Last week, as the election returns for Barack Obama were coming in, I thought of Kurt Vonnegut. In an essay he wrote for NUVO in 1999, called “To Be a Native Middle-Westerner,” Kurt looked back to the time he spent living in Chicago and wondered what, if anything, distinguished people there. At first, he said, he thought this was “a fool’s errand, that we could only be described en masse as what we weren’t. We weren’t Texans or Brooklynites or Californians or Southerners, and so on.”
Then he had an epiphany:
“But the more I pondered the people of Chicago, the more aware I became of an enormous presence there. It was almost like music, music unheard in New York or Boston or San Francisco or New Orleans.
“It was Lake Michigan, an ocean of pure water, the most precious substance in all this world … So there is something distinctive about all native Middle-Westerners after all. Get this: When we were born, there had to have been incredible quantities of fresh water all around us, in lakes and streams and rivers and raindrops and snowdrifts, and no undrinkable salt water anywhere!”
Kurt’s understanding of our sense of place came back to me as I watched voters paint a blue swath across the Great Lakes states, from New York’s Lake Ontario to the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior. It seemed that Kurt’s initial insight about the defining power of our fresh water seas was finally manifesting itself in a shared desire to find a better way of governing ourselves.
The only problem, of course, was that it was taking Indiana such a long time to count its votes. But even this made a certain kind of sense. After years of being the first state in the union to post its returns — invariably for whoever the Republican happened to be — we were rebooting our collective metabolism. It was a little like getting used to a new blood pressure medication. After an initial dizzy spell things became clear and, for the first time since 1964, Indiana favored a Democrat for president.
Joining our fellow Great Lakes states this way is significant. For years, when people have tried to describe Indiana to outsiders, one way to sum it up has been to say we’re the northernmost Southern state. This hearkens back to our being settled by people who migrated here from Virginia and the Carolinas. Though Indiana sided with the Union during the Civil War, there was a strong faction here, especially in our southern half, that sympathized with the Confederacy. And, in the 1920s, the state was, to a large extent, run by the Ku Klux Klan.
You could say that, from a political standpoint, the state’s gravitational pull has traditionally been stronger toward the Ohio River than Lake Michigan. The result has been a politics that has tended to be anti-urban, resistant to cultural diversity and skeptical about the practical benefits of higher education. Sure enough, Indiana’s socio-economic profile looks more like Mississippi than Minnesota.
By defining itself as a Great Lakes, rather than a Southern, state, Indiana may have begun to finally come to terms with the place it has been becoming for more than a generation. That is, a state where the majority of people live in cities, and whose economic development depends on professionals with college degrees.
It’s no wonder many Republicans are worried about their party’s future. They built a political strategy based, in effect, on running against the nation’s cities, openly dissing urbanites and the contribution metro areas make to the nation’s economy. This is what Sarah Palin was playing to when she talked about “the real America.”
But it turns out that the real America is in trouble if its cities are degraded and in disrepair. Cities and the metro areas they support are the nation’s marketplaces. Without healthy cities, our economy will never fully recover. That’s true for the country —and it’s true for Indiana, too.
So it was encouraging to wait up on election night and watch Indiana turn blue, taking its place, not as the northernmost Southern state, but with its freshwater neighbors, for a change. It not only described who we really are, it said something about who we want to be.
And it would have made Kurt Vonnegut proud.