Unpacking “ordinary voters”

Dear President Biden,

Happy February! We made it out of January! This shouldn’t be any big shakes but after the attempted self-coup earlier in the month I think a lot of us were worried there’d be significant fallout surrounding your inauguration. I know we’re still crashing around in the middle of a very dark forest and haven’t yet found a clear path out, but at least so far we’ve not added another armed White supremacist insurrection to the list of national woes.

For about a month now I’ve been receiving Boston College historian, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American in my inbox every morning. She does a good job of distilling recent events and often grounds them in historical context, which I appreciate. On January 27th, however, the following sentence tripped me up:

Biden is moving quickly on a range of issues that are popular among ordinary voters of both parties, including addressing the country’s extreme inequality.”

It may seem like an odd sentence to get tripped up over as it’s pretty anodyne, but the word “ordinary” snagged me. I’ve been chewing on the idea of “ordinary voters” and “ordinary Americans” ever since and mostly it’s felt like it does when you’re chewing some innocent-seeming rice or lentils and then nearly break a tooth on a stray pebble – I’ll have nearly convinced myself that I’m making something of nothing and then something will happen that reminds me how risky it is to rely on words like “ordinary” to describe people.

The thing is that when I read that HCR sentence the other morning and came across the phrase “ordinary voters” my brain immediately conjured a specific image of “ordinary voters” and that image had me reacting with the heebie-jeebies. You see, my conditioned idea of “ordinary voters” is a middle aged, middle class, cisgender, straight, White couple sitting at some fantasy kitchen table drinking coffee. It’s making me feel queasy typing this out to you. It feels so deeply crappy that this is where my brain went. And I’m 99.9% I’m not alone in this conditioning, not by a long shot. Before I unpack some of the implications of this conditioning that I’ve pieced together over the last couple of days, I’m going to share the online dictionary’s definition of “ordinary,” some of the synonyms offered, and the antonym provided.

Ordinary: “with no special or distinctive features; normal.”
Synonym: usual, normal, standard, typical, common, regular, established, settled, traditional
Antonym: abnormal

I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw that the antonym listed was “abnormal” – personally, I’d come up with “special,” but “abnormal” definitely gets at the heart of my heebie-jeebies much better than “special” does.

The modal type of US voters are middle class, cisgender, straight and White (even if not middle aged) people since they still make up the largest subset of the population. Thus, from a numbers standpoint, they are “ordinary voters.” Even still, personally, I want to get past this tendency to default to the familiar Rockwellian stereotypes of who (and thus, who isn’t) an ordinary voter or an ordinary American.

I think HCR was trying to distinguish the masses from the wealthy in her use of “ordinary voters,” but I’m thinking it might be better to drop such modifiers all together so that we aren’t inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes of who is and isn’t ordinary, normal, regular and who is abnormal (or perhaps, special). I may be making a hillock out of a molehill here, but surely there are precious few White Americans who automatically conjure images of a Black lesbian couple drinking coffee together at their kitchen table when we hear “ordinary voters.” If we leave off “ordinary” and go with just “voter” or “American” I think we have a much better chance of thinking of the wider, richer variety of US. It’s at least worth a try.

May we all be safe from those still in DJT’s thrall.
May we be willing to check our conditioned responses to seemingly innocuous stimuli.
May we be strong as we navigate the choppy currents of change.
May we accept we’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way.

Tracy Simpson

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