Day 54: Turning Purple Blue

The tradition of going out to canvass in an area other than one’s own runs deep in American politics. At least as far back as the 1850s, political friends coordinated across state lines to help deliver the vote for their party, going to stump in other states and in some cases giving money to facilitate distant campaigns. These customs have not merely persisted but burgeoned with American mobility, high-tech modes of connectivity, and detailed tracking of local voting patterns.

If I were to canvass for Biden in my home county, it would be a waste of time. I’d be preaching to the choir: Cook County, Illinois, is as blue as they come. Conditions are more promising in Berrien County, Michigan, where I’m living temporarily. Berrien leans Republican but may be in flux. Population-wise, it’s a mix of former Illinoisans (mainly from Chicagoland) who are affluent and older, and native Michiganders who, whether farmers, small-business owners, tradesmen, or unskilled workers, have probably had their fill of economic upheavals and uncertainty. The wealthy areas along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, which forms Berrien County’s western boundary, shade off into eastern expanses of rural and semi-rural poverty, interspersed with thriving farms. Except for the New Buffalo area, which has grown dramatically, the population of the county has shrunk.

Counties such as this will matter as Biden strives to improve upon Hillary Clinton’s dismal Michigan showing in 2016. While Obama won Michigan handily in 2012, garnering 54.2% of the popular vote, Clinton lost the state to Trump by a margin of just 0.2%. Votes cast for third-party candidates exceeded the margin of her loss to Trump. Will Biden have more success appealing to the types of people who inhabit Berrien county? It would be exciting to see purplish Berrien turn blue.

Image: Detail from a Princeton Election Consortium map.
The fuchsia blob on the east side of Lake Michigan is the congressional district encompassing Berrien County, MI.

Exploring Farm Security Photography

A worn middle-aged woman holding a box of strawberries she has picked.
Since the Library of Congress began digitizing the photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), it has blazed a path back into the US of the 1930s and 40s.  The 170,000 photographs that make up the collection surprise and complexify by preserving the look of everyday life back in the era of the Great Depression and WWII.

Folks at Yale have unveiled an interface to the FSA photographs called Photogrammar that facilitates browsing the massive collection by county, using a map that arranges the entire archive by locale.  Another map allows users to find all images created by a particular FSA photographer, whose shoots show up as dots plastered across the US.  (One can follow John Vachon’s photographic odyssey from Chicago across the Southwest to southern California, for instance.)  Every photograph in the interface links back to an original Library of Congress record.

The photograph above is one of many documenting the lives of migrant workers in Michigan’s Berrien County in 1940.  Who knew that placid Berrien County (now a Chicago-area vacationland) had its own Grapes of Wrath story?  That, in the forties, poor families displaced by the Depression and Dust Bowl migrated up to those parts to pick the fruits and berries that even now are a mainstay of the state’s agriculture?  Some 190 photographs by John Vachon record the heart-breaking conditions that awaited those who, after losing their own farmland, had to resort to working as seasonal day laborers.  Pictures from the series document the labor of parents and their small children in the fields, as well as their ‘home life’ in the tents and trucks that sufficed as their dwellings.

The FSA photographs document both the nation’s suffering and its dynamism and vitality, furnishing an often startling yardstick of change in the ensuing 75 years’ time.

Image: John Vachon’s “Migrant berry picker from Arkansas,
Berrien County, Michigan” (July 1940),
from the Library of Congress via Photogrammar.
Click here to visit the Photogrammar site.