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Foreign Eye On The Descent Of American Democracy, 2008 To 2020

In the midst of America’s election limbo, our Milan-based writer looks back on the first U.S. campaign he followed — from up close — and wonders what comes next.

Watching U.S. election results from abroad
Watching U.S. election results from abroad
Alessio Perrone

On Sept. 15, 2008, a teenaged version of me with shaggy hair, cheap Wayfarer sunglasses and a The Clash t-shirt, stood in a packed crowd under the dry sun of Pueblo, Colorado, waiting for the candidate to arrive.

I was a month into spending my junior year of high school with a host family who lived just outside Pueblo, where locals prided themselves on hailing from Colorado's ninth biggest city. The year 2008 was also when the financial crash was tumbling global economies, and had already sent much of my host family's savings up in smoke. As for the U.S. presidential campaign in full throttle, I didn't know much, but someone had explained to me that Colorado was a swing state, which had brought both candidates to Pueblo.

There was optimism — euphoria, even.

I skipped the appearance of John McCain, but to the chagrin of my host family — die-hard Republicans — I was eager to join the crowd that had come to see his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Looking back now, I wasn't moved by anything I'd call a political conscience, which would arrive later. Instead, I was curious to see someone who somehow seemed different from politicians I'd seen growing up, and who everyone back home in Italy was asking about.

Six weeks later, when election night arrived, I watched Obama's victory speech in Chicago with a sense of seeing history in the making. In a country stained by slavery's past, voters were sending the first African-American to the White House, a man who had spent part of his youth in Indonesia and spoke about hope without false promises, vowed to end America's senseless wars abroad and build unity at home. There was optimism — euphoria, even. America, the most powerful country in the world, was also showing the rest of us a better way.

Obama speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, on Sept. 15, 2008 — Photo: Alessio Perrone

Twelve years later, all of that seems to be long gone. Most of the people in my life, Americans and otherwise, see Donald Trump as an existential threat to a democracy that had seemed to reach a pinnacle as Obama took office. I am also still in touch with some friends, back in rural Colorado, who have always been warm and generous with me — but who passionately defend Trump on Facebook, worrying that a Joe Biden presidency would be the end for Christian values. The middle ground and all meeting points have vanished.

America was showing the rest of us a better way.

I'm not sure what has happened to America, and whether other democracies will follow in its path. But in this unprecedented election season, amid a global pandemic, I am following the results from the heart of Europe closer than I ever did in Colorado. The uncertainty right now goes beyond the counting of votes. What does it mean that approximately half the nation supports a president who has questioned basic science and brushed off hundreds of thousands of deaths in order to boost his own campaign? What does it mean that my colleagues in the media have again misunderstood what is happening in the country?

As we wait for the final, painful count of the votes, I think back to that rally in Pueblo. Standing under the sun, shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow humans, is not the only thing I feel wistful for.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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