The mistake we all made was in getting our hopes up. Until lunchtime on Tuesday, in accordance with the rules of superstition, lay supporters of John Kerry kept their outlook pessimistic. In bones, waters, winds and related vapors across the land, the election was divined by pro-Democrats to be in the bag for George W. Bush. This is what is known as preparing a soft landing; it is measured in units of unhatched chicks.
We will never know who was first to break rank. But the earliest note of dissension I heard was at 7 p.m. on the Heathrow Express. A man sitting in front of me called the election for Kerry, bold as brass, without qualifying it by spitting three times or chucking salt over his shoulder. "The young people will win it for Kerry," he said, as a shudder moved through the carriage and people reached for things to throw at his head. "The families of people in the military will win it for Kerry."
"Do you think so?" said his companion.
"Yes," he said, and it was as easy as that. The journey up, to be followed by a stomach-sliding descent some 12 hours later, had begun.
When people awoke Wednesday morning, those for whom Bush's overnight gains were unwelcome weathered two sensations: a slug of shock, followed by a surge of recognition. We had been here before. This was 1992, the morning after the general election when, despite hatred for the Tories having peaked over the poll tax, they still managed to bring home a 21-seat majority. And so, not even callers to 5 Live could summon any outrage; despondency was instant and lethal. On the way to work, the faces of people on the tube looked like chalk pavement pictures after a downpour. (OK, so they look like this every morning; but they had particular resonance Wednesday, suspended as they were above front-page pictures of Bush smugly meditating.)
By 10 a.m., as people got to their desks and began a day of low productivity and high personal e-mail exchange, it became clear that the most pressing post-election question was not "Where were you when you heard Bush was winning?" but, rather, "Where were you when you allowed yourself to think it could ever have been otherwise?" Dismally, people asked each other how long they had stayed up the night before. "Until 4:30 a.m.," said my friend Jim. "Long enough to start crying like a girl."
If Jim's experience had been more widespread, perhaps news of Bush's irreversible lead Wednesday would have been cushioned. But most people did not stay up until 4:30 a.m. Most people seem to have bailed out, still feeling reasonably optimistic about the result, sometime between midnight and 1:30 a.m. That spark of hope, so cruelly lit in the early evening, had spread so rapidly that by the time David Dimbleby came on television at 11:50 p.m. it was blazing uncontrollably. Dimbleby's chuckly demeanor looks, in retrospect, more like a form of "we're all going to die" hysteria. It only fanned the surreal, celebratory atmosphere that took hold in the early hours. Look! John Simpson pouting like a pantomime dame! Kerry's sister looking like Norman Bates in his mother's wig! Peter Snow! When, sometime after midnight, news came that the exit polls for Virginia were too close to call -- a sure sign, we'd been warned, that Bush was in trouble -- there was exhilaration of an intensity not felt since Stephen Twigg unseated Portillo. We were going to win!
The first e-mail I received the following morning read: "Fucked off, dejected, our hopes have been blown to shit." The next one read: "As REM once sang: 'It's the end of the world as we know it.' Only, unlike REM, I don't feel fine."
At around 11 a.m., shock gave way to group therapy through shared experience: "The time difference was particularly cruel on Brits, who yet again went to bed thinking the Democrats had won." This was from a friend of a friend. "Did anyone else hear supposed-polling guru Bob Worcester say something on ITV along the lines of 'I'm Bob Worcester, it's 2 a.m., and I am calling it -- it's President Kerry!'? A real bloody Michael Fish moment."
At lunchtime, friends from America woke up and joined the chorus. With a defeated sneer, the Brits among them threatened to move home in protest. It isn't hard to imagine a Republican reply to this: "There's going to be a brain drain from this country which will leave the red-state [Republican] morons to fend for themselves," wrote an American on the Guardian talk boards. "I wonder what the immigration requirements are like in the U.K.?"
A friend in New York wrote: "The one consolation that people are clinging to is that he will fuck things up so badly in the next four years that the Democrats will move back into favor. That's if we still have a world." People in the city, he said, were wondering, "How we are going to survive the next four years? Unbelievable." I rang my cousin in Chicago. "I'm good," she said. "Well, no, actually, not great." The hope thing had prospered there, too. "We thought we were going to win. Bruce Springsteen ... the youth vote ..." She had to get off the line then; there were commiseration calls waiting.
At 1:17 p.m. my friend Dave called and, unconsciously arranging his speech into one last election slogan, said pitifully, "I'm clinging on for Kerry." But we both knew it was over.
If there is such a thing as collective depression, then the circumstances of the election are just right to encourage it. At least the scandal in Florida four years ago gave people something to focus on; there was a battle to be raged. This time, despite some lingering uncertainty over the final result in Ohio, there isn't the consolation of injustice, of having someone to blame. Depression is not a very focused thing and Wednesday's mood was universal only in that it allowed people to group their individual reasons for cheerlessness around the huge disappointment of the election result.
Some of these reasons are seasonal: The clocks have been turned back, the leaves are coming down, the bloody Christmas stock has appeared in the shops. Everywhere you look is raw material for misery, and it's tempting to hang one's reluctance to get out of bed on a more profound psychological state than laziness. To this extent, "collective depression" is a misleading term; it has connotations of Carl Jung and a mystical union between people. But even given all of this, there was a unified sense Wednesday morning that the prospect of having Bush back in business made all the small, crappy things in one's life worse.
"Ach," says Oliver James, the clinical psychologist. "I was too depressed to even speak this morning. I thought of my late mother, who read Mein Kampf when it came out in the 1930s and thought, 'Why doesn't anyone see where this is leading?'"
He thinks people in Britain have every right to be upset by the election outcome. "People invest in political ideas as a way of creating a sense of the future. A big factor in depression is a sense of hopelessness -- the feeling that you can have no influence on outcomes." If people seemed disproportionately miserable Wednesday, then it is because, he believes, the election result is not abstract political background to the daily business of living; there are many who will feel that George W. Bush in the White House compromises their personal safety. "There might be a feeling that a dirty bomb exploding in London is more likely to happen with the policies pursued by a Bush government. People may be taken back to the generalized sense of dread that was widespread before 1988 and the end of the Cold War. This complete nutter in the White House and Blair with the wild look in his eyes."
This sense of powerlessness was also raised by American psychologists, who, anticipating high levels of disgruntlement among voters, were on standby Wednesday to analyze the fallout. Dr. Robert Butterworth advised those individuals who felt depressed and despondent to take refuge in the long view, and warned of likely displays of "anger towards the electoral process [that could] could result in alienation, cynicism and even antisocial activities."
The only antisocial behavior noticeable in Britain, meanwhile, was the punctuation in chat rooms. "I expect to see bombs falling on Tehran before the end of the year! WOOHOO!!!" posted one contributor to the Guardian's talk boards.
"I am deeply ashamed to call myself American," wrote another, while "I'm ashamed to be English," countered a third, in a competitive orgy of shame. Lots of people talked about powerlessness. "And that," said one, ominously, "won't lift until we get our own general election."
At some point in the afternoon, fatalism set in. No one had anything more to say. I phoned Suzy, a graduate student at LSE. Sky News could be heard in the foreground and BBC News 24 in the background. She talked about the "glimmer of hope," and how surprised she'd been by the scale of her own disappointment. Halfway through the conversation she broke off and called to her flatmates: "Has Ohio been declared yet?" A little voice came back, "It doesn't matter. Kerry has conceded."