Just days after I left Nebraska this fall and returned to my adoptive home of New York City, I watched as voter counts rolled in on the evening of November 6: Texas, Red; Arizona, Red; Idaho, Red; Utah, Red; Wyoming, Red; Mississippi, Red; Kansas, Red; Nebraska, Red. I grimaced, along with many millions of east and west coasters. A migrant to the U.S. from New Zealand, most of these states were only names to me–until this fall I’d never ventured out of the northeast, and Simon Schama’s compelling writings about the Dust Bowl of the 30s and the mistakes of mechanized farming were all that populated my Midwest—but I could see what the aggregation of state names meant. On election night I wasn’t grimacing with horror that so many had voted for the GOP, but with concern that such a large swathe of the central U.S. favored such ostensibly different policies than voters on the east and west coasts.
I say ostensibly different because, when it comes to politics in the U.S., what the media show are the extremes, as The Economist and Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone recently noted. Complex policies are whittled down to their simplistic core, then caricatured by the other side. In the middle lands of America, Democratic policies are portrayed as frog-marched steps toward left-wing totalitarianism; on the coasts, the Republican stance is spun as unenlightened, socially backward, and economically beneficial only for the top 1%. The exaggerated representations of Democratic policy I found in Nebraska in the month leading up to the election should have, in theory, prohibited finding commonalities with the locals. I, a blue-state dweller, was virtually meeting my enemy.
2016: Obama’s America, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Obama documentary, played loud and strong in Aurora, Nebraska. People drove their farm pickups into the town center and parked in front of the café or gift store. On the screen, their fears were confirmed. Rampant socialism, an actual third World War (due to Obama’s non-nuclear stance), a monstrous Islamic threat from the Middle East, and general economic collapse awaited the U.S. should Obama serve a second term. Friday night entertainment, paid for and accompanied by popcorn, was extreme bias in the guise of objective documentary.
Aurora is a tiny Midwestern town (population 4,479) with long, gas pump- and John Deere-lined highways, an impossibly green central square, and many straight roads leading resolutely outwards. I was staying at Art Farm, a nearby artists’ residency based on ‘cooperative capital’ values and communal living. My obvious embrace of these hippie values, a lack of hot showers, and an unusually cold October that necessitated many layers of woolen clothing made it immediately evident to the townsfolk that I was not a Republican. Yet despite the messages from 2016, the Romney bumper stickers, the local embrace of GMO crops, the gas-guzzling vehicles, and the prevalence of Christian fundamentalism, they talked to me, in the nicest possible ways. I thought, I don’t know these people, just as much as they don’t know me. Midwestern writer Erik Shonkwiler’s idea, in his recent The Millions essay, that the new literature of the region shows the hardened, embittered edge of people there, not the ‘generous people they coexist with’ could be applied to recent news reports on the Midwest, too.
I met my favorite Midwesterner, Mary Lou, early in my stay when I was looking for vegetables. A motley artist entourage visited her farm, and she showed us her land while her husband drove a powerful tractor and eighties pop music played from the speakers attached to their house. As we examined healthy beets she told me about her family, which lives all over the country. As we picked chives she said she was proud of her children who lived in big cities, studied at major American universities, and lived in Korea. Mary Lou had a long, straight plait down the middle of her back, a not-too-thick accent. “People assume that no one leaves this small town, that no artists live in this region of the country,” she said, “but that’s not true. This is a surprising place. We like to meet new people. I’d like to hear about your life in New York.” We chatted, and picked up fallen apples. We artfully dodged politics.
In the jittery election-month dawn, This American Life ran a segment on the ways in which the political divide is breaking up friendships and families. Liberal SUNY professor Phil Neisser recently wrote about how Americans no longer know how to disagree constructively (United We Fall). This year, he teamed up with religious conservative Jacob Hess to pen You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong), reviewed here by indie critic Susan Weinstein. “Americans have been divided along political lines for so long that they have nearly forgotten how to talk to one another, much less how to listen.” Hess and Neisser run a blog whose mission is to allow Americans from both ‘sides’ to rediscover their common ground. Hess and Jacobs claim that the red-blue dichotomy ignores the fact that “many citizens who disagree politically nonetheless share a desire to work for the larger good of society.”
When the townsfolk of Aurora left the movie theater and Obama’s America and returned to a land that, at the time, still had the potential to be Romney’s America, did it occur to them to wonder what sort of misinformation Obama’s supporters were receiving? Did they wonder, with any sympathy: what is it like to be them? If this election’s propaganda actually decreased voters’ ability to empathize with the ‘other side,’ what remains of empathy in the everyday?
As news of New York City’s devastation from Hurricane Sandy played on the radio, I drove to the health clinic in Aurora with my suddenly-ill husband, bizarrely struck by a migraine as the superstorm hit the east coast. We drove once more through dry-stalk cornfields and halted irrigation machines–signs of this part of the country’s own struggle with climate change. In town, the locals commiserated with us about Sandy. “ I feel so bad for the cities out there,” said the clinic nurse. She worked calmly and was blessedly understanding of my husband’s lack of health insurance. She told us her son, too, had recently had to pay up front for treatment in the ER. “My family travels a lot,” she said. “I visited all of the east coast just last month, and how terrible to think that those places I visited might be washed away. I was just out there,” the nurse said, “I was just there.”
Melody Nixon is a New Zealand-born writer living in New York City. She is working on a collection of lyrical short prose pieces investigating place, home, and identity.
Photographs by Raphael Matto.