The United States of Anxiety

There is one thing I’ll miss about Iowa: the people.

Iowans take mighty seriously their charge of vetting potential leaders of the free world. In fact, you could argue they take it too seriously: It’s not uncommon to encounter a caucus-goer who has seen each and every candidate in person, holding off on making a decision until—like a dairy farmer assessing a prize-winning heifer—they could assess the contenders in the flesh. The more time you spend in Iowa, the more you appreciate how the people here stay politically informed both as a point of communal relevance and civic duty.

Iowans are a great bunch to talk with if you want to understand what high-information voters think about the election, and the state of the country more generally. And among Iowans, I’ve found there’s an even more selective group that is hyper-informed about American politics: Uber drivers.

Don’t laugh. There’s a reason journalists love to share Twitter vignettes from backseats all across the country, and it’s not because we’re lazy. The drivers we encounter make up a fascinating cross-section of the electorate: young and old, blue collar and white collar, black and white and brown. One thing they have in common: They are cogs in a gig-employment machine that, more than most American industries, scrambles our notions of cultural, ideological and socioeconomic belonging. The other thing these people have in common is they spend lots of time in their vehicles, which often translates into lots of time listening to talk of current events, either by radio or podcast or conversation with their passengers.

If Uber drivers tend to be more politically informed than your average worker, Iowa’s Uber drivers are the most politically informed on Earth. Talk to enough of them and you’re liable to learn a lot about how people are living and how they’re voting—and why.

“Let me guess,” JOHN FISHER said as I climbed into his cherry red Chrysler 200. “You want to talk about the caucuses?”

Yup—and apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

With thousands of journalists, campaign staffers, volunteers, activists and curious onlookers descending on Des Moines, Fisher’s car had turned into something of a traveling panel show. He liked to let the guests make their pitch, on behalf of a candidate or maybe a specific policy proposal, before introducing a programming twist.

“Finally, I’ll say that I’m a Trump supporter, and it’s dead silence for a minute,” he said, laughing. “But then we just keep talking. They’re still very kind. So, I’m kind to them in return. They don’t get pushy or anything. When they leave, I always wish them and their candidates the best of luck.”

Fisher, a 66-year-old Des Moines native, started driving after he retired from the insurance industry in 2015. He likes the extra income; even more, he likes the experiences with new people. “I’ll listen to anybody. I’m not a right-winger. I’m barely a Republican. I just like Trump,” he said. “These Democrats, they’re really not doing themselves any favors with impeachment and the way they treat him. I just don’t understand it. Why drag our country through this?”

He paused. “Then again, I only watch Fox News, so maybe I’m only getting one side of things.”

I asked if there were any Democrats he could support. “Pete Buttigieg. I like that he’s young and energetic. And I like his supporters, too,” Fisher said. “I actually like Tulsi Gabbard, too, every time I hear from her. But then you have these old dogs— Sanders, Warren, Biden. They need to get out of the way.”

Fisher said that national security—particularly “the drugs and the violence coming across the border” with Mexico—has long been his priority at the ballot box. But there’s another concern that weighs on him more and more: the diverging economic fortunes of Americans based on where they live. “Right now things are very good in a place like Des Moines,” he says. “But the rural areas are drying up. The farms are being bought out by large corporations. The young kids are all moving to the cities. That’s a bad sign for the rest of the state.”

CASEY FORCE knows something about rural Iowa.

Raised in the town of Lovilia (population: 512), a speck of turf located 30 miles southwest of Oskaloosa, she felt the calling of the world. Force worked overseas as an international business consultant, first in Japan and then in Russia, unsure of whether she’d ever live in the U.S. again. It was only after a visit home for the holidays, and a chance encounter with her future husband, that Force returned to Iowa. But small-town life wasn’t an option. Now 40 years old, with two children, ages 2 and 7, Force works in special education at a high school in south Des Moines.

“And I drive six days a week,” she said. “Usually it’s just a handful of rides here and there, before school and once the kids are asleep at night. This paid for our last trip to Disney World. We’re going to take another one soon.”

Force voted for Hillary Clinton in the last general election. But she has never caucused before. This will be her first time—if she can work up the courage to participate. “I’m super intimidated by this whole thing,” she said.

The other hang-up: Force still hadn’t settled on a candidate. “I’ve just been listening. Last night, I had some Bernie Sanders volunteers; they offered me yard signs. The night before it was the Trump rally; I drove a lot of people from there. Then there was a girl I picked up from WalMart who was all emotional because she couldn’t decide who to caucus for. I’m really busy with work and family and everything, so I’ve been interested in hearing what everyone else thinks and why.”

Ultimately, Force said, she was leaning toward Buttigieg. But she’s prepared to vote for any Democrat who’s on the ballot in November. “I’m an educator, and we need money for our schools, and I just know we’re not going to get it without Democrats in power,” she said.

Force worries about her children and whether they’ll be able to afford college. She also worries about the low-income students at her school; two of them were recently lost to gun violence in a triple homicide that shook Des Moines. Above all, however, she worries about “the decision-making at the top” of the U.S. government.

“I still think back to that [Access Hollywood] tape, and how the reporter on the bus with him got fired and Trump became president,” Force said. “I think about the #MeToo movement. I think about the racial episodes. And it just seems—I thought we’d gotten somewhere as a country with Obama in office. I guess not.”

Behind the wheel of his grey Hyundai Sonata later that night, GEOFFREY O. sounds no less optimistic.

“I don’t believe in our politics anymore,” he says, shaking his head. “They are all lying to us. Like Andrew Yang – where is he getting that money from? And how much is he giving himself before I get my share? And Bernie Sanders, he talks about paying for everyone’s education—but how? Where is he getting that money from?”

Geoffrey, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Uganda, thought he was leaving dysfunctional and corrupt governance behind when he returned to America a few years ago to attend college. But that idealism has diminished. On one side, he says, he sees a Democratic Party that makes unrealistic promises. On the other side he sees Trump.

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