Making sense of Pennsylvania

In the days following the Election Day 2020 I spent some time in my Pennsylvania History class getting the students to connect the past and the present. Why is Pennsylvania a swing state? Why is it so diverse?

I tried to get my students excited about the fact that they were studying the history of the commonwealth at a time when the nation’s eyes were on Pennsylvania. “This is a story you can tell your kids,” I told them. (Only about half of the students rolled their eyes).

I thought of my class as I read Ed Simon’s piece on Pennsylvania at Belt Magazine. Here is a taste of “The Keystone State is Ringing“:

Every four years, Pennsylvanians face the trauma of being a “swing state” and, for those of us with progressive inclinations, the possibility of embarrassment. Throughout the rapidly-collapsing Trump regime, there has been a cringe that’s accompanied my Pennsylvania identity. When we could have prevented incipient fascism, in 2016, too many of our fellow voters pulled the lever in favor of authoritarianism. Which made the announcement last Saturday—that Pennsylvania had pushed its native son, President-Elect Joe Biden, over 270 electoral votes—so sublimely sweet. That it was my hometown of Pittsburgh makes it even more so. It feels like a kind of redemption.

It’s also a reflection of Pennsylvania’s complexity.  This area has always been hard to categorize, starting with the state’s designation as “Mid-Atlantic,” which feels nonsensical for a landlocked state. “Mid-Atlantic” itself has long meant simply the part of the Northeast that’s not New England (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and perhaps the District of Columbia), though defining something by what it’s not is never satisfying. Pennsylvania is sometimes seen as Midwestern by those of a more coastal bent, and parts of it belong to Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Democratic political strategist James Carville infamously said that “Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama.” The state is perhaps best understood as what was left over after every other region delineated its confines.

Geographic ambiguity is the least of the Pennsylvanian uncertainties. Pennsylvanian gulfs are vast. The area we frequently call the “T”—between the mainline of Philadelphia and the suburbs of Pittsburgh—can appear a wide-open zone of Trump signs and A.M. Christian radio, while the urban centers share more in common with any of the major metropolises in the northeast or industrial Midwest. If you look at a nighttime satellite image, you see the explosion of lights on the seaboard, with Philadelphia (the fifth largest city in the U.S., and the second largest on the east coast) but a node lodged between Baltimore and New York, and then infinite speckled darkness spreading westward till you hit the lights of Pittsburgh.

Read the entire piece here.