Dispatches from Flyover Country
Here’s a tip for reporters and pundits covering the Indiana primary: If you can’t get through an article about Indiana without mentioning a certain 20-year-old sports movie, you aren’t qualified to write it.
Hoosiers have been in the national spotlight over the past few weeks, and I’ve noted that many disparaging stereotypes make it into the national media coverage of my fair state — stereotypes that reinforce the myth of a beer-drinking, pickup-driving Republican stronghold that is hopelessly out of touch with coastal progressivism. As a life-long Indiana resident, I personally vouch for blue veins running through this state and throughout the Midwest, a fact frequently ignored in favor of maintaining the awestruck-hillbilly myth. If reporters and pundits took a look past the stereotypes, they’d see that Indiana is a lot more complex and important than they think it is.
Despite the portrayal of my home state as a white wasteland, Indiana has a long, compelling history of competing ideas and interests. Yes, it was a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan, but it also had several integral stops on the Underground Railroad. The state housed some of the first utopian societies in the United States, and boasts an internationally known center for modern Quaker society. Indiana was home to Eugene Debs, Socialist Party presidential candidate in the early 1900s and one of the founders of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World. Today the work force is heavily based in manufacturing, more so than in agriculture, and as such is heavily unionized. Where Indiana was once largely a white state infamous for its “sundown towns,” the African American and Latino populations are growing exponentially, and within the last decade the university in my backyard hosted among the largest percentages of foreign students in the United States. But somehow, whenever an outsider writes about Indiana, it’s all corn, religion, white supremacists, pickup trucks, and, goddamn it, basketball.
Take, for example, this Salon article by Edward McClelland, for which he dropped in on the Calumet Region in northwest Indiana — or, as he refers to it, “Da Region,” except it’s only pronounced like that if you’re a skit actor for Saturday Night Live. He paints the entire state as a bunch of starry-eyed yokels who cain’t buhlieve the “canary coif[fed]” Clinton and “business-like” Obama would bother to stop by to say howdy to little ol’ us. McClelland’s Indiana is apathetic, uneducated, and afraid of change, technology, and the Chinese.
Last week the folks at The New York Times thought they too would take a gander at the hayseeds in Kokomo, a small manufacturing city north of Indianapolis that faces collapse because in recent years it lost many of its jobs overseas. As in the Salon article, and as in most recent articles about Indiana, the Times includes a toss-off line about how diverse Indiana is. Yet curiously every quote, description, and photo just happens to reflect the redneck stereotype. The Times highlighted its subjects’ perceived political illiteracy with photos, for example, of an obese woman and skinny, shirtless man sitting in the back of a pickup truck with their lawnmower at a Main Street stoplight in Kokomo, waving ecstatically at the Times photographer. The landscape is gray and barren; you can almost smell the manure. And the mainstream media wonder why rural Midwesterners are so skeptical of coastal elites, as if the dumb rednecks in Indiana don’t understand jeering elitism or know how to read newspapers.
[Ed. note, 3/30/13: Yes, the New York Times actually illustrated their article with this photo, which prompted my angry response.]
Let me revise that tip for reporters: If you don’t live in flyover country, you don’t get to write about flyover country. Outsiders don’t take the time to understand the nuances that make my state so unpredictable. They joke about the time zone controversy without considering that Indiana had something right in letting the time be whatever it was instead of eating the brown acid like the rest of the United States. They are barely able to cover their disdain with actual reporting, and instead turn to jokes about how, outside of the Chicago suburbs, we’re a sea of white, country scum. They see our working-class defeat as part of a punch-line to a joke about a dude in cutoff jeans with hay in his teeth. Indiana — despite 72 delegates and 200,000 new voters this election season — remains a “fauxgressive” joke.
I find ironic pleasure in a state so patronized by progressives having become an important front in this ongoing primary. Contrary to what some experts believe, this long, drawn-out Democratic nomination process might be good for the party because it’s taken the race outside of predictable territory. The last few weeks have set my little world so abuzz that I pray nobody drops out in June, as Howard Dean suggested, so other neglected states can get this shot of liberal adrenaline. First Bill Clinton spoke at the high school across the street, flooding my neighborhood with black sedans driven by serious-looking men in collared shirts and mirrored sunglasses. My friends and I sat on the front porch watching the attendees walk back to their cars after he spoke, debating the pros and cons of another Clinton presidency, high on the excitement of having seen such a prominent public figure in the flesh. A week later my co-workers sped out of the office to see Obama speak on the other side of town, and came back to the office describing the event with tears on their faces after seeing the potential first president who looks and believes as they do. Hillary Clinton arrived last Thursday and spoke downtown in an open-air, town-hall forum, and friends who saw her speak report that she was charming, whip-smart, nothing like what you see on television. The political yard-sign wars have begun in my neighborhood, Obama here, Clinton there, Obama, Clinton, Obama. Despite an occasional garden nod to Ron Paul, McCain is nowhere. People who never showed any political inclination are energized. Even my Republican parents are taking another road this year – both will reportedly vote for Clinton this primary season, one for Operation Chaosand one in earnest.
The one thing about Indiana that the reporters have gotten right, sort of, is that Hoosiers are a practical sort who aren’t excited about this elusive “change” agenda and its unforeseeable results. Most critics don’t stoop so far as to tacitly complain that Midwestern folks vote Republican because they don’t know what’s good for them, but they still miss a major piece of the picture. Indiana, like the rest of the American Midwest, is pretty darn purple. Despite some Republican tendencies, Indiana’s most respected long-term politicians are Democrats, namely Sen. Evan Bayh, the former governor who briefly flirted with a presidential run, and his father Birch Bayh, himself a presidential candidate who served as a U.S. senator for almost 20 years. The much-beloved Rep. Julia Carson, who passed away in December, had an astounding number of achievements in the House in her work as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Not to mention other prominent Indiana Democrats like former Govs. Frank O’Bannon and Joe Kernan.
But generally, outside of state politics, Democrats don’t pay a lot of attention to Indiana. When nationally known Democrats want a dying manufacturing city for a photo-op, they hit Detroit, and if they want to make a point about family farms, they head to Iowa. I recall President Bush visiting Indiana several times in the last eight or nine years for “his man Mitch,” aka Gov. Mitch Daniels who has done his part to run this state into the ground just like his mentor did the country. But until last month, no Democrat with presidential aspirations really bothered to pay us any attention. Not in my living memory.
I personally found a grain of truth in Obama’s much-maligned “bitterness” remarks, but not for the reasons he mentioned. Middle Americans are bitter about being ignored until it’s politically convenient to pay attention. These days, I feel mighty bitter when I hear liberal commentators exclaim that Indiana doesn’t matter, whether because of the delegate counts or the state’s perceived conservatism or because it’s only a primary. Maybe Indiana voters don’t care about national Democratic politics because national Democratic politicians don’t seem to care much about Indiana.
This primary season, Democrats ought to take note of what kind of response they get when they actively campaign in the states they usually abandon. Here in Indiana, I don’t know a soul who will pass up the chance to vote today, and none I know are voting Republican. You might be surprised at what happens when Democrats and the media spend some time in our state, rather than reduce us to uniformly conservative, marginal stereotypes because it’s easier than respecting local culture and diversity of opinion. We are educated, unionized, literate, racially diverse, economically desperate, and as concerned about our course as the rest of the nation. We also know that the Democrats are campaigning in Indiana in 2008 because they must, but we’ll take that if we have to.
Originally published for The American Prospect, MAY 6, 2008.