The beginning of my political career was as inauspicious as it was suspect. It was the summer of 2004. I was seventeen, I was strapped for cash and I had yet to learn that any job listing posted in the classified section of the local free monthly newspaper advertising “flexible hours” and “a relaxed work environment” is sure to be horseshit. The summer before, I had worked as an independent contractor at Vector Marketing, which sounds great until you find out that Vector Marketing is essentially shell company for the CutCo knife company and that this particular brand of independent contracting involved trying to sell cutlery to your loved ones by cutting pennies in half. Having not learned my lesson, I had signed on to work as a canvasser for ACT Ohio, a local chapter of a nationwide organization meant to drum up support for John Kerry in the 2004 election. My job as a canvasser was to meander through the streets of Cincinnati at the cut rate of $7.25 an hour, knocking on doors and asking people questions about their political preferences. If memory serves, we weren’t allowed to openly identify with any party, so our goal was to encourage voter participation and mark down which houses represented potential Kerry votes so the group could come back again closer to election day. On the grand scale of political disingenuousness, it was the moral equivalent of taking money from the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny tray at a Mobil station and never paying it back.
Most of my time canvassing muddles into one amorphous blob of people who were either pissed off that I interrupted their dinner or convinced I was trying to sell them something, but there is one house that I am either unwilling or unable to forget. My supervisor had dropped me off in the heart of Cincinnati’s East End, a place which bears little resemblance to any of the neighborhoods that surround it and which contains enough cultural peculiarities to make an anthropologist faint from joy. The East End is a slice of Appalachia that runs along the north bank of the Ohio River for close to 7 miles, connecting Downtown Cincinnati to the incorporated boonies of California, Ohio and generally serving as a buffer of poverty for the east side of the city. The reason that the community is so spread out is primarily because the price of real estate down by the river is cheaper than the dirt that lines it. All of the land in the East End is so low lying and close to the water that the area floods every couple of years, making it a money pit for developers and fit only for those who can afford nothing else. There’s not much in the way of business in the East End either, with the only signs of commercial life coming from the odd gas station, some junk yards and a couple of antique malls.
The day I was dropped off in the East End was entirely too hot. It was one of those obscenely hot and muggy days where your clothes get fused to your body with sweat and the air is so thick with moisture that it feels like you’re always breathing through a piece of cheesecloth. On each of the spiffy little palm pilots they gave us to conduct our interviews there was a list of the addresses that we were supposed to hit that day along with a pocket map so we could figure out where the hell we were going. However, on this particular day, none of the addresses they were giving matched up with the reality of what I was seeing. 3 out of every 4 homes I went to were either boarded up, foreclosed or uninhabited. Most of the lawns I passed had gone to seed and were nothing more than a mess of thigh high grass and tallboy cans. Other than three guys sitting outside of a dilapidated auto shop storefront spitting Skoal juice and smoking USA Golds, I didn’t see a soul for the first hour or so I was out there.
Eventually I made my way into a somewhat newer neighborhood that was dotted with single and double wide trailers along with a few of those mass produced homes you see getting carted down the interstate on the back of a flatbed truck. After knocking on a few doors and getting folks who were none too interested in speaking to some pissant kid, I finally found a woman who was willing to talk. When she answered the door she had an infant on her hip and you could hear the sound of at least two more of the little buggers caroming around the walls behind her. She couldn’t have been that far past her 21st birthday, but her face and her eyes had that droop peculiar to folks who have lived their entire lives on double time. After I had given my spiel about why I was there and the purpose of the survey, I asked her the first question, which was, “What do you think about the job our President is doing right now?” With little to no hesitation, the woman looked me and said, with as close to a flat affect as you’re likely to find, that she had no idea who that was. I thought she may have misheard me, so I repeated the question and got the same answer. After September 11th and the Iraq War and an endless barrage of campaign ads in the biggest of all battleground states, this woman had no clue that George W. Bush was the President of the United States. When I regained my composure, I went ahead and asked her the next question on the survey, “do you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat?” In response, she simply told me, “I don’t know what those things mean.” At that point I didn’t see much use in asking her the rest of the questions, so I thanked her for her time and went on to the next house.
Up until that point in my life, I had never encountered ignorance as vast and alarming as this young woman’s. I had no idea it was even possible to live one’s life unaware of the identity of the leader of the free world. That knowledge is so ubiquitous that when someone gets knocked out, one of the questions people always ask when assessing if they’re concussed is, “who is the President of the United States?” At the time, I simply could not comprehend how she didn’t know who George W. Bush was. I mean, I could see a TV playing in her living room while I was asking the questions. Didn’t she ever accidentally flip over to the evening news or see Will Ferrell playing Bush on SNL? Had she never seen a copy of The Cincinnati Enquirer with the President’s face plastered on it in a convenience store? I simply didn’t understand how this level of isolation could happen in this age of constant media bombardment.
Today, I at least understand the how of the situation better than I did then, if not the why. I was an upper-middle class teenager who was working a summer job for spending cash and she was a poor stay-at-home mother of three who might not have been old enough to have had a legal drink. My house was only a 5 minute drive from hers and yet I had never in my life ventured into her neighborhood, just as she had, in all likelihood, never been to mine. Her world was not my world, and in her world folks didn’t give a good god damn what a Republican or a Democrat was because they had been so roundly screwed by the system that it near as made no difference. I felt like the 2004 election was the most momentous political happening in my short life. She didn’t care because she always ended up hurting, regardless of which party had their man in The White House.
More and more frequently, I find myself getting into arguments with staunch Democrats who, by some odd stretch of the imagination, have come to the conclusion that I harbor some secret love for Republican politicians. This may be loosely grounded in fact because I often praise the more socially liberal Libertarian-leaning wing of the party when they take a stance that supports LGBT equality or preservation of civil liberties. Granted, these things don’t happen with much regularity, but I try to avoid seeing the world through blue-tinted glasses as much as I can. I do this for reasons that very much stem from my brief encounter with that young woman in Cincinnati’s East End; reasons rooted in the futility of a two party system and the circus that is modern American politics. It was less than 50 years ago that a former Democratic governor carried the deep south in a presidential election and the welfare policies of the Nixon Administration were so radical that they would put Tricky Dick in the liberal half of the Democratic party today. 13 years ago, Joe Lieberman was the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. Today, he’s retiring from the Senate as an “independent” to work for the uber-conservative American Enterprise Institute. The lines between Democrats and Republicans may be boldly drawn, but they are also very close together in many respects. If you showed be a copy of the Bowles Simpson budget plan without attribution I would swear that it was a GOP document and I would be wrong.
The fact of the matter is that neither party cares about women like those languishing in the poverty endemic to places like the East End. We’re in the midst of an economic recovery where the only thing recovering is the Dow Jones while unemployment stubbornly hovers around 8 percent. Both parties were bought and sold long ago by moneyed interests from Monsanto to ExxonMobil and everything in between. It is not my job to plaster my car with Obama stickers and drive to the nearest mountain top so I can sing the praises of the Democratic Party from on high. I am loyal to people, not parties. Despite the ramshackle nature of her campaign, I gave money to Jill Stein last year because her presidential platform accurately represented my feelings about the need for an egalitarian, eco-friendly society that tells high finance to get bent and stop sucking the life from our communities. I gave her money because Barack Obama raised over $700 million and he didn’t need my chump change. If there is no pressure from the left than the best we can hope for from our Democratic candidates is to hold the center and the likely outcome is that they will drift right as they have been for the past 40 years. Did I end up voting for Barack Obama because the Romney/Ryan ticket’s desire to roll us back to the 1890s scared the everloving hell out of me? Yes, I did. But, that doesn’t mean I’m a cheerleader for an administration that has defied international law through drone strikes and continued operation of Gitmo while bailing out the big banks and raising the payroll tax. I don’t vote Democrat and I don’t vote Republican. I vote for the Left, wherever that happens to fall.