The text came Saturday afternoon, from a friend heavily involved in voter turnout work here in Philadelphia. Details were still fuzzy, but it appeared that what my friend suspected to be far-right actors were showing up to local Get Out the Vote (GOTV) canvass launches and attempting to derail them.
It was a sobering thing to hear, but not entirely unexpected—Philadelphia is, after all, the biggest blue dot in a critical battleground state. If Republicans managed to sabotage efforts to educate and activate voters here, it could pay big dividends.
The buzz grew, and with it, a general sense of bafflement. The disruptors’ general M.O. seemed to be subjecting organizers to an unceasing barrage of questions about U.S. politics and partisanship. Even more strangely, they all seemed to come from outside the country.
More details emerged: This band of English- and Australian-accented attendees had shown up to at least one canvass launch alongside real volunteers, but showed little interest in the actual work of GOTV. As the unpaid canvassers picked up their materials and attempted to learn to knock doors, the international interlopers disrupted proceedings with an unending stream of granular questions about the electoral process, right down to the cellular software used to distribute street walk lists.
Group texts flew. Finally, someone shared a link: politicaltours.com.
There was an explanation for these happenings, it seemed, that beggared belief. These disrupters were paying tourists—clients of Political Tours, a company selling on-the-ground U.S. electoral proceedings as immersive safari experiences to those who could afford their services. Political Tours’ business model apparently involved showing up to volunteer GOTV events unannounced with clients in tow, treating campaign workers and canvass managers as involuntary entertainers and tasking them with satisfying these tourists’ prurient interest in the collapse of U.S. democracy.
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Founded by former New York Times Balkans foreign correspondent Nicholas Wood in 2011, Political Tours invites paying tourists to “get under the skin of a country” and explore its political workings, led by a team of “experts.” “[T]he tours are like being in a documentary film,” gushes their marketing copy, “unique, exciting and stimulating; an experience you will never forget.” Wood’s outfit promises its clients a front row seat on the ground in some of the most important races in the country—even if it disrupts the workings of critical campaigns. (Wood told Jezebel the group had been invited to participate in canvass launches by one local organization, but admitted that other organizations and hosts involved in the effort may not initially have been aware of the tourists’ presence or expectations for the event).
The American election tour comes with a hefty price tag: £3950.00, or a little over $4,500. As their website makes clear, the company sees itself as providing an adventure experience, a way to parachute into some of the most turbulent, complex, and problematic political situations in the world. They boast about connecting clients with acolytes of the Ayatollah in Tehran, West Bank settlers and spy chiefs in Israel, and television propagandists in Russia.
Disconcertingly, Wood has decided that the 2022 U.S. midterm elections are a perfect fit for his electoral disaster tourism brand. The Political Tours itinerary for its midterms “tour” begins in Philadelphia, where participants are invited to “take a look at local politics as well as the economic and social issues facing many of this city’s residents.” At a moment where John Fetterman signs dot most neighborhoods in the city, they proclaim—bizarrely—that “the Democratic party’s candidates across the state are struggling to get the support here they need.” (Full disclosure: I am a Democratic committeeperson in Philadelphia).
Although in some instances Political Tours appears to have contacted Philadelphia community members before simply appearing in their space (over the weekend, a well-known local organizer posted warmly to Instagram about the tour’s presumably arranged visit to a South Philadelphia church this past Sunday), not all of these “experiences” were provided with the consent or knowledge of election workers.
As a result, a voter turnout apparatus already in full swing and at full capacity has had to divert energy and resources to warning their volunteers and campaign partners about the possibility of British tourists showing up to and potentially derailing canvass operations, which comprise perhaps the single most critical local GOTV measure in the lead-up to the election. One prominent local organization involved in elections even advised local organizations and launch hosts to remove physical addresses for canvassing events from public-facing announcements and materials. Meanwhile, Political Tours’ website still cheerfully boasts about their planned stop for election day tomorrow: “We’ll pick some key battles to follow and head to the polling stations to see voting.”
For those of us who grew up in and live in the United States, it’s easy to forget the degree to which our elections are a source of fascination overseas. The impact of our political choices are felt around the world. The very existence of the Political Tours midterms tour reflects something newer and more terrifying than our disproportionate impact on global geopolitics, however—it’s a telling sign of an increasing international consensus that U.S. elections are less a matter of democracy than a dystopic spectacle, a Third World curiosity for citizens of less turbulent nations to marvel and gape at. Philadelphia gun violence, Black churches, war stories about the January 6th capitol siege: It’s all now marketable content for international disaster tourism.
And if that disaster tourism disrupts the work of those making a final, last-ditch effort to preserve democracy in the states? Well, what a great set-up for the next tour.