by Fionna Farrell
The fated Tuesday is upon us, and the race for Ohio senate couldn’t be more nail-bitingly close. By the time you’ve picked this up, maybe the state’s future-–and with it, the state of the future—has already been determined. Rejoice, or lament—the taxing Tim Ryan memes will never be read the same again! If there’s anything new to be said of the election, it’s that, regardless of who it is that ends up on top, it was certainly far less than a cake walk for them to get there. If not through the election’s actual outcome, this year’s contentious senate race has proven Ohio to be in a fresh stage of its political history, where a system of shared values might finally be what ends up pushing us forward together. But amid the tumultuous national landscape that is post-Trump America, the obnoxiously rhetorical question remains: are simply these values enough? Has “compromise” been permanently erased from the vernacular—will the JD Vances always end up on top?
Because I like to burden the reader, this is another very rhetorical question to really answer. But prior to this race, it might have had a far simpler—or, at least, more predictable—one. Despite being a regular swing state since 1980, in the previous two elections, Trump won Ohio with more than eight percentage points. From his Mar-a-Lago clubhouse, Trump decided not to mar Vance’s reputation (even though the latter has referred to him as “America’s
Hitler”), instead endorsing the republican candidate back in April. Maybe this was because Vance showed character, or maybe because he happened to support the “Big Lie” (that the 2020 election was fraudulent). Trump might have chided Vance as an “ass-kisser” for that, like a father scolding his obsequious teenager who wants to stay out past curfew, but people have been called far worse things by the ex commander-in-chief. Moving forward, then—despite Trump’s powerful endorsement, why are the numbers so precariously close just a few months later?
First, there’s what we get when we push Vance and democratic candidate Tim Ryan’s images aside (if there’s anything, now, that can exist independently of the veneer). They have quite a few things in common, including the choir that either extends a now-trembling hand to preach to. Both candidates are natives of Ohio, a fact that certain snake oil salesmen of “Pennsylvania” continuously remind us not to take for granted. They each grew up in economically hard-hit cities that, decades ago, were homes to thriving manufacturing firms (Ryan’s grandfather was a steelworker, a fact he will not hesitate to remind you of). Because of these similar backgrounds, either candidate has made it a priority to appeal to Ohio’s working-class population—particularly those from, what Ryan phrases as, those “small, forgotten areas”---“These small, forgotten areas know that I come from a forgotten area, too,” he declared, “And that I’m gonna fight for ‘em. And I think we’re really gonna overperform for ‘em along the river.” Ryan is campaigning for the so-called “exhausted majority”—-whether as cause or result of this, he often only identifies as Democrat with a soft-“d”.
Vance, on the other hand, isn’t one so open to the idea of compromise. His fealty to the Republican party, if not their ideology, leader, agenda, or policies, is as fierce and dogged as his self identification with the term “hillbilly.” This isn’t meant mockingly or figuratively; Vance indeed entered the public eye when his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy rose to national acclaim. The book, although an extremely personal and sobering portrait of a “culture in crisis” (that of white working-class Americans), does have some potentially dangerous implications. Namely, that white working-class Americans, particularly those who grew up in communities similar to Vance’s, are the sole group who exists at the epicenter of working-class America. And that, because Vance was able to overcome his family’s struggles towards a prescriptive ideal of success (the Marine Corps, to Yale law, to Silicon Valley), so too should everyone else if they work hard enough. To put it simply, Vance’s narrative is void of much nuance or complexity, made all the more tantalizing by the urgent hostility of his Trump-flavored rhetoric, even if both him and Ryan can come across as pretty mild-mannered with their soccer dad outfits and prolific usage of the word “buddy.”
It wouldn’t be exactly fair to characterize Ryan’s campaign, on the other hand, as the absolute beacon of progressivism or quixotic moral integrity. He doesn’t try to ride in on any high horse—you can tell this by just his TV ads, where he’s often pictured tossing darts at a bar, or the old pigskin at a sign that reads “Defund the police.” In one ad, he asks us, “you want culture wars? I’m not your guy. You want a fighter for Ohio? I’m all in.” Authenticity and politics often feel like two mutually opposed terms, but it’s hard not to believe Ryan when he says these things so naturally, maybe after hours of rehearsing them in the mirror. It’s like the enviable, enigmatic person wearing that cool outfit—-do they really not care, or have they put hours into crafting the image that they don’t care?
In today’s world, it sometimes feels comically impossible to maintain a level of optimism when answering these questions. However, in Ryan’s case, at least the question still presents itself; Vance’s history—just who and what exactly he is funded, or, in more cynical terms, owned by—is alarmingly more nefarious. This is the real issue at hand; finding politicians who aren’t firmly lodged in other’s pockets, from which they yield a megaphone pointed at the vulnerable shadows of their former selves. Vance is a danger not so much for what he stands for—at least, that’s up for debate—but the fact that it’s not always up to him. He appeals to the working class, while being funded $10 million by Peter Thiel. In 2017, he started a charity called Our Ohio Renewal, with the lofty ambition of “making it easier for disadvantaged children to achieve their dreams,” but the charity fizzled out after only two years. Some of the staffers said they felt exploited just to jumpstart Vance’s political career.
I talked with longtime Oberlin resident and man of many hyphens (professor, environmentalist, writer, etc.), David Orr, about this troubling truth and what the general outcome of the election might mean for Ohio’s future—as well as the future of the country. Orr voiced some critical concerns about how Vance’s election would fit into the broader state of democracy. He warned about dark money—”It took 35 million to get Vance there. You don’t want to drink dirty water, or breathe dirty air, do you?” Certainly not—although the thing about air is, you can’t exactly see when it’s polluted. This should not be a reason to lose hope, though, but rather to have more of it—to be more politically engaged while we still can. Putting puppets like Vance in power would have a “disastrous” outcome for democracy, Orr says; it is tantamount to ignoring the existential threats like climate change that quietly loom over us. If there’s anything that this senate race teaches us, it’s not to take these things for granted—we are in a very precarious time, merged on a precipice, where we have to look beyond the folly of rhetoric and image. In many ways, a lot of that has become awfully uniform on both sides. Vance and Ryan present themselves in similar ways, and both claim to stand for the same people. Perhaps it’s what exists behind the blue jeans and well-worn smiles that separates them—that points to one of them as a “fraud,” in a way much more dangerous than we see thrown around on Twitter.