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The great American carnival | The Economist

CRYSTAL CORONAS says she knew this year’s Delaware State Fair was different the instant she let slip her Hollywood Racing Pigs for the first time. As Kevin Bacon, Snoop Hoggy Hog and Kim Kardashi-ham careered around the wood-chip track, competing for an Oreo biscuit, Ms Coronas looked up and saw a crowd revelling in post-lockdown delight. “People were screaming,” she recalled after another porcine performance. “They were so excited to see the show. I guess covid’s been hard for everyone.”

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Many visitors to Delaware’s 270-acre fairground expressed that sentiment. The ten-day carnival was the first organised fun they had had since the pandemic began. “It’s just great to be out the house,” was a line Lexington heard often as he and his family sauntered in blistering heat around the carnival’s circus- and farm-animal shows, its funfair and junk-food booths. Though Delaware was one of the few states to go ahead with its annual fair last year, it was a covid-diminished affair. This year’s carnival, the curtain-raiser to a four-month season of state fairs that will ripple across the country before ending in Louisiana in November, is pretty well business almost as normal. Over 300,000 people—representing a third of Delaware’s population—were expected to attend it. Upcoming fairs in bigger states, such as Texas, Oklahoma and Minnesota, are predicted to draw 2m, and contribute up to $400m to their local economies.

That is largely down to organisation. The fairs grew from a 19th-century tradition of agricultural shows, which had the dual aim of binding communities and educating farmers about technology. And even as their budgets have ballooned, most retain that Tocquevillean spirit. Delaware’s is organised by a non-profit outfit run by a board of 80 local worthies and many volunteers.

Such eager participation, and the evidence of Lexington’s saunter, also point to the huge demand for these folksy events. Outside the jazzy metros, nostalgia is a potent cultural register in America. It is manifest in an ageing white population and its taste for retro pop and country music, and pastors and politicians who, like organ-grinders, keep playing the same old tunes. The carnivals, which peddle nostalgia for agrarian skills and frolics, are an extreme version of the same.

Visitors to the Delaware show—located outside the unjazzy town of Herrington, at the meeting of the state’s rural and conservative south and its more affluent Democratic north—are greeted by a fairground organ, cranking out 19th-century hits. After an opening assault of deep-fried offerings, they head past Ms Coronas’s family menagerie, which also includes camel and pony rides and “the world’s smallest horse”. The family’s five generations of circus history are another feature of this rose-tinted show. Ms Coronas’s parents were trapeze and high-wire artists before settling in Florida to train race pigs.

The fair-goers—families, older couples and teenage gaggles—then proceed, via more hot and corn dogs, to the show’s towering Ferris wheel. Or they could visit the byres where farm youths were fine-tuning their show-ring skills, as their great-grandfathers did before them. When a 17-year-old hand told your columnist her family had been in the same spot for four generations, he assumed she was speaking of their farm. In fact she was referring to the precise corner of the barn, well-placed for the milking-machine, where she was watching over her Guernsey calf, Dee-Dee.

Most people said they had come for the artery-clogging food. Otherwise they cited some aspect of its immemorial traditions. For well-heeled visitors from northern Delaware, these represented “Americana”: a playful affirmation of what it was to be American. For rural folk such as Bryan, a carpet-fitter, the fair was a link to childhood, a memory of family outings and friendships gone-by; even if, he said glumly, “so much has changed—you don’t see so many people you know.”

There was much to like in this, not least the fact that the carnival is a rare place where America’s two tribes do still mingle. Ironically, perhaps, given its historical (and in Iowa continuing) importance as a political soapbox, it has become a reverie on the past that everyone can enjoy. Even the sharps operating the fairground games in Delaware seemed wearily benevolent. Michael, a paunchy Alabaman running a $5 “shoot-the-hoops” stall, lamented that the punters only rarely listened to his advice on how to beat its almost impossible odds. ”It’s a carnival game, so of course there’s a trick,” he said mournfully, pocketing another $5. It was amusing, heart-warming even; yet very different from the aspirational qualities the state fairs were once known for.

Only after the second world war did they abandon their mission of educating rural Americans about the modern world. Most of their visitors no longer worked on the land. To the extent that today’s carnivals retain an equivalent purpose it is the reverse: to help suburban Americans know one end of a cow from the other.

State of a fair

Perhaps it is time to renew some of their original modernising purpose. The flipside of small-town America’s nostalgia is mistrust of the future. That can have unfortunate consequences, and manifestations of the social malaise it can represent were evident at the fairground. Consuming quantities of sugary food is another great holiday tradition; but it is all too common in American daily life as well. The incidence of obesity is shockingly high in Delaware and has doubled in just 20 years. It also seemed that almost no one at the fair was following its guidelines on masking and social distancing—though over a third of Delawarean adults are unvaccinated against covid-19.

America’s nostalgic folk culture is great fun. Yet how good it would be, Lexington reflected, as he tried to dissuade his sugar-crazed children from demanding more cash to liberate goldfish, if some of its former dynamism and confidence could be regained.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The great American carnival”