Ohio Politics

As excerpted from The Plan To Save Ohio (published July 2019)

My apologies for going off on a mildly philosophical tangent. While I spend considerable time exploring the intellectual underpinnings of different social designs, I’ve yet to fully develop an internally consistent conception of the world. So I’m jumping the gun a bit when I try to evangelize. I’d say it’s presumptuous of me to even suggest substantive policy changes without having fully explored what I believe to be good and bad, but at some point you just have to make an intuitive leap. Though I can’t articulate it, I believe my policies can be well reconciled with my philosophy. I am, of course, open to alternative ideas I could not conceive of at first and always look to grow. Even recognizing that I am fallible and likely ill-informed, I am confident that this vision is substantially better than that offered by present politicians and parties in Ohio. Now I must follow the path of anyone who thinks themselves more knowledgeable of how the world should be run and venture into politics. 

I hate politics. I much prefer the policy and even the philosophy. There was a time when I was interested in the great game of politics, viewed it as a sport. That was when I was fourteen. Unfortunately most active participants in politics have never outgrown this phase. But politics is the art of putting policy into practice and my policies are right for Ohio. If I want to see Ohio saved, I’ll have to wade into the cesspool of Ohio politics. Only in a purely theoretical sense of course, I’m retired. You’re the one who is going to do the actual wading. Enjoy! 

The first thing to know about Ohio politics is that it’s incredibly less interesting than it’s made out to be. Our status as a perennial swing state in presidential elections has given the illusion that Ohio politics is competitive. It’s really not. Ohioans are very low information voters (citation not forthcoming) and are motivated primarily by a general sense of disaffection. Or at least that’s what motivates them in presidential elections, the only elections anyone cares about. Otherwise, for state government elections, Ohio is a reliably Republican state. The Republicans have such a longstanding, solid monopoly on the state government that it’s hard to understand why the Democratic party persists and has not been replaced by a more plausibly competitive party (hint hint). 

Certainly, Ohio has been a moderate state and willing to elect Democrats to statewide office when they manage to out-conservative or out-populist the Republican, but it’s leaned Republican for a long, long time. Recently, Ohio Republicans have swerved radically more conservative with Kasich and DeWine being the most conservative governors perhaps in Ohio’s history. That Kasich has managed to position himself as some sort of moderate Republican compromise to president Trump is a testament to the meaninglessness of modern politics and the indifference of the rest of the country to non-presidential Ohio politics. 

Despite this conservative shift in Ohio politics, Ohio remains a swing state in presidential politics. I believe Ohio is fairly unique in its swing state status. In states like New Hampshire and Colorado, swinginess is driven by genuine political diversity as both states have strong libertarian tendencies. In states like North Carolina and Florida, swinginess is driven by demographic shifts. Ohio is experiencing no significant demographic changes (our population is stagnant at best) and there is no evidence of any sort of libertarian political tendency or other political philosophies. What defines Ohio’s swinginess is a severe degree of political apathy. 

Ohioans just don’t care that much about politics, which isn’t incredibly unusual, but it’s more unusual in such a crucial swing state. I can’t say why with great certainty, but I’m willing to speculate. For one, despite our outsized importance to presidential elections, Ohio doesn’t receive an outsized amount of favoritism from politicians. Perhaps it’s because we lack a clear special interest like Iowa does with ethanol. Fifty years of economic and social collapse in Ohio has left the distinct impression that politicians can promise a lot but are utterly powerless on the economy (a factual impression). That extended period of economic decline could be the impetus for two more sources of political apathy. The first being that politics isn’t that important for people who have to spend so much of their time thinking about how they’re going to survive. The second: over an extended period of time of economic hardship and workforce displacement, it’s normal to become detached from society, to not be an active participant in politics, in community, in religion, or with family.  

But economic decline first leads to more activity in politics as it inspires a great deal of fear, hatred, and feelings of inadequacy. It is only over a very long period that anger has declined to apathy. However, Ohio’s economic losses have come in increasing waves. As the long term unemployed slip from angry to apathetic, the recently unemployed and underemployed have replaced them. Creating a situation in which Ohio has a large population of political apatheists and a large population of political populists. Both are low information voters who favor anti-establishment, throw the bums out strategies. With the important caveat that they don’t really vote that much. 

So Ohio’s electorate is one angry group of people who demand the government step in to reverse their economic situation and one apathetic group of people who have realized the government can’t help them. But there is a third group of people, one that has no to little faith in the government’s ability to affect economic change but does believe the government represents a moralizing force. I can’t specify the precise proportion but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say then that a third of Ohioans are populists, a third of Ohioans are apatheists, and a third of Ohioans are culture warriors. 

Cultural warriors are heavily identified with their political parties and are more likely to change their views to fit their party and its candidates than vote for another party. While culture warriors may hold extremely partisan positions on economic issues (most things are economic issues), they hold them for tribal signalling, it is a part of their political culture to believe those things. In actuality, they do not care strongly about economic outcomes so long as they do not begin to suffer greatly. Political affiliation as a primary signifier of one’s status and place in society is likely the result of Ohio’s and America’s diminished social, cultural, and familial institutions. 

Culture warriors take hardline positions on taxes (for or against), education (public or private), climate change (real or not), abortion (none or some), and everything else without have any serious care for outcomes. To them taxes are not about funding programs, education is not about preparing children for the future, action or inaction on climate change is not about stopping climate change, and abortion isn’t about protecting life or protecting liberties. There is no serious consideration of what taxes are efficient, how much we can spend, or the value of programs. There is no serious discussion on what improves student outcomes, the place of unions, or acknowledgement that public and private education models produce good and bad results. Climate change denialists are in denial of reality and those that claim to be concerned about climate change offer solutions that serve their political purposes rather than seriously address the problem. 

Culture warriors are the most informed, most active voters in Ohio yet they cannot be swayed with information or campaigning. They are the ones who do the swaying. More than any group in politics, you’ll encounter them. I can say with a high degree of certainty that the majority of culture warriors in Ohio are conservative and steadfastly vote Republican. How do I know? Because Republicans control the state government and the state government is primarily elected during midterm elections. For those not familiar, midterm elections are those happening in between presidential election years. Ohio voter turnout isn’t great in presidential election years and it’s abysmal in midterm elections. 

Elections of course are determined by those who show up and in a low turnout election, those that show up tend to be culture warriors. Populists are more likely to show up than apatheists, their primary motivation being to vote against the system/establishment/incumbent and for anyone who promises swift economic progress or retaliatory action against those who they blame for their economic woes. Apatheists, when they feel motivated enough to vote, will tend to vote for the most charismatic candidate or the one with the most name recognition. 

While Ohio’s economy was strong, particularly in the post-war period, a large contingent of voters were satisfied moderates who made relatively centrist (as determined by the politics of the time) choices with the expectation that the government would continue to deliver economic growth and prosperity. When that ceased to be reality, many of those moderates became disgruntled populists and culture warriors, voting to throw the bums out and enshrine their morality. Over time, as economic prosperity failed to rematerialize, many populists became apatheists, leaving it to the culture warriors to set the direction of the state. With the Great Recession a new wave of political populists emerged culled from what remained of the moderates and some of the culture warriors who began to suffer more economically. Some of the latest wave of populists have become apatheists but state and presidential politics is now largely determined by the zealous culture warriors and the irate populists. Good luck winning an election in that environment. 

Ohio is both a very rural and a very urbanized state. In the past our wealth came from manufacturing and industry but with the hollowing of the economy we’ve shifted to finance, healthcare, and education, all of which benefited greatly in the years following the recession. Our major cities are very distinct. Cleveland resembles an east coast city but is still very much a rust belt city, suffering considerably from the loss of industry which seems to make it more unique in America. Columbus is the epitome of a midwest city, a cowtown benefiting greatly from its status as Ohio’s seat of government, its many financial institutions, and the university system that was flooded with the recently unemployed. Cincinnati is a southern city, once conservative now recently very progressive. Columbus and Cincinnati used to be home to an abundance of Republican voters but as politics has polarized nationally between rural and urban, so it has at the state level. 

Aside from the culture warrior issues that really get voters riled up, the most fraught topics in Ohio politics tend to be the same as national politics: agriculture, bringing back manufacturing jobs, healthcare, and education. Periodically something comes along to galvanize voters for a moment, usually at the prodding of the culture warriors, like drug decriminalization, union busting, nuclear power plant bailouts, and gerrymandering but nothing with a lasting impact. State politics is just a reflection of national party politics as Republicans and Democrats attempt to enact their national platforms at the state level without any serious tailoring to Ohio and its special circumstances. States are not laboratories of democracy after all. 

So Ohio politics isn’t all that different from national politics (though obsessive politicos may insist their is nuance) with the important caveat that far less people care and Republicans monopolize the government to the point the Democrats might as well not exist. Sorry I spent 1,000 words getting to nowhere. With that in mind, let’s talk about how you can put this knowledge to practical use to save Ohio. 

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