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.

You may also like


  • Pingback: Missing the Point | Points and Figures December 3, 2016   Reply →
  • pointsnfigures December 3, 2016   Reply →

    this is a great blogpost and exactly what I have witnessed as I drive all over the rural areas of the US.

  • thebradking December 3, 2016   Reply →

    pointsnfigures Thanks for the response. (I checked out your blog. I like what you’re doing.) I’ve been working on my book for four years, and have spent a good deal of time thinking about this issue. There’s more to come.

  • smintheus December 3, 2016   Reply →

    It’s the government’s fault for not creating jobs or helping the poor enough, so you vote consistently for the party that believes it is not the government’s duty to create jobs or help the poor? Yeah, that does make sense of a sort. It’ll teach the Democrats to take you more seriously as you complain about losing the social safety net Republicans are committed to destroying.

  • thebradking December 3, 2016   Reply →

    smintheus I don’t think I understand your response. This is a very brief summary of a much longer book that I’m writing. But if you think this is my argument, I guess either I didn’t make that clear enough, or you have misread. This is a story that is based in 100 years of social science research, and family research (as my family helped settle Clay in the early 1800s). And this post is just an answer to a common question I hear.

  • mmpd December 3, 2016   Reply →

    In what sense will deregulation and the absence of health insurance and SSI disability payments create a level playing field?

  • thebradking December 3, 2016   Reply →

    mmpd That’s a good question. I thought the hypothetical answered that, but obviously that wasn’t the case. Let me try to get to the point in another way.
    The idea is that it’s not an and, it’s an either/or. You can either have a larger social net and more regulations that make it harder to start small businesses, or a smaller social net and fewer regulations that encourage the launch of businesses. 
    So if you live in an area with a stagnant business economy that is left out of the national and international globalization, you need to create a self-sustaining economy. Regulations, which may be okay in larger, connected economies, are quite harmful.

    So you’re faced with a choice: social net and dependence, or less help and you’re on your own. 

    After you’ve tried one for decades, you may decide to try the other side.

    • 24AheadDotCom December 3, 2016   Reply →

      It’s not an either-or. Other groups (blacks, illegal aliens, gun owners, etc.) are able to force pols to change to be more to their liking. Illegal aliens and their powerful allies changed HRC & Bern for the worse; if Trump supporters were smarter, saner, and decided to do work for a change they could have made HRC, Bern, and Trump better. Instead, almost all Trump supporters just gave him a blank check, harming themselves in the process.

      • Brad King December 3, 2016   Reply →

        Thanks for reading, and I appreciate that you took the time to comment. My argument in the book, as I tried to explain, is based upon two aspects: a great deal of social research done in the area (100 years or so) and the fact that my family helped settle Clay County and has lived there for 200 years (although I did not grow up there). This piece wasn’t about THIS election, but instead about the general explanation for why people might not vote for Democrats.

        I tend to reject folks who believe that one group is not smart.

        • 24AheadDotCom December 4, 2016   Reply →

          Perhaps a little research would have done you some good, Brad. The vast majority of non-elite whites who lean towards conservative issues are dumb and deranged. I know that based on years of trying to get them to do smart things that would help both them and the USA.

          For a tangible example – one of literally thousands I could provide – after the Chicago melee at one of his events, Trump had a golden opportunity to undercut BLM and MoveOn. He could have reduced their power and made them more toxic. He lacked the smarts, sanity, and patriotism to do that. Not only that, but I got smeared by iSteve readers when I described exactly how Trump could use the melee to undercut BLM and MoveOn.

          For another example, several years ago there was an attempt to get the “Khalidi tape”. I described a smart way to achieve that goal, and Malkin linked it. Instead of using that smart plan, non-elite whites organized a march in front of the LATimes building. Aside from giving LAT reporters a chuckle, the march did nothing.

          If you had as much experience as I do with getting rebuffed for trying to get people to do smart things, you’d come to the same conclusion.

          • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

            Thanks for reading and the comment. I’ve appreciated hearing from so many folks. Even when we disagree, which we apparently do.

            I’ve got 100 years of social research on Clay County, several hundred years of family history, and my own life experiences. Plus four years of other research.

            I’m leaning on that for the book. 🙂

    • marji80 December 4, 2016   Reply →

      What types of businesses would the residents of Appalachia start if there were fewer regulations?

      • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Hello. Thanks for reading and commenting.

        That is a good question, and one I don’t know. The argument is more philosophical, and has grown from the idea that “this way hasn’t worked for us” recently and historically.

  • dabbadoo December 3, 2016   Reply →

    So the choice is made to pick the assholes who don’t care instead of the do-gooders/government. Let’s say the people are left to do what they want, without regulation and without interference. What’s the next thing they believe will happen? Do they think that outside companies will come in and provide employment? Or do they want a more self-sufficient, isolated economy where people basically pass money/barter back and forth to meet basic needs? If outside companies come in not subject to any regulation, and let’s say those companies are operated like companies have traditionally operated in the region, with low wages/wage theft/company stores/little interest in safety or the environment — do they still see that as being better than the alternative?

  • thebradking December 3, 2016   Reply →

    dabbadoo Thanks for the comment. Historically (and this is something that I couldn’t really get into in the post but I spend a lot of time in the book), Kentucky – where my family is from – was owned by outside speculators. Those businesses (not unlike coal companies today) took the resources and money OUT of the region. What was left was like a husk, which means it offered little incentive for companies to come in and create new jobs (and the money was gone, and so it wasn’t invested locally to build new businesses.)

    That lack of development – and the lack of financial autonomy – meant that the economic pie was shrinking while the social safety net had grown. 
    This hasn’t gone lost of folks. They saw how the area was exploited, and they have become distrustful of external solutions because those solutions – in the past – ended up stripping the area of ifs economic viability. And they know that subsisting simply on government resources isn’t sustainable. 

    So: the choice come down to 1) people who favor growing the safety net and regulating an international economy, or 2) people who favor allowing for local autonomy (even if it ends up with other, bad trade offs like less healthcare). The reason: a job offers me the ability to control my destiny; a safety net makes me dependent upon the very people who created the situation I’m in.

    I think it’s less about looking for outside companies, and more looking for autonomy no matter the outcome. It’s the old axiom: I’d rather die standing on my feet…

  • HenryBartholomewCranbury December 3, 2016   Reply →

    “Many are very quick to remind people that the worst of a group does not represent that group.”

    Good luck with that. But you are fighting against the tide of the news media, politicians, and some religious leaders, who profit by selling hate. 

    I’m not sure what your full definition of the culture of poverty is, but there is one definition that I’ve seen applied to inner cities that involves the idea that poor people don’t have the work ethic to hold down  a job, or money management skills to accumulate wealth. Is that what you mean or is that a third view of what causes poverty?  

    If you want to examine the cultural issues, wouldn’t’ it help to consider certain ethnic groups that tend to succeed do? What is their recipe for success? Would that work in Appalachia? If not that suggests there are problems that are not due to culture of the people  living there.

    As far as I can see there are a few answers to their problems: move somewhere else, bring people with money in (tourists or tax breaks  for business to set up shop, or find something to export. 

    Do all the kids with gumption leave the area – is the population depleted of a certain personality type and is that part of the problem?

    Is the internet helping? You can set up a shop and sell your products and services all over the world using the internet.

    • Brad King December 3, 2016   Reply →

      Thanks for the comment.

      This isn’t my definition, so that’s important to note. There are two general ways that people discuss poverty in Appalachia: the culture of poverty, and the internal colony. And these definitions come out of a great deal of science and study. If you’re really interested in learning about those, I would recommend the book THE ROAD TO POVERTY, which is specifically about Appalachia.

      In terms of your answers, I would say this: They make make sense to you, but if these problems had those simple solutions I would suggest the problems wouldn’t exist. (My hypothetical was drawn, in part, from general census data about the region.)

  • Bloop_Bloopington December 3, 2016   Reply →

    Oh for God’s sake. Appalachia has consciously and deliberately chosen to maintain itself in ignorance, in fact, to VALORIZE that ignorance for the same 200 years you’re talking about. Jim Webb at least had the honesty to forthrightly admit that anti-intellectualism is part-and-parcel of Appalachia.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hi and thanks for taking the tiger to read and comment.

      As I noted, there are two ways sociologists tend to analyze the area. You seem inclined to believe in the “culture of poverty,” which argues it’s the people themselves who are responsible for their plight.

      It’s a complex issue for sure, but historically the Appalachian economy – at least in Clay – was destroyed by external forces. And so it’s hard to argue that those forces didn’t – at the very least – limit future choices.

      • Bloop_Bloopington December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Nope. Or, at least, half-Nope. While the anti-intellectualism Webb referenced might be regarded as “cultural,” the consequent is a factor in the political economy: Appalachia is dominated by low-tax, low-services state and local governments because they don’t invest in education (or a lot of other public goods provided by state and municipal governments elsewhere).

        The idea that you need to de-regulate and cut taxes for business in the already lightest regulated and lowest-taxed region is just mind-bogglingly wrong-headed.

        Just who the heck do you think “extracted” those resources? Some Federal bureaucrat/social worker? Or, you know, the Coal companies? Or in an earlier time, the timber companies? Or land speculators? That is, Capital.

        If anyone is ignoring the true implications of class it’s you, Brad King, not coastal liberals. You present a Marxist framework of class relations except for, you know, the Karl Marx and class warfare parts.

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          Thanks for the thoughtful response.

          Let me start by saying that argument I’ve made isn’t mine. The driving force behind that argument comes from 100 years of social science done in Clay County, which my family helped found and where many of them still live today. So the conclusions aren’t mine, and they aren’t opinion. (That said: There’s another strand of the analysis that examines the same data in a different way. That’s the “internal colony” versus the “culture of poverty” viewpoints.)

          The external forces I discussed: 21 companies owned 75% of Kentucky in its earliest days. And those companies were sold land by the Virginia government (even as others were settling the area). The Supreme Court then held that those external companies and the Virginia government DID have control of that land EVEN WHEN settlers were there, building on the land. And so the wealth of the region was taken away. (And 10 families in Lexington owned more than 90% of the taxable land then as well.)

          All of this is fleshed out in the book (but not here….well, until now) so it’s hard for me to narrow down 15,000 words into a single answer. (Part II of the book is all about this very topic though because, as you rightfully point out, it’s a big and important point.)

          So, the argument is not mine (although I happen to agree with it.)

          Another note: This isn’t a book where I’m offering up solutions to the problem. That’s not my place. Nor do I necessarily agree with the folks who vote or lean the way they do. But that’s ALSO not the point of the book. Instead, this is a story about my family and how Clay became the way it did. So in that sense it’s using social science and the story of my family.

          But that’s it.

          • Bloop_Bloopington December 4, 2016   Reply →


            Thank you, too.

            But let me say this. I think my point is much, much stronger in light of the new info you added. So you’re even more of a Marxist than I thought you were–or even more deluded in the face of added evidence.

            • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

              The great thing about America is that you can think what you’d like (but that doesn’t make it true!)

              Have a great Sunday!

      • Gladius December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Why don’t folks just up an leave ?? Go where the opportunity is ? It sucks but that’s what folks have done in the past e.g California . I’m not an economist and not the final word on the subject but if the local economy there in KY can no longer be resource based (mining , timber etc..) then it must evolve into something else and that responsibility is up to the people who live there. Unless they create a brain based economy then I don’t know what the answer is other than leaving and going somewhere else…

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          Well, neither the book, nor me is offering up a solution to the problem. In terms of just leaving, I don’t think you can just tell everyone who can’t find a job to leave their homes and families to go somewhere else. That’s hard to do when you don’t have money, a support system, and the time to figure out how to do that.

  • gregglory December 4, 2016   Reply →

    >>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.)

    Surely this is not still the case? When was ownership of Kentucky resolved? I’m having trouble finding reference to Virginia ownership of Kentucky past revolutionary iMessage when Kentucky was a county of Virginia, i.e., before statehood.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hi. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      You are correct in noting that it isn’t the case today. As I tried to explain in the piece, this is a summary of a the major arguments in my book, and so I’ve condensed quite a bit.

      The Virginia ownership issue really came from most of the 1800s, which is when much of the wealth in the area (re: salt,timber etc) was extracted from the area. That money largely left Clay, and went to outside folks. And so economic development was stunted right from the beginning.

      • gregglory December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Thanks for giving me an idea about the dates involved. I’m getting a clearer idea about outside exploitation of the area, leaving no decent capital improvements behind. Look forward to perusing your book!

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          thanks for the response.

          The reason I’ve generally stayed away from blogging so much about the book is that it’s hard to give context to a point in 1,000 words when I’ve just written 15,000. It’s not fair to expect readers to understand that, and I don’t want to give away the good stuff in the book 🙂

          Thanks for being a thoughtful reader, and letting me add context.

  • Rex McCoy (Tonkin72) December 4, 2016   Reply →

    How would you compare So Far Appalachia with the recent Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance? I get the impression there is more “social science” in your book.
    PS I’m from Pikeville/Pike County. Not much difference from Clay County, but left decades ago for Navy service. I’m now one of the “elites”, but with a foot still firmly in my Hillbilly past.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hello Rex.

      The social science will drive part of the narrative about Clay – so in that sense there is some more research. But like Vance’s book, my family’s narrative will drive the story. The only issue I had with his book was near the end he began to diagnose the problem (the culture of poverty), and seemed to blame the circumstances of the town and people on themselves. I disagreed with that side of things – and so my book will very specifically shy away from offering solutions. (Who the hell am I to offer solutions?!?)

      Otherwise, I was very happy to Vance – and others – have a platform to begin telling the Appalachian stories. It’s important for there to be a variety of voices on this topic.

  • BuddyE December 4, 2016   Reply →

    Thanks for shining light on this. As someone who is fairly right wing, and who probably doesn’t see eye to eye on much else with you, I applaud your attempt here. Many right wingers tend to go with the culture of poverty ‘you guys are too lazy and/or should just move’ thing (see the NRO article “The White Ghetto” from last year, for instance).

    Anyone that has lived in the region (I did, nearly 10 years), or was brought up in it, though, quickly realizes there were a ton of promises made from all areas of the country, from business to government. Promises of ‘you give us this, we’ll give you that’ where the ‘that’ never materialized. At best, demoralizing, at worst, completely debilitating for the entire region (See ‘road to nowhere’ in western NC for instance, that FINALLY got some closure after nearly 100 years, but still a broken promise).

    Again, thanks. This is a massively complex issue, and I’m glad others are attempting to take it to the forefront of discussion.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment.

      I’ll start by saying “The White Ghetto” nearly made me through my computer out the window 🙂 The culture of poverty is an easy frame for any problem because it allows for an easy solution. I’ve found that life is generally more complex than that.

      And this issue is so deeply complex that certainly a single blog post (or even a single book) won’t change that. But I hope it starts a conversation – or at least joins the conversation – about who we are as Americans. We have to do a better job of understanding everyone. That’s the thing that makes us stronger.

      I hope you continue to check in on the book!

      • BuddyE December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Indeed. Right or left, we need to stop talking past each other or hiding in our little bubbles. We face some pretty serious challenges across america, and assuming ‘too lazy’ or ‘too dumb’ or whatever the simple assumption that people on both sides are making miss a lot of context and REAL reasons as to why people do what they do.

        And yes signed up for the book newsletter announcement. It seems like something I could recommend to my progressive friends to give them an insight into ‘why’ things in the region (and possibly a lot of the south in general) are as they are.

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          There’s a section in the book that talks about the parallels between how we speak about African-Americans and how we speak about Appalachians because part of the book – I hope – focuses on how we all do this with people who are different than us.

          Thank you for your thoughtful response. Nothing makes me happier as a writer than having these types of discussions.

  • ricardo grande December 4, 2016   Reply →

    So what was your response to your liberal friends question “why —
    WHY? — so many working class white folks voted against Sec. Hillary
    Clinton.” ?

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hello Ricardo.

      Thanks for reading and the comment. The post I wrote was really a summary of the argument I make in my book, which is the answer to very question. A brief summary of that answer is: for years (1800-1900), the area was promised economic prosperity, but instead the wealth was removed by complicit and outside companies. What was left was an area that had little ability to develop on its own. And so when a new group of folks comes in and says “let us help” (re: the Dems), there is a cultural legacy of distrust about that. So who am I voting for? The person who represents the lies of the past, or the person who doesn’t seem to care about us at all?

      In this election, the answer was very clear: the person who doesn’t seem to care about us at all…because at least then we can make our own decisions.

      (That’s a very, very, very basic summary!)

  • Joe December 4, 2016   Reply →

    Interesting reading. Much of what you wrote applies to California as well. Governing parties live in specific areas, and that is where money is sent from Sacramento. Result is that, even though the governing party is supposedly the party that takes care of the “people”, there isn’t enough $ to pass down to them after they take care of themselves. (Look at the percentage of money SF County receives from State compared to Merced and Stanislaus).

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hello Joe.

      Thanks for reading and your response. The social science research I referenced in the post looks at Clay County from 1800-1900, and so much of what I am writing is looking at the long-term impact of the economic forces that stripped the region of its economic independence.

      But the idea of “internal colony” and “culture of poverty” are views that can be applied, generally, to understand how poverty develops.

  • Fen December 4, 2016   Reply →

    “addressing issues of race and gender are deeply important to the future of our country”

    I think this is the blind spot. Bigotry against race and gender is wrong and should be stomped out, but the Left has made it the Great Satan. This is going to shock many on the Left, but its not the biggest problem we face, its not even in the top ten, And yet the Left seems to make it the centerpiece of every discussion. Most Americans simply do not care as much about racism and sexism and homophobia as the Left does.

    Add to that the Left’s constant hypocrisy of championing minority rights while being bigots towards whites,men, conservatives and christians. The lies and racial agitation of groups like Black Lives Matter. The several (4 or 5?) rape hoaxes that were in the media spotlight (Rolling Stone) over the last year and… the whole thing smells like a scam.

    My takeaway is that the Left has simply been using race and gender issues as props. They don’t really believe in the things they lecture us about. And America is sick of every conversation turning into a lecture about race and gender,

    Someone wise said the Dems lost because they are more concerned with transgender bathrooms than jobs. The Left would be wise to listen. Race and gender issues are nowhere near as important to Americans as they are to you.

    • NewColumbian December 4, 2016   Reply →

      I think the Ds have had good ideas in these areas, but these days I think it’s looking more and more like a played-out mine. By the time you get to the 0.2% of the population that’s transgender and demand that every restroom and locker room be co-ed, you’ve long since extracted all the usable ore.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hello. Thanks for reading and for your response.

      We likely disagree on the issue of race and gender in this country. These issues are quite important (as is class, which is what I’m writing about.) And the 62 million or so who voted Democrat in this last election would likely agree.

      More to the point, this post – and my book – are about class, and not race and gender and so having a conversation about those here isn’t going to happen. I’m more than happy to have those conversations – and I do – but I’d like to keep this on the topic of the book 🙂

      • Fen December 4, 2016   Reply →

        “And the 62 million or so who voted Democrat in this last election would likely agree”

        But they really don’t. Race and gender is just a prop for the Democrats. I know, because people that truly believed bigotry was wrong wouldn’t reflexively be bigoted toward those of us in “flyover country”. They would have self-corrected a long time ago. It’s the difference between adopting a principle based on critical thinking vs just parroting what the “cool kids” tell you is popular to say.

        “this post – and my book – are about class, and not race and gender and so having a conversation about those here isn’t going to happen”

        That’s fine, but you are the one who brought up race and gender to begin with. As for class, I hope your book touched on the common people’s loss of faith in the political and intellectual class (the Base Vs the Establishment Party). It’s why Trump won,

        Please consider that those issues are Establishment narratives and then ask yourself why your are pushing them as “deeply important to the future of the country”. Especially as you are attempting to provide analysis of class issues in an impartial unbiased manner. Your judgement may be clouded, which only handicaps you.

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          We disagree that they don’t, but in the end that’s just two people arguing opinion and not fact. I do, however, agree that generally speaking people from outside Appalachia don’t understand the history or the people. Hence me writing the book.

          As for race and gender, if you read what I wrote I specifically said the book – and the post – wasn’t about that. So yes, I brought it up to say “this isn’t about that.”

          In terms of the “establishment,” I’ll say this: My analysis comes largely from 100-years of social research done in Clay County. You might disagree with it, but it far – FAR – pre-dates the modern body of politics. I’m not pushing it. I’m telling a story about those facts, and the reality of my family’s 200-year history in the region.

          But I also don’t believe everyone needs to agree. What I find most important is that we have real conversations, and so I appreciate exchanges like this!

  • NewColumbian December 4, 2016   Reply →

    In case my comments make me look like the p.r. guy for every “progressive” jerk who’s ever tried to tell everyone else how to live, well, I’m not. With that, here goes.

    I see a false dichotomy here between the despised meddling do-gooders and the despised internal colonizers. Mr. King, as someone who had two separate careers that involved a lot of writing and a need to boil complicated realities down to their essentials, I understand the challenge. But I don’t accept the dichotomy.

    A whole lot of ongoing endeavors have what I call seasonality. At times, Keynesian economics works. At other times, classical economics works. At other times, a socialist injection works. Other times, you should sweep away the cobwebs of government control. Or if you’re in the stock speculation business, there are times when you should chase momentum. There are times to dust off Graham & Dodd and be a value investor. Sometimes you should be in cash.

    Most of the time, you do some of Column A, some of Column B, some of Column C, and alter the mix with the seasons. With respect to Appalachia, there’s a role for the do-gooders, a role for the resource extractors, and a role for personal initiative. These things are not mutually exclusive. Talented leaders find the best of each, and combine them. Talented leaders know what season it is.

    Then there is this:

    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.

    This boils down to individual initiative. Well, guess what? Individuals can go shoot a deer and feed the family, and grow enough on the back 20 to feed the family. But they need capital from outside, be it teachers and schools, private investment, government works, you name it. “Go it alone” is a myth, and it always has been. All achievement is, to some degree, collective. This is not, not, NOT some argument for communism, but it’s a recognition of reality.

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      Hello and thanks for the thoughtful response. (You should call me Brad, though. Mr. King sounds too weird to me.)

      A few points:

      As I mentioned in the post, this is a very distilled down version of the book, which goes into the complexities of these areas. There’s just no way to write a short post and include the 20,000 words that are in the section of the book on this topic.

      And while you don’t accept the dichotomy, you should know that this isn’t my argument alone. This grows out of 100 years of social research that has been done on Clay County, and my own family’s story. The “internal colony” versus the “culture of poverty” are ways that poverty is dissected and discussed.

      To ignore the cultural reasons that people would reject external help is to fail to understand the region’s history. Of course nobody succeeds by themselves, but the belief that altruism comes with every helping hand is equally a myth.

      And so when I am writing on this topic, this is very specifically an outgrowth of my family’s story, the social research that stretched back 100 years, and the area where I was raised. These are the realities that I have seen, lived, and heard.

      • NewColumbian December 4, 2016   Reply →

        Thanks for the reply. Not too often is it possible to communicate directly with any author. I appreciate the opportunity. I also accept your explanation with respect to boiling it down. It’s a big challenge for any writer.

        I think one pitfall of writing, especially non-fiction, is the inherent desire to wrap up loose ends in the interest of telling a coherent story. The opposite is some of the stuff I had to read in business school, which was so anedotal and riddled with exceptions and contradictions that it was hard to take away any useful lessons or truths.

        I seem to recall that when J.F.K. did his Appalachian poverty program in the ’60s, he designated five areasa, four in Appalachia plus the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When I visited the U.P. (again) in 2010, the copper mine near Ontonagan was closed and flooded, and the paper mill had just closed. Things were looking mighty, mighty grim.

        In North Dakota, where the pipeline protests have been happening, there are two branches of the Sioux to talk about right now. One of them, the Standing Rock Sioux, have only a casino. That’s it for enterprise, and it ain’t much. There’s another Sioux reservation a couple hundred miles away, I believe the Fort Berthold Reservation.

        I was just talking to a North Dakota friend, who told me that the Standing Rock Sioux have a rivalry with the Fort Bethold Sioux, who are closer to the Baaken oil fields. The Fort Berthold tribe is better managed, and there are real, sustainable jobs being created there. (For how long, who knows, but things are much better.)

        Apparently, the Standing Rock Sioux are jealous and have tried to find a way to get their hands on some of the oil money. The pipeline dispute, he said, is actually because the Standing Rock Sioux had wanted the pipeline to cross their land so they could levy an annual transit tax on the pipeline. The pipeline company said “nothing doing,” and ran it a few miles outside of the NE edge of the rez. So the anti-pipeline protests aren’t what they look like.

        Anyway, I bring all these things up because the chronic poverty in Appalachia and Upper Michigan strikes me as having some of the same dynamics as the chronic poverty on Indian reservations. Now, this could be taken too far; after all, the Indians truly are a conquered people, and the Scots-Irish of Appalachia, while having tragic histories in the old country, started out with more and have kept more.

        Still, I think there are parallels. Also, we have this difference between the two Indian tribes in North Dakota in a resource extraction economy. I might add that even in other kinds of economies, Indian tribes vary a lot. In Washington State, some tribes have done quite well, while others have done quite poorly.

        I always found local and regional economic development to be one of those impenetrable subjects. I just wasn’t interested in going that way, but maybe you have some level of aptitude for it. So I thought I’d throw some examples your way and see if it gets you thinking.

        • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

          Thanks again for the comment. One thing I learned long ago (I’ve been writing in digital spaces since the Web became a thing): Respond to everyone and be nice 🙂 I guess that’s two things.

          As to your point: yes, the reasons for poverty everywhere are the same. The sociologists who have studied Clay County, which is what I’m writing about, were using a fairly standard framework for analysis. The idea of “internal colony” and “culture of poverty” are definitely NOT specific to Appalachia. (It should be noted that the Scots-Irish didn’t own the land. They were some of the people who settled the land, but not the people I’m discussing in the book!)

          There are two things I’m doing in the book with the narrative (::knock wood::): to explain the idea of the “internal colony” as a phenomenon that is – as you said – a thing that exists in many forms here, and to parallel the Appalachian experience with other places that have faced chronic poverty in this country. The goal: to try to create an understand of some of the issues in Appalachia and to show that there’s a great deal of crossover between cultures that may seem completely different.

          (None of that was the driving force behind the blog post because, well, I’ve got to keep something for the book!)

          But I love these conversations. I’ve written for two national magazines. I’m used to discussions with people, and I’m rarely so obtuse to think that I’m right about everything 🙂 (My wife may disagree with that statement.)

  • Pingback: Sunday Wrap-Up | Countenance Blog December 4, 2016   Reply →
  • Gladius December 4, 2016   Reply →

    Mr King…Have you seen the documentary called “The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” ?? It was done by none other than the Jackass crew i.e. Johnny Knoxville et al. It shows the life and hijinks of the White family. The Whites are this dysfunctional , drug addicted family in WV mountains…All made possible by the crazy checks and SSI disability payments..

    • Brad King December 4, 2016   Reply →

      (You can call me Brad, by the way.)

      I haven’t seen it for two reasons: 1) I generally avoid shows like that, and 2) the Whites were the family that went to war with mine in Kentucky. They are actually a big part of the book. (At least, Part II.)

  • thaddeusbuttmunchmd February 7, 2017   Reply →

    I haven’t read the Book yet-but it sounds Fascinating. As a physician, I see Many parallels between the African American Urban Poor, and the Appalachians. There are, of course, Cultural Differences. Mississippi and West Virginia have the Worst obesity in the US. Yes-the Poor are the the Fattest in the US. Not so Ironic when you consider their Low Quality, Junk Food Diet. I’m sure Kentucky isn’t far behind. And-being in Tobacco Country-they like their cigarettes, too. Kentucky is the Heart of Bourbon (and Moonshine) country as well. Poor Education and Poverty has these folks in a vicious cycle. BUT…the Coal Industry has meant Death in the Mines and from Black Lung (it’s a Bit safer these days) and terrible local pollution from the coal slurries. Beautiful mountains have been removed from the landscape. The Coal jobs have NO future anyhow due to 1. Automation in the mines, 2. strip mining in the West and 3. the use of Natural Gas in Electric Power Plants. Coal is not a “Green” Fuel, and is expensive to extract. Even with the Horrors of a Trump Administration, I hope that folks in the American South and West will have Solar Panels put on their roofs, and Geothermal Heat Pumps where applicable. I also hope that Fully Electric Vehicles will become Ubiquitous. Yes We Can! US Steel Auto and other assembly line workers Knew thirty five years ago that their way of life was coming to an End. Appalachians need to know this, Too, and be trained to do other things. I also don’t understand why the folks in Kansas and Nebraska, after losing most of the Farm Industry, continue to support the GOP.

Leave a comment

Sign Up, Download A Free eBook
This newsletter is the outgrowth of The Downtown Writers Jam podcast. What that means is I will collect information about the authors I interview, book happenings around the Web, and other literary events that I find interesting. Without you, I'm just a crazy guy sitting in his office furiously screaming on the page for no reason.
Never display this again