When We All Feel Like Flyover Country

According to Gabe Bullard of National Geographic, with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first occurence of the phrase “flyover country” came from an essay in Esquire by Thomas McGuane, in which he wrote that “because we live in flyover country, we try to figure out what is going on elsewhere by subscribing to magazines.” Bullard pays close attention to McGuane’s use of the word “we” — it means that when “flyover country” was first used as a phrase, it was by someone referring to himself and a set of experiences with which he was familiar.

When we think of the phrase “flyover country,” our minds tend to immediately think of other related phrases like “heartland,” “Bible Belt,” or even “Middle America” — all of which can make us think about last week’s widely-shared electoral maps with an ocean of red bracketed by blue coasts.

I’ve spent the past week thinking about places like Wisconsin and Iowa and Boston and Chicago, and what the results of this year’s presidential election, a low-turnout contest in which neither (unpopular) candidate received a majority of the popular vote, could mean for these places. I’m from a state where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by over twenty percentage points, but I go to college in a state where Secretary Clinton defeated Mr. Trump by over twenty percentage points. As I talked with my friends from home and my home-away-from-home while the election results arrived, I became increasingly aware of the “political whiplash” in my own experience, and perhaps in the life of the nation, as well.

Early on Wednesday morning, when the race was called, I felt disappointed. Now, early on a morning following almost seven days of argument and debate and celebration and mourning and vitriol on both sides, I feel discouraged.

Last Tuesday, I was still frustrated that, for the first presidential election in which I could (and did) cast a vote, the two major party candidates offered to me hardly resembled some of the political leaders that were offered to me in high school history lessons, but I was still immensely proud of the people that would be casting votes with me anyway.

Last Wednesday, and still today, my belief in the ability of some of those same people with whom I was voting on Election Day to have civil dialogue with each other about the results of the election has been shaken.

I’ve seen conversations on social media where people who voted for Donald Trump have been described as racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic bigots, among other things. In a similar vein, I’ve seen social media users demand that people who voted for Donald Trump “unfollow” them.

I’ve also seen and heard stories of vandalism, targeted harassment, and bullying with racial overtones and undertones across our country and especially on college and university campuses, including my own.

As I’ve spent the past week thinking about this election and its immediate aftermath, I’ve been really challenged to think about what is and what is not important to discuss about the state of our nation right now, and I’ve also been frequently reminded about how my own personal experience in American society can often steer my views about this very question.

As a white, male college student with a relatively comfortable economic background, I cannot even pretend to fully understand the experiences and angst that people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups (many of whom we’ve seen protesting in places like Boston and Chicago) that Donald Trump offended over the course of this election felt upon his victory. Many of these saw a candidate like Hillary Clinton merely as the “lesser of two evils.”

All the same, I also cannot even pretend to fully understand the plight of working-class people, even white people, in places like Iowa and Michigan, whose indignation and outrage at the feeling of being “flown-over” by “mainstream America” prompted them to vote for Donald Trump, even as some recognized him as the other “lesser of two evils.”

So, what can I and others, from all sides of this discouraging and disappointing and intimidating debate, even begin to say to people who are expressing concerns and feelings that we know we’ll never be able to fully understand?

Jessica Shortall wrote an article a few days ago in which she argued for one answer to this question as it relates to people who voted for Donald Trump: “I believe you [“when you say you don’t hold any of these things in your heart”].” However, Shortall immediately followed that statement by talking about Donald Trump’s use of “coded” language.

I can understand why someone would suggest an “I-believe-you-but” response like this, but I think that a response like this also places an excessively heavy burden on a post-election conversation that is less than seven days old.

Yet, I think Shortall is right: I believe you, unless proven otherwise.

If you’re someone who feels out-of-place and unwelcome and unsafe and unvalued in a country whose electors will be making Donald Trump the next President of the United States: I believe you.

If you’re someone who voted for Donald Trump for reasons that you believe have nothing to do with some of the most controversial things that he’s said and done and promised to do as president: I believe you.

I’ve canvassed neighborhoods for political campaigns in places like eastern Kansas and central Florida where the sky is criss-crossed with the vapor trails of passing jets, and I’ve had conversations at college with people who say that they’re afraid of being labelled (at best) and overtly targeted (at worst) because of the color of their skin. And, in all honesty, I haven’t been proud of the way I’ve talked at times about this election and the people who’ve participated in it.

The purpose of writing this isn’t to say that the experiences of people who voted for Donald Trump and of people who didn’t are somehow one and the same.

They’re not.

The purpose of writing this is to somehow (albeit inarticulately) convey my sense that we’re all feeling like we live in flyover country, for different reasons and for good and bad reasons.

Whether those reasons are good or bad, however, may not be the most important thing about this embryonic post-election conversation.

I think that the most important thing could be a simple statement that allows us to extend dignity to the person across the table and across the aisle from us, even when it leaves us vulnerable, and even when our experiences of being “flown-over” look vastly different. A statement that doesn’t somehow function as the “end” of an uncomfortable conversation, but as the right place to start.

I believe you.