amendment enthusiasts who won’t be voting for a Democratic presidential candidate anytime soon. But I met a considerable number of people who voted for Trump in 2016 who expressed buyer’s remorse.

That said, many voters, while unhappy with Trump’s tweets, rhetoric, and character told me that they would still vote for him. They felt their financial and economic prospects had improved during the first three years of his tenure and were hoping for a return to good times after a vaccine for the coronavirus was available.

Trump still carried the state, but by fewer than 75,000 votes, down from almost 175,000 in 2016. George W. Bush won North Carolina by an average of more than 400,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Reagan won by more than 500,000, and Nixon by more than 600,000, in 1984 and 1972, respectively. Whereas Nixon captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote, and Reagan topped 60 in those two campaigns, in 2020 Trump fell short of 50 per cent in both of his runs.

Democratic candidates in North Carolina should do better in 2022 and beyond. In 2020, many college campuses were closed with students studying remotely—many from outside the state who did not have a chance to register in North Carolina. This group tends to support Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party authorized its candidates to knock on doors less than two weeks before election day. The Republican Party, I was informed, imposed no such restrictions. Post-pandemic, the Democrats will not be hobbled in this way. Canvassing, as this activity is called, is considerably more effective in turning out the vote than is phone-banking or letter-writing. Moreover, I met lots of voters who had recently moved to North Carolina from deeply blue states (e.g. California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington). This migration, which likely will result in North Carolina gaining an Electoral College vote in the wake of this year’s census, shows no signs of slowing.

Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature and will draw districts in a manner that is advantageous to their cause (as Democrats are wont do in states they control). This practice, known as gerrymandering, is arguably a greater threat to the health of U.S. democracy than is the role of money in campaigns.

On a happier note, the state’s judiciary and the governor (a Democrat—who, incidentally, received some 50,000 more votes in 2020 than Trump did) will serve as an effective deterrent to the legislature’s worst instincts. And another city in North Carolina will field a professional baseball team in 2021—the state’s eleventh!

More importantly, I now better understand the complexities of the U.S. electorate. Trump’s supporters are far from a monolithic bloc. To demonize them and label them all as ‘racist’ or ‘misogynistic’ is both wrong and unhelpful. A way must be found to lower the rhetoric and work to bridge the divide. While I personally believe that the blame is not shared equally between opposing sides, I do think everyone must strive to walk back from the abyss and not stoke tensions.

I also found the chance to work alongside people who shared my values and aspirations to be restorative and inspiring. It’s easy (and understandable in light of the past four years) to become jaded and discouraged. Volunteering and working on partisan as well as non-partisan issues to promote civic duties and participation in democratic processes was worthwhile and rewarding. If anyone reading this is motivated to act similarly, there’s no time like the present as there are two critically important Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January (especially if you’re supporting the Democratic candidates).