Walking home from the subway tonight, my passage was blocked by a tangle of yellow police tape strewn across the wide avenue bisecting the two main grounds of Brooklyn’s large Farragut public housing complex.
Bystanders told me ‘a cop shot someone; they’re killing all of us’. Even casual observers of US culture would realise the 'us' in this statement referred to African Americans. Thankfully, this shooting doesn’t appear to have been lethal.
The heavy mood was suddenly lightened by a joking suggestion that I should ‘vote Trump — he’ll fix everything’. And indeed, there on the periphery of the projects was a booth with signs in English, Spanish and Mandarin imploring the public to ‘vote here’ .
Across the road from this housing complex is the main entrance to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the site of an early 20th Century manufacturing boom and source of significant sea power in World War II. Now it hosts industry on a smaller scale and the occasional event, including the recent, rather spiteful debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
New York City might be more commonly celebrated as the capital of the world than the heart of America, but it sure does a good job of highlighting the country’s many challenges and contradictions, be they racial, cultural, economic or otherwise. Such divides have been front and centre of the two presidential nomination campaigns, and they also dominated the New York primaries.
The winners, as they have most often been in these contests, were Trump and Clinton, who were both approaching 60% of the vote at last count. The former celebrated his win to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, while Clinton took the stage to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind — choices that reflect a high degree of predictability now seeping into the campaign. This might only be tempered by increasingly fraught GOP efforts to deny Trump the nomination.
While the contest was state-wide, New York City naturally dominated media coverage. This was exacerbated by the Queens-born, Manhattan-dwelling Trump — who has literally stamped his name all over the city — exposing the foolishness of Ted Cruz’s earlier decrying of 'New York values'. While Trump will enjoy this time in the sun, it will likely be a very different story should he make it to the general election, where the solidly Democratic nature of the city and state overall will prove far less accommodating.
The Democratic contest was even more localised. The choice of Brooklyn as the site of the Clinton/Sanders debate reflected the fact that the borough is both home to the Clinton campaign and the birthplace of Sanders. It was also the site of a perplexing purge of thousands of individuals from the Democratic registry, thereby denying their rights to participate in the closed voting process, an incident that gives credence to the Sanders campaign’s complaints of a corrupt American political system.
Rigged or not, the lost battle for Brooklyn will go down as one of the most disappointing and damaging for Sanders. His failure to win on his former home turf was emblematic of the somewhat perplexing nature of support for the Sanders campaign. Voting by county shows Clinton dominated in the heavily populated New York City metropolitan area, while Sanders picked up the majority of lower value rural electorates. Clinton again relied on a strong showing among African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. While Sanders has been able to effectively connect with young white liberals and rural voters who feel estranged by a supposedly unfair economy — perceived to be the doing of mainstream Democrats as much as Republicans — his persistent failure to build bridges into other communities has been his undoing.
The inability of a campaign that stresses equality and socially progressive policies that are intended to end entrenched disadvantage to connect with those who most need it — the inhabitants of those Farragut Houses, for example — has been difficult to comprehend. It is in turn intrinsically linked to the great American conundrum of why citizens in many parts of the country who would benefit most from the safety net favoured by Democrats more often vote for Republicans.
While there has been a backlash from the black intelligentsia against Clinton’s support in the past for what is judged to be misguided welfare reform, and other missteps, this has failed to impact rank and file voters. A Hillary-supporting colleague of mine also suggested that black and other minority voters might have become hardened by the failure of the Obama presidency to have any meaningful impact on their lives, and are looking for a more pragmatic approach this time around. Though, in truth, Obama was always a pragmatist; he was merely better at couching his prosaic side in the poetic flourishes required of campaigning.
Regardless, there are lessons here for future candidates in the mould of Sanders who wish to build broad coalitions among disenfranchised Americans across racial and other divides. Namely, it will take many more years of effort and ground-based campaigning to achieve the required level of familiarity and trust than even this incredibly protracted campaign allows.