About three years ago, Patty Dwyer began waving flags from highway overpasses. The 60-year-old respiratory therapist from Long Island joined the protests to throw her weight behind the idea that the American identity was disintegrating. She and other protestors invited passersby to honk if they agreed. At first, she said, only a few cars bleated. But over time, the chorus built to a crescendo. “Cars go crazy,” she told WNYC. Eventually, “the sound of the beeping horns drowned you out.”
Dwyer is part of the cast of characters in the new podcast, “The United States of Anxiety,” a collaboration between WNYC and The Nation. Taking Long Island communities as a case study, the seven-part series, with new episodes rolling out every Thursday until the election, aims to humanize voters whose multi-faceted lives are often reduced to single sound bite issues in this boiling election season. The series aims to explore how identities—personal, aspirational, immutable, and in flux—are shaping voters’ choices.
The first episode opens with layered chants of “build that wall,” a swelling tide of cheering, threatening to break into jeers and boos. That’s the din that has dominated the airwaves. But Dwyer complicates this portrait of Trump supporters as a single entity. She’s pretty complicated herself: She cast a vote for Obama in 2008—she appreciated his embrace of same-sex marriage—but now organizes for Trump. She tears up when she recalls her son’s struggle with drug abuse; she talks wistfully of the house that she’s preparing to leave, as property taxes continue to mount.
Leni (another Long Island resident, whose name has been changed), is terrified of Trump’s deportation rhetoric. She emigrated from the Dominican Republic and earned U.S. citizenship in 2007. She fell in love with Juan, an electrician, who is on an expired tourist visa. Last February, Juan was arrested for having a fake drivers’ license, even though he wasn’t the one behind the wheel. The arrest led to a deportation case, and he’s still being held in a detention facility, while Leni has had to sell his watch, ring, and car in order to scrape together enough money to cover rent.
“The United States of Anxiety” pulls the narratives into conversation. The result is a series of three-dimensional portraits of people with pets, partners, and jobs, trying to carve out a niche for themselves and provide for their families. The producers note that, for many voters, the election isn’t just about voting for the next president; instead, “it serves as a referendum on what it means to be innately American.” The podcast, likewise, wrestles with those sticky questions about what the country should look like, and who it should be for.