When we moved back to Ohio last year, I was highly aware that I was moving to a swing state. The Swing State. When we were looking for somewhere to live, I hardly even wanted to consider houses in Kentucky because I knew what it would mean for my vote. It would be swallowed up by the majority in the very same way it was in New York. "I want to live in a state where I can make a difference."
Come election season, I signed up to volunteer for the Obama campaign for what time I had while I was still in the US. (Leaving the country for a month during baseball postseason and election season was one of my more ill-conceived ideas.) When I heard I would be going out canvassing, I wasn't so sure about it. Isn't this just volunteering to annoy people? To pester, to prod? Aren't I just setting myself up to be the bane of other people's existences?
But here's what happened: I was able to talk to people I'd never otherwise get a chance to talk to, visit neighborhoods I might never otherwise visit. We may think we don't live in a bubble because of what we read or who we know, but most of us really, really do.
So much of this election has been about challenging each other, about posting hilarious and hurtful things on social media sites, sharing clever videos, angry videos, inspiring videos. But so few people posted about conversations they were having with people they'd never met before, people who might agree with them but have questions, or might disagree with them and feel the need to tell you why. It's not always easy to seek out these conversations, but to be completely honest with you, it's the only part of my election experience that felt truly valuable. My vote was one thing; these conversations were something else entirely.
WHO I TALKED TO
The Romney Supporters. One gentleman asked me if when I had kids I wanted them to grow up in the country the way it is now. I said that President Obama was creating exactly the kind of future I wanted my kids, when I had them, to grow up in. We agreed to disagree. I saw him again on election day. He asked if I'd changed my mind. I said no. I asked him if he voted. He said yes. I told him I respected him for exercising his right to vote. I'll probably see him at the Kroger inspecting eggs, and I'm sure we'll wave at each other and smile.
I walked with one woman up the hilly roads north of my neighborhood. We marvelled that there was still some color in the trees, how nice it was to have all this nature around us, how crisp the air was. When we reached her house, she exclaimed that her Romney signs had been stolen. I promised her it wasn't me. We both agreed that it wasn't fair play. We parted ways with a smile and I moved along in my rounds.
The Undecided Voter. I can tell you this: they are not as dumb as everyone paints them to be. Some were concerned with the mounting debt and had yet to see a plan from either side that they are convinced would work. Some were confused over the information both sides are throwing at them about Medicare, an issue that was important to them because they and their ill mother relied on it for medical support. Some believed that both sides are just cogs in the corporate machine. All of them were carefully considering their vote, and doing more research than a lot of others who had already made their minds up. Calling them dumb is unfair and unproductive.
The Ones Who Wouldn't Say. They spoke through cracked doorways, not wanting to reveal themselves, not wanting to reveal their votes. I thanked them for voting anyway. They smiled smiles that hardly revealed any teeth.
The Mother. Just before dusk on election day, three of us were sent out to an apartment complex in North College Hill. Many of the names on my list had "want to vote" and "needs ride" next to them; my job was to check that they had voted, and to see if they'd had any problems or been challenged at the polling station. One woman answered the door with an infant in her arms and two young kids running around behind her. "Hi, I'm here with OFA, just checking to see if you made it to vote okay?" "Yes I did." I can't say for sure if she was a single mother, but there was no other adult in sight. I wondered who held her child, who tamed the energy of those running kids. She smiled and said she'd had no problems. I marked her off my list.
(Incidentally, voters like this woman are the reason I take great issue with this piece in Slate. It's pretty obvious it wasn't easy for her to get out and vote so easily, as getting a bus from North College Hill to Downtown isn't a piece of pie with two young kids and a weeks old infant. If you look at accessibility for those without transportation and count the actual early voting hours available to working single mothers, for example, it's a travesty.)
The Future. I met a kid balancing a trike on top of a pile of metal road plates whose parents were voting for Romney, and when I asked if he agreed with them, he said "yeah, I guess. Maybe I'll know once I can vote." A goth kid came jogging out of a house with Romney signs on the same street, and as he passed me and noted the Obama buttons on my coat, waved and smiled and said "hey." A boy with learning disabilities who was too young to vote answered the door and said his parents weren't home, but said he sure wished he could vote for Obama like his parents planned to.
WHO I DIDN'T TALK TO
The Ghosts. Most of them were just names on a list, addresses, ages. Knock, wait, silence. Knick-knacks in windows, packages on doorsteps, a garden hose languishing in a yard. Lots and lots of barking dogs. I knocked on doors of known Obama supporters who wanted nothing to do with my canvassing. I could hear them shushing dogs behind closed doors, moving blinds in the window to see who was at their door, closing them quickly, shadows retreating from frosted windows in doors. I wondered if I would even answer my door to someone with a clipboard and a nervous smile.
But there I was. On a doorstep I wouldn't normally ever find myself on. Waiting to have a conversation with a stranger.
* * *
This is the most important thing I learned in this election: it is important to have these conversations we wouldn't normally have, and to be civil while doing so. I have seen it again and again: when we are kind to each other, when we find our common ground (or when we don't but make each other aware and understanding of our grievances), we start to feel like a community, a true neighborhood of people working towards a greater future.
Even in this election, I saw communities divided over a presidential election come together with overwhelming support for levies on mental health, seniors, and schools. We understand what's important for our communities, and the seemingly greater national divide can't stop us from being aware of things we can help improve right in our backyards.
This may sound like a stump speech trying to satisfy the political beliefs of everyone I know, but I really believe it. I've never believed it more than I have living in Ohio. We are a country of differences, and celebrating those differences rather than shaming them is our way forward. The differences highlight the commonalities, and there are more than we realize. (And to those who believe the other side is CRAZY, how are you going to convince someone of your side if you're just shouting about how CRAZY the other side is?)
We all drive the same roads, shop at many of the same stores. Reach for the same carton of eggs. Lament the weather. If you feel we have nowhere else to start that conversation, why not start there?
* * *
Respect for each other is the first step toward conversation. In a moment last night that made me so proud I was moved to tears, our President offered categories of basic respect in his speech: "whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight." To these categories I would add: whether you are a man or a woman, whether you have children or not, whether you're single or married, from Alabama or New York, from the city or the country, whether you dropped out of high school or have a PhD in physics, whether you're a Democrat or Republican or Green or Libertarian, whether you believe in one God with a capital G or many gods or no god at all. You are all welcome here; you are all welcome to the roundtable.
Celebrating our differences is not an excuse for intolerance. Racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-religion, anti-atheist, anti-rich or anti-poor beliefs don't lend themselves well to conversation. Once you dismiss an entire group of people, you are closing yourself off to a section of the world. I realize this may sound hypocritical and tricky; I'm essentially dismissing racists from the conversation. But I'm saying that we can't dismiss racists as people, but can (and should) dismiss intolerant beliefs as part of the dialogue. Just as I'd dismiss the beliefs of someone who came to the table thinking all Republicans are all stupid. That's no way to start a conversation. You start the conversation outside of extreme beliefs and move slowly towards tolerance by finding common ground.
The point isn't to tell anyone why what they believe in is wrong; the point is to start talking about what we believe we can do that is right. And go from there.
* * *
While my knees might argue otherwise, I spent a grand total of 24 hours — or a single day of my life — campaigning for OFA and President Obama during this election. 21 hours canvassing, and 3 hours phone banking. This is nothing; there are many people who gave up far more than I did. Sally was our community organizer who gave up her house and her food to volunteers, keeping us pepped up and on track. I met a 78-year-old woman who never told me her name but told me of how she started out life picking cotton in South Carolina before moving to Ohio and working for years as a nurse in a nursing home, then becoming a transmission technician at an automobile plant. ("You must really know how to fix a car." "If it's your transmission that's the problem, I do.") She had worked hard all her life and was giving up her retirement to the campaign. My mother ran door-to-door in a county that was guaranteed to go Red; my old English teacher organized there as well. My most frequent co-volunteer was the ever-cheerful Richard, a 65-year-old war veteran with two knee replacements (and here I was whining about my sore ones) who was volunteering every waking hour he had free (when he wasn't cleaning his church or working part time as a contractor), leaping out of the car to run up driveways and staircases.
On Monday night, after Richard and I had spent a few hours searching for addresses in the dark using head lamps, juggling pens and clipboards and door hangers that were awkward and bulky and kept falling to the floor of the car in the dark ("Obama," said Richard, "you don't even KNOW"), we returned to the house to debrief and tally. Sally's husband asked us what we were planning on doing with all of our free time once the election was over. And I realized how easy it would be to give that time again: 24 hours of my life. 24 hours of my life to give back to Cincinnati, to the community I'm so proud of today. 24 hours to give toward conversation, toward finding our commonalities, toward bringing our neighborhood together. No matter how many colorful maps you might see, I still believe: when we are civil to each other, there is common ground to be found. And I'm willing to give the time to find it.
(I'm just as excited for me to stop talking about elections as you are, but I didn't want to leave this election behind without talking about some of the things I learned about people in a swing state. So much of the focus was on Ohio during the election, and while I'm sure many people on the coasts felt frustrated by how close the vote in our state was, and how big its say was in the outcome, I think it's important to have civil conversations to find out why.)
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.
I had hoped to write more while I was away: to talk about the places I saw, to share everything here. Even explain why I'd gone away in the first place (to live in a seaside town for a month with nothing to do but translate a novel and collect rocks).
But it seemed all I could do was take pictures. I've done this before: put my guard up against words. There's another reason this time: I'm pouring my efforts elsewhere, and it's necessary, and it's good. Bigger things to come! Nothing ominous or life-changing, just deciding for once that the words I put out there might be better put to use in places where people will see them.
I'll still try to keep the pictures coming, if only for a bit of respite from the words.
Forgive me this little pause. It's probably good for all of us.