Photographs by Liz Gorman.
I'd been asked to go see the Biden-Ryan debate in person. Center College, where they were to be held, is close enough to Cincinnati to appeal to the freshman planning to drive home every weekend, and the thought was that I was already in the neighborhood.
But I'd just borrowed money from my mom to buy a truck. And VICE was insisting on sending me a photographer, and I was having trouble figuring out what she would do for a week, hanging out in Cincinnati. So I decided to skip the debates and get on the road.
The truck, a 2003 Ford Ranger, is the first motor vehicle I've ever owned. My mother gets a hard bloody look on her face when she steps onto a car lot, and she got us about a third off the asking price. I'm to pay her back at a rate of $250 a month, circumstances permitting, which is to say that if I don't have $250 at the end of every month for the next couple years I had better be in the hospital. She was glad it had a cap for the truckbed. "James," she said, "You need a vehicle you can sleep in while you figure this all out." And now I have something for when I go back to New Orleans to collect my things. Then, I suppose, I can go anywhere.
It has chrome rims and tinted windows and is unmistakably the automobile of a white southwestern Ohioan trying to—in a practical rural vehicle—recreate the aesthetic of a rapper's Excursion—rolling on twenties, Glock in the glovebox, etc, etc. But it's still a pickup, and it still has mud tires, and the impression it gives is still more squirrel-gun-in-the-bed than anything else.
It's distressing, owning an automobile. The truck has 123,000 miles on it, and, given my situation, I need it to last for at least a few years of hard driving, but I don't really have the money or store of knowledge to know that I'll be able to maintain it well enough for that to happen. And now I have a payment to make, every month, for years.
I'm actually trying to talk politics here. I've purchased a machine about which I understand almost nothing except that it's going to take money to keep it operational, and I've got myself excited about the idea of blasting around the country in my red pickup for the next few years. Which will require me to work, to make money, to pay taxes, insurance, for repairs on a machine I don't understand.
I've been trying to gauge how people respond to considerations like this, and so I recently picked up a copy of Glenn Beck's Common Sense, published in 2009. This paragraph appears in the first chapter: "Most Americans remain convinced that the country is on the wrong track. They know that SOMETHING JUST DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT but they don't know how to describe it or, more importantly, how to stop it. But just because you may not know exactly what your gut is saying, doesn't mean what you're feeling is wrong." The capitalization and absurd comma placement are Beck's. But this seems like a fair way to pose the problem. I've registered to vote, and this will be the first election I've ever participated in. I've agreed to a bill-paying existence for at least the next several years, and probably for the rest of my life, as the habit sinks in. The point here being that I've decided that it's time for me to try participating in something like the general American way of life. And already I'm feeling anxious. I think I need new shocks, and I can't afford them. I have terrible handwriting, and I'm not sure my absentee ballot application went through.
And the thing you noticed about both the presidential and vice-presidential debates (I did end up watching the latter on TV last night) was that all of the candidates, numbers in hand, were trying very hard to show that the thing that "DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT" about our way of life is identifiable, eradicable. It's in Dodd-Frank, it's in Obamacare, it's in tax policy, it's in the jobs figures.
And it's maybe not surprising that Beck, the demagogue, understands this electorate better than the candidates themselves, with all their data: "You may go to church, but most weekends, you don't really want to—You'd rather sleep in or play with your kids. Besides, it bothers you that people cut each other off in the parking lot. You have children, and like all families, you also have your share of problems...you constantly hope that your kids don't notice you're bluffing...they come home with language and habits that they didn't learn from you....You go to bed exhausted almost every night....You've called your congressman a few times in the past but they don't listen. Now you just scream at the television."
This seems to be a perfect description of the major political force of the new decade: the feeling that our fates are slipping out of our own control. This is unquestionably the major motivating feeling behind both the party bases—on the right it's fear of government and minority blocs; on the left it's fear that government and society will slip even farther towards being only responsive to the wishes of the rich, but the essential fear of helplessness is near exactly the same.
And so we were given, with all the statistics in the first debate, two candidates trying to give the impression that they had a handle on a problem that's, realistically, far beyond any president. Because to really address this powerlessness: the kids coming home speaking in the idiom of rap, the people cutting their neighbors off in the church parking lot, the long harried days and unresponsive congressmen—these are all things both sides talk about, incidentally—we would have to be talking about tablet computers and cultural revolution, not the right to work. One imagines that a candidate who just came out with a program of social engineering might do better than we'd like to admit. But what we're left with is two candidates aspiring to drive a truck they don't understand and don't have the means to fix. And with an electorate with only a vague idea of how the thing ought to be driven.
This became clearer after the photographer showed up. I had never met her, and it seemed pretty likely that the magazine had sent her knowing full well that her presence would make my life complicated: her name is Liz, she's exactly my age. I had told my editor I'd been planning to sleep in the back of the truck, now that I had it, and he told me to just have her sleep back there with me. I told him that I was just a week out of my life in New Orleans, and that I wasn't "in the fucking market." He said he didn't know what I was talking about.
I picked Liz up from the airport and, I told her that I was a bit of a wreck, and she said that she was willing to try a roadtrip, that she could get a bus back if it ended up coming to that. I'd been planning to leave and go south that day. But it took me forever to pack, and in the meantime the local representatives of the Obama campaign had been in touch to tell me that the band The National would be in town that night, to play a free get-out-the-vote show.
And it just happened that I knew the lead singer, Matt Berninger, slightly. He's friends with my sister, he sung a song at her wedding, and when the Obama office called I was actually wearing a pair of cowboy boots he'd given her, that hadn't fit her husband, and that she'd passed along to me. So we went.
Matt saw me behind the theater, and we went in to talk on the tour bus. They had been in Columbus the day before, playing another show and, before that, standing on the campus of the Ohio State University with clipboards, trying to register voters. It was a funny, earnest, image—thirtysomething rock stars soliciting college students. He said they'd been yelled at and mostly ignored, but that it had been good when they got someone.
He also mentioned that one of their songs had played in on election night in Grant Park, in 2008. They've opened for him several times. We sat for a minute with Matt and Aaron Dessner, one of the guitarists. They said they doubted that Obama was playing their records all that much in the Oval Office, but that they were glad to know he liked them. Which is a sort of funny, earnest, consideration too, for a pair of rock stars—because we often forget how absolutely anyone can be aggrandized by the attention of an American president. Because the machine is so complex, by this point—a cyclone, not a set of gears. Most of the most powerful, successful, people we meet will never in their entire lives manage to have any identifiable influence over a president. And so people vote for the man they judge most likely to listen to people like them.
And so the kinds of people who listen to the National vote for Obama. That's simple enough, though it's easy to forget how many of these people live in places like Cincinnati these days. There were hardly any, when I was growing up. The show was overbooked. I skipped the press conference and took a beer from the green room. I told Liz to go in and get us some shots that had the Obama event producers, the local press, and the band all at once, which seemed like the closest we'd come to getting the moment.
This turned out to be mostly true. It was a good show—I realized that I had never really listened to the band before, and I found myself enjoying indie rock, which was surprising and pleasant. But one felt the bloodlessness of the white kids of my generation, an anemia probably unique among all the woodworking, beer-drinking populations the world has ever known. No one danced. We, perhaps, are the only segment of society that doesn't understand how far beyond us this whole machine is, that doesn't recognize its own powerlessness. And so this election feels a little ridiculous, ugly, beyond us. The Democratic vote in Cincinnati won't come from that new electorate of 2008, it'll be the blacks and older liberals who stormed out of the convention center there after Michelle Obama spoke last week. We're back to looking on and surprising people that we're voting at all.
We said bye to the band after the show and went home to sleep. I couldn't figure out where we should go next, but I wasn't in the mood to take suggestions. And so the next day we got up and put on Dwight Yoakam and drove back roads into Eastern Kentucky, where we came mostly by accident, but which truly is the seat of powerlessness in the East. It has been for a century now. We stopped with an old friend of my dad's, who lives along what had been a derelict resort on top of a mountain in Letcher County. But now I've gotten high and my new truck is stuck in a sand pit, so our introduction to Appalachian politics is going to have to wait.