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To Understand America
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An on-the-ground look at the diverse challenges facing Ohio, in light of its national significance as the state that has aligned with presidential election winners more than any other — from an award-winning author and essayist dubbed "the Bard of Akron" (New York Times).
With any luck,
You'll find a rainbow purged of sullen promises.
—Elton Glaser, "Drowning in Ohio"
"Build It Like We Own It!"
—Plant motto, GM Lordstown Assembly
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A Funhouse Mirror
The predawn moon poured its cold white shine through the kitchen window and across a countertop spread with two dozen freshly frosted Ohio-shaped cookies. The lights were still off, but I could see the cutouts, lined up from the night before, pale blue with navy piping, in rows on waxed paper. The coffee dripped one last time, then the beepbeepbeep of the machine. Ready.
First Monday in March, 2019. By day's end, those cookies would be decimated by a wide-eyed pack of fourth graders, my twenty-three-year-old son would walk through the back door wearing an Akron Police uniform for the first time, the GM Lordstown auto plant just up I-76 would be tooled for its demise, and Luke Perry would be dead.
A farmer down in Delaware County was loading corn to market, preparing for a trip later that day to Virginia, where he would talk to legislators at an agriculture conference, all the while worrying about the prospect of another wet spring. After months of speculation, one Ohio politician was preparing to announce that he would not run for the Democratic presidential nomination, while another was preparing to announce that he would. My local paper that morning carried the death notice for a "beloved son, brother, father, uncle, best friend," a man just thirty-two years old, who "struggled for many years against his disease of addiction until God carried him to Heaven," a jarring obituary verse that had suddenly become standard in a county where death by opioids was an epidemic.
Three miles away, a recently discharged twenty-two-year-old army vet was waking up in the same low-income housing project LeBron James used to call home, preparing for his daily hour-long walk to a downtown Akron community college, working to correct his life's course. A baby would be born that day at Mercy Medical Center and a miniature orange Massillon Tigers football would be placed in his bassinet, a longstanding tradition in the town where American high school football began. Nine random people in Dayton were starting another morning with no reason to think the unthinkable: a nightclub horror of gunfire that awaited them five months hence.
People got up. They dressed for work. They argued with their spouses, they urged their dogs to do their business, they fretted over bills on the desktop, they phoned in prescription refills, they asked what's for dinner tonight.
Mrs. Gina Giffels, a teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Elementary, Akron, Ohio, entered the kitchen in her bathrobe, turned on the light, poured herself a coffee, and began her workday, arranging those cookies side by side in plastic containers. I helped.
Not everybody in Ohio celebrates Statehood Day, but Mrs. Giffels's students sure do. In commemoration of the Buckeye State's 216th birthday, she would spirit those cookies into her classroom, breaking them out for the afternoon lesson. She would show her students how the dark blue icing along the edges designated the water borders—Lake Erie to the north (assuming one uses compass directions to navigate baked goods) and the Ohio River curving down the eastern and southern edges. She would tell them how important these waters have been to every part of life in Ohio, and she would point out the red dot of icing she'd put near the upper right, indicating their shared hometown. State history is a fourth-grade educational standard across the country. Students learn the story of their home place, the territory that designates them part of America but that also gives them the beginning of a notion of their own unique version of Americanism.
Ohio isn't any more American than any other place, but it is completely so, a unique cross section that maps the persona of the nation in a way that has prompted others to turn here again and again to plumb our collective identity. In my lifetime here, it has been easy to believe, as novelist Dawn Powell once observed, that "all Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly." It is an ur-place, sublimely average in both the dispositional and mathematical senses, an intersection of lifestyles and economies, of geographical characteristics and political tendencies, of climates, of conscience, of concerns, a place with answers to the most important question: Who are we?
I was born in Akron and am a lifelong, doggedly committed citizen of a state that's often easier to leave than to love. I have spent much of my adult life thinking and writing about this place in widely ranging forms. For eighteen years, I covered Northeast Ohio as a newspaper journalist. The books I've written all have Ohio themes and settings. I talk about it—a lot—sometimes in bars, sometimes in classrooms, sometimes to outsiders looking to understand this place. I teach a course at the University of Akron on Ohio literature. My go-to beer is brewed in a district called Ohio City. I used to play in a band named after Cleveland's flagship department store, the May Company. Most important, my son and daughter, born and raised here, were just then coming into their own as adults, as citizens, as young people preparing to commit, each in their own way, to Ohio as their home and to a set of ideals that I still want to believe in.
Gina left for school as the sun was coming up and I completed my morning like I always do, reading the newspaper at the little table under the window, finishing what was left of the coffee, wishing there was a half cup more.
I can't say that I was worried that morning in the way I might identify now. Like most people, I was occupied by the immediate concerns of the day, my classes to teach, an eye doctor's appointment, my expiring license plates. But I was worried, the way most people are, for my children, the son who was beginning police academy, the daughter leaving for class at the downtown university, still fretting over her path, asking me and Gina for an answer that we wished we had. What is my life going to be? I was worried, the way most people are, about the slim, black smartphone at my side, the way it distracts and narrows my focus, the drag of social media and the ways we no longer listen and the ways we no longer speak. I was worried, the way most people were in 2019, about the chaos, division, and acrimony surrounding the presidency of Donald Trump. I was feeling, that morning, like most people, the troubling misalignment of my country. And I was wondering about Ohio, a topic I wonder about perhaps more than any other.
What I knew that morning and was beginning to consider in a newly urgent way is that I live in a very particular America, the America of Ohio, which has forever served uniquely as a reflection of the nation, a conscience of sorts. Even in a time when that reflection felt more like one from a funhouse mirror, I believed that in the far reaches of my territory, on farms and in little towns, in factories and in kitchens, there would be an answer to what that misalignment meant. So that's what I set off to find.
The Ohio I was about to explore is such a remarkably reliable gauge of Americana that "bellwether" is our default political cliché and test marketers beat a perennial path to our food courts. Pulitzer Prize–winning native son Louis Bromfield observed nearly a century ago (in verbiage few other self-respecting midwesterners would use): "Ohio is the apotheosis of Americanism."
Geographically and culturally, the state is an all-American buffet, an uncannily complete everyplace. Cleveland is the end of the North, Cincinnati is the beginning of the South, Youngstown is the end of the East, and Hicksville (yes, Hicksville) is the beginning of the Midwest. Across eighty-eight counties, Ohio mashes up broad regions of farmland, major industrial centers, small towns, the third-largest university in the country, the second-largest Amish population, and a bedraggled vein of Appalachia. It is coastal, it is rural, it is urban and suburban. Mainly because of the industrial age migration of Europeans, white Appalachians, and black southerners to the cities for factory jobs, Ohio developed a rich cultural and political melting pot. The state's four distinct seasons, each intense unto itself, unfold like Currier and Ives without the soft edges. It is the birthplace of professional football, rock 'n' roll, the airplane, and chewing gum. As my friend Seth Borgen, author of a book called If I Die in Ohio, said over beers one night, "Ohio has a little of everything, and an abundance of nothing."
Our uncanny knack for choosing the American president, therefore, should come as no surprise. Since 1896, Ohio's voters have sided with the winner in twenty-nine of thirty-one presidential elections. No state has a higher percentage of accuracy. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. We are the only state to have a perfect record choosing the victor since 1964.
In a 2015 interview with Cincinnati public radio station WVXU, Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, remarked on Ohio's electoral clairvoyance: "The electorate in Ohio is willing to flip back and forth," he said. "They have done that plenty of times. But the vote in Ohio always mimics the national vote. It's extraordinary."
The building on the University of Akron campus that houses my office is of vaguely brutalist design—but only in the way that what we call "style" gets diluted by the time it reaches Ohio—a hulking, midseventies poured-concrete structure the color of a dirty labradoodle, its windows set slightly inward like a criminal's hooded eyes. The campus library next door was built at the same time, in a similar design, so much concrete that no one has ever been able to figure out how to plumb a sprinkler system through its walls. The books might burn, but that ungainly building won't.
When I arrived that morning and entered through the set of glass doors, I passed the department directory hanging in the hallway, a sign I've always appreciated for its unintended poetic juxtaposition:
The Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics is a nationally prominent think tank whose political scientists are active in polling and research, regularly called upon to comment on national topics, and pretty much ubiquitous during presidential election seasons, when journalists and other seekers come parachuting into Ohio from around the world to take measure of us. In part to address the questions they know will be asked, four of the institute's faculty—Daniel J. Coffey, John C. Green, David B. Cohen, and Stephen C. Brooks—coauthored a book in 2011 titled Buckeye Battleground. The title is a reference to Ohio's other B cliché, which often accompanies bellwether: battleground.
I started that day by digging into the institute's archives. The Bliss researchers have outlined in great detail the key feature of Ohio that allows it to serve so reliably as a microcosm of the nation: its distinct regional diversity, which journalists and political observers refer to as "the five Ohios," broken down thus: (1) the densely populated, urban, industrial/postindustrial Northeast; (2) the rural, agricultural, more culturally "midwestern" Northwest; (3) the central region whose epicenter is state capital Columbus, a growing, modern city defined (and in some ways divided) by government and the huge Ohio State University campus as well as prosperous exurbs; (4) the more sparsely populated, more Appalachian Southeast; and (5) the conservative, southern-influenced Southwest, anchored by Cincinnati, which abuts the Ohio River and which I often refer to as the largest city in Kentucky.
In a section of its website describing these five Ohios, the Bliss Institute asserts:
Ohio's regional diversity is unlike any other state in the country. Many states, it is true, are a mixture of urban and rural areas. Geological features such as coasts, plains, and mountainous areas often divide states as well. Yet, Ohio is perhaps unique in that, while some of these factors are present, the existence of such regional diversity belies a simple explanation for Ohio's complex political character. . . . Each region represents a unique collection of big cities, suburbs and rural areas, one or more media markets, and at least one major newspaper. Each region has a distinct political ethos and votes in a different fashion.
As a newspaper columnist in 2004, I had found this to be a highly useful road map for the two months preceding the presidential election, which I spent touring the state in my cranky old Volkswagen, traveling to far-flung corners to listen to people. I wasn't out to ask folks who they were voting for. I was simply looking for a true voice. When that season ended, the understanding I'd gained of what I guess I'd call "my people" far outweighed whatever I'd come to understand about an election. I came away with the deep sense of an authentic America. So now, with the five Ohios back in mind, I drew a crude outline of the state on a sketch pad and began plotting places I wanted to visit.
On the basis of historical evidence, Buckeye Battleground concludes that Ohio has a long and unmatched track record of not only electoral precision but also of significantly increased value as immigration diversified the state over the course of the twentieth century. "Ohio," the authors write, "has become a more accurate presidential bellwether over the course of its history."
In addition to this diversity, Ohio's character of Americanism derives from its legacy as the cradle of presidents: seven natives have occupied the White House—second only to Virginia's eight—never mind that the last was born in the nineteenth century. Ohio was also the home state of the first female to run for president—not Hillary Clinton, but a woman named Victoria Woodhull, who declared her candidacy in 1872.
All these factors come to a head every four years, when the national and international media, as well as the key candidates, descend upon Ohio, with its coveted eighteen electoral votes, trying to understand its people and their stories. It is a quadrennial battleground. Outside of the political seasons, however, our place is more often ignored or misunderstood. Regardless, whether we're being prodded like a county fair heifer or dismissed as flyover country, we have always retained our American quintessence. Many of us who live here know it as a point of pride, a key part of our identity, even if that "identity" is defined by hyper-averageness. Ohio likes to think of itself as the "heartland," a fundamentally American domain, the sort of place Bruce Springsteen would write about. The sort of place Bruce Springsteen did write about. For a long time, the state slogan was "The Heart of It All." Our very borders suggest the shape of a valentine. Look at those frosted cookies. The western boundary is straight, surveyed by Manifest Destiny and the linearity of farmland, until the river curves it inward toward the bottom. The northern edge dips downward, then back up, tracing the Lake Erie coastline. The eastern border curves easily into the soft V of its underbelly, following the Ohio River, the largest tributary of America's main vein, the Mississippi.
I took a long walk across campus that afternoon, down a concrete mall where students wearing jackets, some bearing the names and logos of nearby high schools they'd recently attended, rushed through the cold, ducking quickly into doorways. It was twenty degrees and sunless, deep into the ass end of the midwestern winter, which puts the "season" in seasonal affective disorder. Ohio's cities perennially rank near the top of those listings of American municipalities with the fewest sunny days—for some reason, Akron always seems to be jockeying for higher position with Buffalo, a competition that seems unhealthy for several reasons—and nothing feels more familiar here than our monochrome sky.
The University of Akron is a commuter school. Most of its students come from nearby, many from middle- and working-class families. They attend a college that in 2019 was struggling to pay down debt and reverse declining enrollment, to maintain its relevancy amid four state universities within an hour's drive. It's located in one of only seven Ohio counties that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 election, all of them urban and densely populated except one, the anomalous Athens County, where most of the population is concentrated in a liberal college town that exists as a distinct blue contrast to the vast red Appalachian region surrounding it.
Eighty-one of the state's eighty-eight counties swung to Trump in 2016. Most of those are Ohio's smaller or more sparsely populated territories, the farmlands, forests, and hills, but Trump managed to squeeze out more votes from them than previous candidates could. Down Ohio's side roads, out in its river valleys, along its margins, he found something here that hadn't been found before. I live in a city with a blue-collar legacy, and it would have been almost unthinkable not so long ago for a factory worker, employed or not, to support a Republican for president. But in working-class Lorain County, up near Cleveland, as reliably blue as it gets, Clinton squeaked past Trump by only 131 votes, a far cry from Barack Obama's margins of 18 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2012. Little Monroe County, which clings to the Ohio River down in the Appalachian Southeast, swung hard for Trump, giving him 72 percent of the vote after supporting Obama by 10 percentage points in 2008 and barely leaning in the direction of Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, when he took 52 percent of the vote.
The nineteen thousand students on my campus come from families that tell a story, and those families ripple outward across our highways and meadows and downtowns, deep into the question of where we are now and where we are headed. In 2016, in Ohio as in other Industrial Belt states, unexpected numbers of blue-collar workers turned away from their traditional Democratic roots, and rural Appalachians became more visible at the polling booths, pulled by a candidate who said things out loud they'd been thinking among themselves, stoking fears and frustrations, and who promised to revive the state's lost manufacturing and fossil fuel jobs, a long-held (and probably long-lost) hope. The wealthy suburbs and the deep southern part of the state—the upper buckle of the Bible Belt—remained reliably Republican. Ohio's white women voters, meanwhile, did not support Hillary Clinton; a CNN exit poll found only 39 percent had voted for her. Many were openly averse to a female candidate.
As one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, Ohio's Republican-drawn district maps portray a sometimes-tortured misrepresentation of reality, cramming blue votes into tiny corners of a state Republican lawmakers have painted overwhelmingly red.
"I'll tell you a joke," Bliss Institute director emeritus John Green said to me one morning as we talked in his campus office. "This is a real joke."
He'd invited Ohio Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett and Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern to speak to one of his classes.
"Chris said, 'You know, Bob, you guys drew the most awful set of districts. Just terrible. I mean, there's this district—we call it 'the snake by the lake'—that joins eastern Toledo with western Cleveland, right along the Lake Erie shore. And, you know, at one point, it's only one lane wide.'
"And Bob said, 'Chris—you're exaggerating. It's at least four lanes wide.'"
It's a battleground within a battleground. In 2019, a federal court ruled the state's congressional map unconstitutional, with a three-judge panel declaring that "the 2012 map dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined." The November 2018 election results offer compelling evidence: all the major statewide races were won by Republicans except one, incumbent senator Sherrod Brown's victory in one of the few blue districts. The governor, attorney general, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state—all are now Republicans. Ohio has always been shaded slightly red but maintained the diversity that has kept it a bellwether. New districts are to be drawn following the 2020 census, but for now, questions persist: Is this a temporary shift? A Trumpian anomaly? Or is Ohio telling us something new about America?
As I was returning to the lot where my car was parked, I came across one of my students, a kid who goes by the nickname Skunk for a reason you do not need to know other than that he picked it up as a teenager in a scrappy old river town in the middle of the state. I call him a kid, but he's in his midtwenties, divorced, and has done enough cage fighting and hard drinking to qualify as a character in a Tom Waits song. We talked for a short while. He asked what I'd been up to and I told him about this undertaking I was beginning, to travel around in an attempt to understand just what the hell was happening to our country.
"Listen, I can give you some Trump-lovin' old boys from Gnadenhutten who'll give you all the stories you want," he said.
I knew him well enough to know what he meant, that he was offering me a cartoon. Ohio knows this code. Thanks in part to the notoriety of J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and in part to the overgeneralizations that plague the locales of flyover country, we have a perpetual instinct to define ourselves to the world, a hedge against stereotype and misconception. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for yet, but I knew I was pursuing an important question of identity at one of the most critical junctures in modern American history, and the only way I could find an answer would be to let people speak for themselves. In Ohio, especially, this happens less often than you might think.
"You look good in your police costume," I said to my son, Evan, that afternoon when he returned home after finishing his first day at the academy. He had boomeranged back here after moving out during college. My greeting was only half in jest. Though he was twenty-three, it was difficult not to still see the ten-year-old that remains imprinted in my impression of him. When he was sworn in two months later, he would become the youngest officer on the force.
That same week in March, three toddlers were shot in Akron. Separate incidents: a two-year-old, a three-year-old, and a four-year-old. I don't know if the statistics that accompanied the news reports made me feel better or worse: Akron's gun violence was not measurably increasing, and Ohio's violent crime rate remained slightly below the national average. There are plenty of reasons for a parent to be scared shitless when their kid becomes a cop. Before that week, I believed I had thought of all of them.
I was proud of him, proud of his commitment to serve others as well as his commitment to his hometown. I was proud, too, of my daughter, Lia, who was preparing to apply to in-state graduate programs in physical therapy, also aiming her career toward helping others and also charting a path that would keep her in Ohio. This state, like others in the old industrial regions, has struggled to maintain population through an era of "brain drain," the loss of young, promising people to places with more apparent opportunities. With 11.7 million citizens, Ohio remains the seventh-largest state in the nation. But its growth rate is nearly flat, just over 1 percent in the past decade, and the population is slowly growing older and less diverse. To stay or to leave was a decision of great consequence.
In many regards, Ohio, like the rest of the country, felt like it was teetering, like things could go one way or another, fast.
I was back in the kitchen that evening, chopping onions with the radio playing in the background, when I heard the news that Luke Perry had died. To most American entertainment consumers, the dreamily handsome actor was associated with one highly specific place: Beverly Hills, 90210. But when I heard the report of his passing, I automatically connected him to another highly specific place, the city of Mansfield, right smack in the heart of Ohio, where he was born and grew up. I know this because we Ohioans always know if someone is from here, no matter how tenuous the connection. It is a habit of humble places. If you mention Wolf Blitzer to someone in western New York, you will immediately be told "You know, he's from Buffalo." Everyone in Little Rock knows Pharoah Sanders played his first gigs there.
This is not a cultural quirk so much as an earnest statement of identity by places that struggle against anonymity, that struggle to be heard. It's a way of understanding one another with careful nuance. It is something near to empathy. And it is a way to calibrate relevance, to say: we are here, we exist, and we have something to tell you. The small voices are important. In times like ours they are more important than ever.
- "David Giffels is becoming one of the really invaluable American reporters. With a sharp comic eye for mid-American idiosyncrasies that recalls Thurber or Keillor, he also has a political conscience, and consciousness, that allows him to illuminate, with gentle acuity, many vexed corners in our national debate, from pro sports to strip malls. He is one of those rare writers who gives us truth without sentiment or rhetoric, and I never read him without pleasure, and a feeling that I now understand my country better than I did before."—Adam Gopnik, author of A Thousand Small Sanities
- "There is no single narrative about Ohio, and nobody understands this better than its native son, David Giffels. His journalist's instincts set his compass as he explored this fabled political battleground, and his storyteller's heart is why this book unfolds in lyrical ways. Giffels neither romanticizes nor excuses, but chapter by chapter, one observation at a time, he reveals his love for the people who live here. This is the way to tell the whole story of Ohio. It is the only way to tell the truest one."—Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Daughters of Erietown
- "For how so much of the modern political discourse paints Ohio as a state of flux in election years, and a monolith every other time, I'm thankful for the gentle and generous touch of David Giffels. In this book, he writes the nuances of the state and its people with incredible warmth and immense insight. He does justice to the many tensions and affections that rumble through the state, always. These are uncertain years, with more uncertain years promised to follow. I am thankful for the familiar (and sometimes uncomfortable) clarities this book offers."—Hanif Abdurraqib, New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain and They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us
- “Illuminating…. Giffels expertly observes some of the issues and events weighing on Ohioans…. Giffels offers context but allows Ohioans to tell their stories, which are rich and complicated. The people and places he visits during a year on the road erase any notion of the state as a monolith…. In what could be argued is Barnstorming’s greatest achievement, Giffels resists the urge to whitewash our history in service of a political narrative that focuses exclusively on white, working-class voters…. Barnstorming is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the forces shaping our electorate in a place too often written off as 'flyover country.'"—The Los Angeles Review of Books
Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award
"Giffels's terrific new book is a thought-provoking and poignant examination of the election bellwether state of Ohio. The Akron native and bestselling author is an adept narrator...Blending his own story with those of the people he meets, Giffels writes with an open heart and mind. In so doing, he has produced a timely and timeless portrait of the American heartland."
- "An engaging compendium of personal narrative and memoir, travelogue, ethnography, and vignettes that serve as evidence of the state's national significance. In a way, it is a tortured love letter, waxing poetic about the place and its people, and tearfully hashing over the ways things have gone wrong. It is also a white paper of sorts, arguing for greater attentiveness to this "bellwether" state, one with a knack for predicting presidential wins and acting as a canary in the coal mine for broader misalignments, divisive politics, festering social problems, and public health emergencies, from the opioid crisis to COVID-19. Giffels' gift with language, his astuteness as a social observer and analyst, and his deep connection to the people of Ohio makes this a highly engaging and worthwhile read."—Booklist
- "Giffels... writes gracefully at every stop and actively seeks pockets of sunlight amid the gloom....An affectionate, realistic survey of a state coming back from the brink."—Kirkus Reviews
- "[A] trenchant mix of memoir, reportage, and political analysis.... [Giffels] infuses his social commentary with local color and memorable turns-of-phrase.... [T]his nuanced and often lyrical account...offers a measure of hope."—Publishers Weekly
- "Written in an engaging and poetic style, this exploration of Ohio is told with care and sensitivity. Readers interested in current events and politics will enjoy this highly readable account."—Library Journal
- "Akron writer David Giffels decides to learn what Ohioans are like today....The people speak, and he listens."—Akron Beacon Journal
"By providing an Ohioan's view on these questions, David presents a human, empathetic, and holistic take on the stories that reflect the state's, and by extension America's, identity."
—The Devil Strip
- “Barnstorming Ohio is a welcome interpretation of living in a bellwether state. [Giffels’] elegant prose, in turns blunt and poetic, is a gift—a balm of reason for unreasonable times….Giffels’ exploration is both revealing and calming: This, too, shall pass.”—Ohio Humanities
- “[Giffels] carefully listens to folks of various walks of life…. [His] contacts as he travels are interesting and insightful, but…some of the richness of this book comes from Giffels’ vast understanding of the history of Ohio and of his knowledge of Ohio authors.”—The Daily Record
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Hachette Books