In my new, more realistic understanding of American democracy, gained just this year from a thousand expert sources, the role of all but a portion of the electorate is to show up at their polling places tomorrow and dutifully cancel out one another’s votes so that Ohio can choose our president.
And why has this privilege fallen to Ohio? The prevailing view, voiced by columnists and pundits and even some very fancy political scientists, is that Ohio is a national microcosm, blending diverse demographic and cultural groups in a way that reflects America at large. In other words, it’s a state with lots of rednecks that also has plenty of poor urban minorities balanced by a certain magic number of college-educated professionals. Add in a lot of struggling factory workers, stay-at-home moms, Roman Catholics, evangelicals, college students, military veterans, Latino immigrants, and nursing home residents, and there you have it: our republic in a can.
The situation disturbs me even so. That any one state should posses such outsize power over the country’s political destiny strikes me as outrageous on its face, but that this state should be my own birthplace, the very cradle of American mediocrity and overzealous lawn ornamentation, is positively terrifying.
To those who know it well, in a way the Census Bureau only could if it were based in Akron or Sandusky, the soul of Ohio is its utter soullessness. What Gertrude Stein said of Oakland—that “there isn’t any there there”—is so much truer of Ohio that no one would ever bother to mention it, let alone be considered witty for doing so. In Oakland, one half expects to find a there and is disappointed when one doesn’t. In Ohio, on the other hand, nothing– and nowhere–ness is the whole premise.
This explains why the state turns out such good rock-and-roll bands. From the Pretenders, whose bitter “My City Was Gone,” (about Akron, singer Chrissie Hynde’s hometown) may as well be Ohio’s official anthem, to Devo, whose name is short for “de-evolution,” to the Black Keys, whose thumping garage arrangements convey the very essence of bored delinquency, the driving force behind Ohio rock is the deep human need to feel something, anything, when surrounded by total tedium and depletion. Which is to say that Ohio rocks so hard because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist.
Ohio‘s great writers—and it produces a lot of them, most of whom blow town on the first train in much the same way that young beauties raised in Kansas split for L.A. the moment they’re out of high school—offer further tribute to the state’s nullity. James Thurber did this by creating characters so entirely bereft of zest that they while away their dull grey lives in fantasy. Sherwood Anderson, whose stripped-down style put the prose in prosaic and influenced Hemingway (who had the good sense to render it more adventuresome by using it to describe safaris and bullfights) distilled Ohio into a dreary village whose most exciting feature was its name: Winesburg. It was a place of frustrated ambition, thwarted sexuality, and that peculiar type of random violence that serves to help people skip forward to the ends of lives whose interminable middles are unbearable. As for Ohio’s greatest female author, the satirist Dawn Powell, she chose to condemn the state through indirection by writing mostly about life in New York City. Hart Crane, Ohio’s greatest poet, also did his best writing in New York—before killing himself by jumping off a cruise ship.
Human beings of vision and vitality will do almost anything to leave Ohio. This urge has benefited America’s space program. John Glenn got as far from Ohio as he could. Neil Armstrong, with better technology, got further. Lebron James, not an astronaut but a very high jumper, suffered perhaps the most bitter vilification ever experienced by a superstar athlete who hadn’t actually been charged with rape—simply in order to have the privilege of severing his blah Ohio roots and transplanting himself to colorful Miami.
In fact, the only extraordinary individuals who rush toward Ohio, and not away from it, are presidential candidates. For the last few months—and as you read this, probably—Obama and Romney have lavished on the Buckeye State the sort of hyperbolic praise, feigned fascination, and craven devotion usually reserved for elderly parents with multi-million dollar fortunes.
If Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have succeeded in making the state’s residents feel wise and important and special, like agents of fate, it cannot have been easy. The Ohioans I know (mostly uncles and cousins), understand as though born to such knowledge that their existences are bound by the mall, the municipal baseball field, the turnpike toll both, and the finished basement. Quite a few of them are smokers who can’t quit. Others are golfers who only use rented clubs. Few would count themselves worthy of selecting, with a little advice from their neighbors and the assistance of scattered TV ads glimpsed in sports bars, the leader of the free world.
But Ohioans like my relatives are the ones to whom we’ve given the job. Or at least they’re the ones we’ve passively left it to, which seems more accurate, since neither I nor anyone I know recalls explicitly assigning Ohio responsibility for creating the future. Indeed, I’m surprised that they’ve complied. It’s a burden a lot of them could do without, I bet. It cuts into their bass fishing, for one thing, and takes time away from hosing out their truck beds and packing up their Halloween decorations. Studying the issues—what a hassle. Especially when you’re late going online to order tickets for the Buckeyes-Wolverines game.
One aspect of the Ohio character that ought to prove comforting to the rest of us as we await their decision about our lives is that they usually try to do their best, at least under the circumstances. By this I mean if they’ve managed to rake their leaves that week, their aunt doesn’t need a ride to bingo night, their dog isn’t coughing up wormer on the front porch, and they have correct change for a pack of Camel Lights. Short of these distractions, Ohioans make an effort. They show up. They apply themselves. Unless they’re drunk. And even then, unless they’re very, very drunk, they give things an honest shot. So here’s to them. They didn’t ask for this awesome challenge, remember, and though they might have whined about it, they haven’t. So whatever they choose, I plan to be content with it. Or, if that should prove impossible, numbly, quietly resigned.
Which is how they will be. That’s just who they are.
Correction: The piece originally misspelled Chrissie Hynde's first name.