A Holiday in the Midwest

I spent a week this holiday season in Ohio. I grew up there. I still have family and friends there. I went back to celebrate Christmas and then the New Year, but since this was my first return to the land of my youth since the summer, I wanted to find out what went wrong in November.

I have never been ignorant of the political sensibilities that pervade the Midwestern United States, especially in the area where I used to reside. But a person’s political beliefs were rarely a defining social characteristic. A person voted either Republican or Democrat, or mixed their vote, but politics wasn’t a topic that was on the surface of everyday life. That, however, has changed in Ohio, as I’m sure it has in all of the states that were inundated with messages of ‘vote this way or that, help to change America or stay the course.’

All the regular or outlandish rhetoric that was flung like so much artillery onto the people of the battleground states has left a general feeling of hangover. I wasn’t anywhere near Ohio in the weeks leading up to the election, so I cannot testify as to what went on, but touring vast stretches of the state visiting various relatives and friends after the election, it became apparent that the people of Ohio had an immense amount of their energy focused on a singular issue. The presidential election forced the voters of Ohio to take a stand for what they believe. This may sound like a simple thing to many people, but states like Ohio where people with disparate views live side by side, are best friends, or are often married to each other, support of either Senator Kerry or President Bush can lead to tremorous bouts of stress and frustration.

While I was there, the mere hint that a casual conversation was about to take on a political tone caused the air to grow oppressive. The expression of a political opinion was enough to make the listener stare, like they were watching the same car accident for the thousandth time, yet could do nothing about it. This reaction wasn’t limited to those who disagreed, but was shared by all. These people had all had enough. When the election ended, the tempest of rage that came with it also disappeared, but the desires remained, causing a slow burn deep within both the winners and the losers. The introspection that the Democratic Party is today undertaking in order to sort out the reasons why Kerry lost are shared by members of both parties in the battleground states. Was it national security, or abortion, or moral values, or religion? Even the voters who determined the next four years for us will give you a thousand different answers.

I gathered there was a sense that the people in Ohio initially welcomed the opportunity to be the standard-bearers of the nation’s future, but what a mighty weight, indeed. Why them? What left the people of Ohio, the voters who thought long and hard and made a tough decision, or the ones who knew months before where their choice resided, and spent those months exasperated at the topsy-turvy nature of the presidential election, with a stare that can melt glass? A popular chant during protest is, “The whole world is watching!” When applied to this election, when applied to the battleground states, this has never been so true. So why them? For no other reason than that the math happened to work out that way. The desires of the people of this country dictated that no candidate would run away with the election, and simple election timing would dictate that one of three states, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida, would be the state that would send either candidate over the electoral threshold. As it happened, Ohio was that state.

Because of the results of the last two presidential elections, it is no longer lost on many people in this country that our system for electing a president is woefully flawed. The Electoral College is outdated. It inherently consigns the vast majority of the population to the sidelines when it comes to picking their leaders. During the buildup to election day, while the campaigns crunch their numbers and figure out which states will actually see campaigning, tens of millions of voters get ready to go to the polls and cast a vote that is meaningful in symbolism only. It is criminal that so many concerns of the people of this country have been ignored because they fail to fit into electoral math. We will not have a candidate who feels the need to address the needs and concerns of all the American people until there is a true popular election for president. Right now, too many people in this country just don’t matter. Their crime: living in a state where too many voters agree.