How Americans are experiencing their democracy

A photographer spent the past four years documenting a divided nation—and realized that it’s more than a political problem.

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I took this photograph during the 2012 election at the Police Training Academy in Richmond, Virginia, where people were standing in line to vote. I think about this photograph often. It seems to embody much of the surfaced turmoil of the past decade and the reason why many are voting this year. It also reminds me of the many ways one can read a photo, and what people can get from it depending on their history and their experiences—like politics itself.

For more than a decade, I’ve worked primarily as a conflict photographer, covering wars and revolutions in nations other than my own. But four years ago I started a journey at home to see how the people of the United States experience democracy, especially at the local, grassroots level. I was curious about the deep political divide between those on the left and those on the right. But I also wanted to look beyond politics and examine the social conditions that underpin our society. There I found a greater divide that affects how all people see their democracy, their voice, their power: the divide between the haves and the have-nots. It is income inequality that creates the democracy divide in the U.S.

(Listen to our podcast episode with Andrea Bruce as she shares her journey chronicling democracy in America in 2020.)

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Wilmot, New Hampshire

Every year in early spring, towns across New England hold town meetings. At the Wilmot, New Hampshire, meeting in March 2020, police helped move antique benches into rows for seating and Boy Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance. The town’s citizens debated such issues as the flooding of the town hall and library, tax deductions for solar panels, and the fire department's annual budget.

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Greensboro, North Carolina

In Greensboro, North Carolina, eager voters lined up on the first day of early voting at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, which includes buildings and barns used for agricultural studies. Rupert Macintosh, who is "over 80" and walks with a cane, said he waited in line for almost two hours. "But I enjoyed it!" he added. The city has a history of being gerrymandered, with heavily Democratic areas diluted into separate districts.

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Grundy, Virginia

Talking to the miners at Falcon Coal in Grundy, Virginia, reminded me of time I spent with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sacrifices and physical harm coal miners have experienced for the coal and steel industries is a source of pride and respect for them, just as it is with the military. They also feel that they are deeply misunderstood. These miners work with metallurgical coal—coal used to make steel—which is different than the coal used for power plants. They are offended by people who criticize their history and work without first understanding it. Democracy, said mine owner Eddie Skeens, is deeply rooted in their history, their sacrifice, and their work.

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Provo, Utah

A dance group performs at the Hope of America student showcase at the Marriott Center in Provo. About 8,000 fifth grade students from over a hundred Utah schools came together in red, white, and blue to form the American flag, as seen in the background.

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Kenosha, Wisconsin

During demonstrations in August over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, protesters carried UNIA flags, the Black Liberation flag designed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.

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The right to protest is a common answer to the question about what democracy means in practice. People from all backgrounds protested police brutality in Kenosha. Residents boarded up their businesses with signs promoting peace. Then Kyle Rittenhouse opened fire. The teenager is accused of killing two protesters.

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El Paso, Texas

A train crosses the U.S.-Mexico border into Juarez. Before the pandemic, hundreds of people crossed the border legally, every morning, for work or for school. Asking people in El Paso about politics, voting or democracy was difficult. Old women who were U.S. citizens literally ran away, scared their answers would somehow be held against them.

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Badger-Two Medicine, Blackfeet Nation, Montana

Members of the Tatsey family watch grizzly bears from a safe distance on Blackfeet Nation's sacred land called Badger-Two Medicine. Bordering the reservation and Glacier National Park, the area has been embroiled in a land fight for decades, as the tribe has fought against oil and gas development first opened up by President Ronald Reagan.

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San Francisco, California

The tech boom has priced many residents out of the Bay Area, creating a system with little affordable housing, tent cities, and streets lined with people living in parked RVs.

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Premier, West Virginia

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French chronicler of America, described the U.S. postal system as one of society’s great levelers, paving the way for democracy, bringing information to all. But the system founded in 1775, which serves places as small as Premier, West Virginia, has been under threat recently.

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Gloucester, Massachusetts

This man, who didn't want to give his name but agreed to be photographed, had just been released from prison the day before. Struggling with opioid addiction, he came to Gloucester because of the support the police department offers.

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Angola, Indiana

A man votes in the 2018 midterm elections at a fire station in Angola, Indiana.

In addition to National Geographic, this project was supported by National Geographic Society, Catchlight, and PhotoWings.

Andrea Bruce is a documentary photographer and contributor to National Geographic. She has photographed stories ranging from politics to sanitation. See her recent National Geographic story on women in politics here.