I stumbled across George Packer’s* Interesting Times blog today. I was vaguely aware that he was “slumming” in Ohio to report on the election. I scrolled down to a post he wrote a week ago about the white working class vote. In it, Packer relates his experience of interviewing voters from the Appalachian foothills, those southeastern Ohio counties—Athens, Meigs, Morgan, and Washington—that have suffered as much as any Rustbelt county and are more likely to resemble nearby West Virginia than Ohio’s capital city, Columbus, which is only an hour or so away. Packer recognized something those of us on the ground in Ohio recognized: the electorate is complex and this was no ordinary presidential election.
People can hold racist views and still vote against them, because they hold other views, too—they contain multitudes. And people can change. No one should imagine that the country has suddenly lurched in the direction of the Upper West Side. Residents of my neighborhood of Brooklyn have certain beliefs that are incompatible with those of residents of Glouster, Ohio. Obama will be wise to govern in ways that leave those unbridgeable differences alone, and instead direct the power of government to improving people’s lives in both places.
The identity of Pigspittle is similar to that of Meigs County. While some families have long roots in the ground, others were among the thousands of Appalachians who migrated North after the coal mines closed. They carried with them the same accents and idioms and holy-roller religion (though, to my knowledge, none of the famed Meigs County weed). They also carried a resentment on their backs that is still evident, though not nearly as violent as it was fifty years ago. (A black woman who grew up in Pigspittle told me stories of how she was treated in high school, how she endured razors thrown at her during drill team practice.) I confess that I find it nearly impossible to understand racism in Pigspittle. African Americans and Hispanics make up a minuscule proportion of the population here—no more than two percent. Yet, listening to some, you get the impression that the county is overrun with minorities who want to take their Pigspittlian jobs and run their Pigspittlian schools.
My theory—and it’s just that, a theory (and probably too generous a theory, as it presumes that there is some logic to racism)—is that a few generations back these families vied against minorities for work in Kentucky and West Virginia, and later on the way up north, in cities like Columbus and Dayton, in small towns like Pigspittle, the anger was pressed down from generation to generation like a branding stamp.
“I ain’t votin’ for no nigger!” Loud click. It was one of the first numbers a new phone bank volunteer dialed one night in September. Apparently, the voter had caller ID, knew that the call came from the Pigspittle Dems HQ, and wasted no time voicing his disdain. The volunteer never came back. While I knew that campaigning for Obama would weed the thin-skinned from the calloused, I felt sheepish, that I deceived this volunteer and let her down. After all, I had spent weeks telling volunteers that phone banking and canvassing would be a transformational experience, that through volunteering they would hear moving stories about people in pain and in need of change.
I downplayed the whole “and there are some racist assholes out there too” part.
I rarely mentioned it, in fact, even though I had personally heard epithets, sometimes shouted and other times muttered under breath. During the primaries, when it was us against Hillary, I discovered racism was in the shadows of our own party.
When meeting with one of the first Obama staffers to arrive in Ohio after the primaries, I asked how we were supposed to deal with racism. He shrugged his shoulders and smirked. I thought about his response for days. Did he think there wasn’t racism in Pigspittle? Did he not care? Only later did I understand that no one in the campaign would talk about race. And later than that did I understand why: we had to trust that most people in most states would vote to move the country forward, not set it back. (Mind you, not most people in all counties. It’s an important distinction that relieved us of having to actually win Pigspittle County.) We had to take a leap of faith—one of many, I learned along the way, but more on that another time.
Not a single Democrat was elected in Pigspittle, except for a judge who was running unopposed. But we moved the margin, gaining seven points on the Republicans compared to 2004. It was more than we needed to accomplish. It was breathtaking.
And in the end, I hadn’t lied. The experience was, indeed, transformational. I did have long, meaningful conversations with undecided voters who were concerned (some outright terrified) about the future—a young mother who wasn’t sure what world she had just brought her daughter into, a grandfather ailing from inoperable cancer who worried about daycare for his grandkids, a truck driver who couldn’t afford gas. They were thoughtful, compassionate, and respectful. They were doing their own research, reading about the candidates, watching the debates. They were Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. One woman told me that she kept a running list of the candidates’ attributes—pro’s and con’s of each— and that come election day, she would pick the one who had the longer pro column. It seemed like they, collectively, took an eternity to make a decision—we called and canvassed from August through November—but I was comforted by the earnest effort they were making in their decision. No matter how they cast their vote, I knew that they thought long and hard about it.
More than one thanked me for calling, for listening, for giving them the opportunity to rant (perhaps because we always asked what issues were important to them and genuinely cared about the answer).
Just as George Packer was grateful to be among a dying breed of journalists still able to be reminded of human complexity, I am grateful to have been among the campaign volunteers who were reminded as well.
* Brilliant author of the 2005 must-read tome on the Iraq War, The Assassins’ Gate