So Far Appalachia: The Myth of the Rural, White Working Class + Voting Against Their Self Interest


I’m writing a book about Appalachia. More specially, I’m writing a memoir of my family, which helped settled what is now the poorest county in the country: Clay County, which The New York Times  dubbed “The Hardest Place to Live in America.” The book,  called So Far Appalachia, is almost done. You can sign up for the newsletter if you’re interested in more discussions about what I guess we’re now calling the “poor, white, rural voters.”

That’s the context for why we’re here.

I’m writing this post because since the Presidential election, in which our country choose Donald J. Trump as our next leader, so many of my liberal friends have been struggling to understand why — WHY? — so many working class white folks voted against Sec. Hillary Clinton.

More specifically, on Friday, December 2 I posted  this NPR piece “In Depressed Rural Kentucky, Worries Mount Over Medicaid Cutbacks” on my Facebook page. Predictably, the new code phrases that signal disdain for Appalachians appeared. You know them: “low information voters” and “voting against their self interest.”

Instead of fighting on the Internet— which nobody enjoys— I promised that I’d dig into the book’s draft, pull out a few bits and pieces that explain why those white, rural, poor folks didn’t vote against their self interest, and wrap it up with this little introduction.

There are two things to note:

  • I’ve left all the social science out of this post. This is the exposition from the book that explains all the social science. I’ll follow up with another one giving my science-minded friends — the evidence-based crowd — the opportunity to stop spinning conspiracy stories, and instead read up on all the social science that’s been done on the region; and
  • I’ve written an entire book on the subject. This problem is complex and complicated. This post is really a distillation of some of the larger themes in the book.  But really there’s so much more.

Before We Move Forward: A Note

I need to frame this discussion — and the book. What I’m doing is very simple: explaining, not excusing. Great writing and storytelling help us see and understand worlds that are different than ours.

Great stories do not whitewash away the rough edges. I can’t write a book about Appalachian culture without dealing with this important idea.

I love Appalachia, but we’ve got to recognize that racism and misogyny are deeply — deeply — embedded within the culture. Blacks and African-Americans have been nearly wiped away from the history of the region, and so too were women from all backgrounds. This isn’t a book meant to prop up the noble Appalachian working class. Nobility isn’t bestowed on any class. Not Appalachians. Not the working class. Not anyone. Nobility, where it exists, does so within individuals, in tiny moments in their lives. My family — and Appalachians — aren’t noble. My family owned slaves. There is no way around that. We did, and that’s a shame that we must bear and own.

But there’s two points that we need to clear up right now. The first is that neither of those issues is inherent only to Appalachia. The second is addressing issues of race and gender are deeply important to the future of our country. But neither will be part of this book.

While this book is about Appalachia, it’s a story of class warfare.

A Hypothetical Conundrum to Begin

Let’s begin with a hypothetical.

Imagine you are in your mid-forties, you have two children, and you live in a place where there’s been no new businesses developed in the last thirty years. You live well off the beaten path, along one of myriad state routes that used to be the lifeblood of the country but now largely serve as a reminder of how forgotten you are. That lack of transportation infrastructure and cost of doing business due to regulations— oversight that you know  makes your life better— discourages corporations big and small from coming into your town.

With no new businesses, increasingly you are forced to depend upon the government to provide you basic services like healthcare and unemployment insurance. You hate that, but you also have little choice. You don’t have the money — or connections — to move…somewhere else.

In each election season, you find yourself making a choice: continue receiving government help, which you know will not make your children’s life better, or forego those basic services in hopes that your town—one forgotten by the country— has the chance to create jobs that may provide you, and your children, the chance to carve out a life.

The choice each election season is the same, but the circumstances in which you live are getting worse because where you live isn’t part of the growth of the country.

So which do you choose: government help that you know will be there but that doesn’t provide a future, or the chance to maybe build something new (and knowing that if you fail, you will be worse off than you are)?

You must choose one or the other. If you decide not to choose, then you’re told you have no right to complain. And— by the way— no matter which you pick, people will chide you for being too stupid to know the right answer?

Viewing Appalachia

To understand Clay County— and Appalachia, and this question —means understanding how it came to be one of the poorest places in America. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a hard question to answer. How hard can it be to understand the forces that have caused nearly seven decades of poverty?

The answer: quite hard.

More importantly, how you look at the problem says quite a bit about who you are, and how you think about not only the people of Clay County, but also of the larger Appalachian region, which has seen spirit-crushing poverty since the nineteen-sixties.

There’s two ways most researchers — and people — think about poverty.

The first is the “culture-of-poverty,” which in the case of Appalachia means that its relative isolation from the rest of the country has excluded it from the national (and now international economy). The second is the “internal colony,” which in the case of Appalachia means that outside forces — the national (and now international) corporate economy — has harvested its resources and left it barren.

If you fall into the first camp, the people who think that rural isolation is the cause of poverty, then you’re more likely to put the onus of fixing that poverty on the people. It’s a solvable problem, one that can be fixed with new infrastructure, better education, and hard work. If you fall into the second camp, you’re more likely to think that speculators, corporations, and governments must be held accountable for what they have done, and forced to give back to the areas and people they have abandoned.

The culture of poverty tells people to get off their asses and fix things that they didn’t break. The internal colony suggests that external, invisible forces have shaped and limited the choices people can make.

And so you can begin to see how the way you perceive the problem shapes the way you perceive the people. If you think the culture of poverty is the problem, then it’s the people who are at fault. And if you think it’s a colonial issue, then it’s the structures around the people who are at fault.

And that begins to illuminate so much of how you talk about us.

Because if you wonder why people might vote for a political candidate that isn’t interested in social programs for Appalachia, maybe it’s because the people understand that it’s not social programs that are the problem. And if you wonder why the people may want an economy unrestrained by regulation, maybe it’s because the regulations have been set up in ways that help internal colonizers.

If we think back to the choice from the hypothetical, the idea of “self-interest” becomes something far more complex than just “vote for Medicaid because you need it” or “vote for more social programs.”

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not the people who are the problem at all.

Instead, it’s the fact that for whatever the deep-seated reasons are for the crushing poverty that has descended upon the Appalachian region, the twenty-four million residents know that what they really need is a fair chance against everyone else. And since the game has been rigged, the only way they know how to get out is to re-set all the rules.

About that Self-Interest Thing

The idea of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is baked into the American mythology. That is part of the myth of nobility that courses through our blood.

And I suspect — but do not know — that it comes from a people who forged across the frontier and learned to survive on their own. They pushed across the frontier that had no comforts of the day. The very type of people who would set out across wild land must have been, at least in some way, the self sufficient type. There is something quite noble about taking care of your own problems. There is something very human about persevering through whatever hardship you’re faced with.

Until the day comes when you need help.

And so when people ask me the question why do those hillbillies vote against their own self-interest I tried to explain this to them: They aren’t voting against their own self-interest.

In the last two hundred years, every time someone has shown up in Clay County — and counties just like Clay across the Appalachian region — goods and money were taken, and the people never ended up in a better place. The state and federal governments, the judicial system, and outside speculators colluded to steal— or legally extract— the resources of the region, all while promising “a better tomorrow.”

And so the history of Clay County— and Kentucky— was a fight with the Virginia legislature over who owned the land. (The Supreme Court said Virginia’s owned Kentucky’s land, regardless of who lived there.)

After two hundreds years, the choice between the do-gooder who ends up stealing your money and the asshole who doesn’t care whether you live or die is pretty simple: I’ll take the asshole every time. And the people who seem to care the least about meddling in their business aren’t the Democrats, who waged a war on poverty and who have come trying to tell them how to fix their world. No, the people who believe in the least government and have a laissez-faire attitude about helping people are the Republicans.

The people who you think are voting against their self-interest are doing something quite different. They are just looking for a level playing field, one where they control their land, their economy, and their community. They aren’t voting against their own self-interest.

They are voting on themselves because nobody else has ever come to help them.

Explaining, not Excusing

We are as incapable of talking about class in America, as we are capable of speaking about race and gender.

But in this discussion — to answer this question of why the white, rural voters choose who they did — we have to recalibrate the ways in which we talk about rural, white voters.

I will leave you with this: Many are very quick to remind people that the worst of a group does not represent that group. Terrorist is not synonymous with Muslim, and so on through the different groups. And so we must remember that the racists that surely— unequivocally —embody parts of white, rural America are not synonymous with all white, rural voters.

We can’t — we must not — fall into that trap here that even as we fight and condemn racism and sexism in all its forms

Instead, we need to recalibrate our national discussion to understand that class is as powerful as race and gender (and other identifiers) in this country. We must begin to understand that the invisible forces that shape minorities, women, and immigrants, also shape the poor and the rural who have been excluded from the recent growth in the national economy.