For 25 years, I lived in Ohio, nine of them outside a small college town. The town, in John Boehner’s district, was in the heart of red-state Ohio. From our house, we regularly heard cows. The village where we voted housed two business: a bar and a pizza joint.
Leaving Ohio to return to my native California, I was frequently asked to predict the behavior of rural Ohio voters. At the time, Ohio politics was expected to determine the outcome of Barak Obama’s reelection. Most of the stories I then told focused on the workings of voter suppression. It was easy to vote in a rural area or a suburb, much harder to do so in urban, predominantly black neighborhoods. Polling places serving mostly black voters with only two functioning machines and lines around the block, while suburban voters were done in ten minutes, served by numerous machines.
The more recent election brought other insights to mind. The profound political truth overlooked by most pundits is simple: Rural Ohio voters want, above all, to remain rural Ohioans, an aspiration foreign to many highly-mobile urbanites. The area where I lived voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last election, for all the reasons voters might. Some voted their Republican loyalties, despite the unconventional nature of the candidate. Some believed him a successful business man who would bring the same skills to the White House. Perhaps more than a few applauded the racist, sexist, anti-immigrant sentiments that made him so abhorrent to urban liberals.
Most liked the lies he told them about the future of rural America. While we watched skeptically as he declared (without giving any details) that he would bring back jobs and make America great again, rural voters welcomed such statements.
The truth is, if you live in small town Ohio for a reason other than the fact that you have a job at one of the ubiquitous colleges or universities, you likely have deep roots where you live. You want to stay and you want your children to do so too. Hence the unrealistic promises of Trump sound far better than the honest assessment of Clinton.
I knew people who lived on land that had been in their families for generations. Numerous extended families had carved out little mini-villages of near relations on what had once been family farmland, with multiple houses occupied by siblings and cousins. In such enclaves, babysitters, able bodies wielding snow shovels, and caregivers for the elderly were always nearby. The most successful of these people fit into what remained of the local economy, working as realtors, EMTs or teachers. Other families with deep roots lived in the trailer park or in little house dotting country roads, surviving as day laborers, janitors or grocery store clerks. Not the rural voters interviewed by national media outlets (which seek out third generation ranchers for a glimpse of rural America), these voters are descendants of farm families clinging to a life in the countryside.
None of them want to leave. They have families and friends all around, their daily lives a dense of web of relationships. They tend local graves, cheer the high school football team, and attend churches where their parents and grandparents married. They value their deep roots. They don’t want to hear that the new economy requires that their children become mobile members of the educated class trained for jobs in new business sectors far from home. So when Trump said coal will come back—and neglects to mention that it will be highly automated, bringing few jobs and more pollution—these voters hear that their families can stay where they are and make a decent living. When Clinton said we need job training so young people qualify to work in a changed economy, they imagine such training and such work will take their children away. Even if Clinton stated the truth and tried to offer a realistic way forward, these voters don’t want to hear it. Hoping to remain where they are, with the prospect of their children and grandchildren around them, they loath the idea that the only way forward is out.
I get that, because—though it was hard for my rural Ohio friends to fathom—I feel the same way about my native Los Angeles. When the opportunity arose to come home, I jumped at it. I had lived in Ohio for decades, raising two children there, far from family. Like most academics who go where a job is, I knew what it meant to leave home and manage without relatives nearby to lend a hand. And I did this from a vantage point of relative privilege: a good job, the ability to buy a house, the prospect of an annual flight to California to make sure the children cultivated relationship with their extended family. But it wasn’t easy.
This circumstance is what rural Ohioans hope to avoid. They find the prospect of separation and potential alienation heart-wrenching. When my older child went to college in California, I received sincere words of condolence from other parents in town. They assumed my heart was broken to have my “baby” so far away. I found myself comforting them, telling them the college was within an hour’s drive of a handful of family members I could count on in an emergency. Those who did not quietly conclude that I was lacking as a mother, praised me for holding up so well under difficult circumstances. If they could be so kind and concerned for my plight—despite my obvious outsider status—image how they feel when a nephew or daughter opts to leave.
Any political vision for a better future that can realistically help rural Americans to stay in their small towns or tucked into their rolling hills will succeeded in rural Ohio. In the meantime such voters will be susceptible to politicians who lie, promising a return to the good old days.