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Life and Politics in Appalachia

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain | CC BY 2.0


I’ve lived in a small town with a large public university in the Virginian part of Appalachia since 1999, commuting to the private university in North Carolina where I’ve taught since 1987.  It is a prosperous college town, often designated by business and “lifestyle” magazines as one of the best places to retire to in the US, and thus atypical of the region in terms of its relative affluence and the so-called cultural and leisure opportunities it provides.

Politically, the town is a liberal oasis in a desert of Republicanism.  In the recent presidential election, Clinton beat Trump by just over 1% in the county where this college town is located (the county went narrowly for Romney in 2012 and Obama in 2008), while losing to Trump by whopping 20-40% margins in all the surrounding counties.   In these overwhelmingly rural counties rusty and dented trucks sporting Virginia’s Tea Party “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates are a common sight.

I have never seen this license plate on a BMW or Mercedes Benz when driving through rural Virginia (and neither has anyone I’ve asked).  Cynics among my friends say the people in the luxury cars probably rely on the lowish-income Tea Party drivers to vote for Republican tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby giving them a new Merc or Beamer every couple of years.

I started to get an inkling of what was likely to happen in the election during the weekly three-hour commute to and from my job in North Carolina.  The only “Clinton-Kaine” yard signs were around where I live, and once I drove into rural Virginia, “Trump-Pence” and “Hillary for Prison” signs were pretty much all I saw.  Gore and Kerry lost to Dubya, but I recall there being many more yard signs for them.  (A disclaimer:  as a non-citizen I can’t vote.)

Virginia is now a swing state, due in large part to the fact that there are three Virginias when it comes to defining the outlines of its political map.

One Virginia is the rural southwestern part of the state (“SWVA”) that is reliably Republican, apart from the college towns dotted here and there, older, whiter, less educated, and poorer (the 2014 median income was $37,663), than the rest of Virginia.

The second is the populous and more highly-educated northern part of the state (“NoVa”) bordering Washington DC, a Democratic stronghold with a relative abundance of decent government and tech jobs (the 2014 median income was $102,499).

The third is the state’s eastern seaboard, centred on Hampton Roads, dominated by the military-industrial complex, which went narrowly for Clinton in the presidential election, but was Republican in all the sub-presidential races.

SWVA, where I live, used to have a local economy dominated by a coal industry now in terminal decline, but which in the manner characteristic of extractive industries did little for local communities apart from paying somewhat well for dangerous jobs while these were needed. There was some furniture and textile production, but that has gone to China, Vietnam, and Bangla Desh.  The southeastern part of SWVA used to grow tobacco as well, but the precipitate decline in demand for their crop has been an economic death-sentence for its tobacco farmers.

All that is left for SWVA now are tourism and tiny pockets of the “knowledge industry” around the universities.  The region is undergoing population decline, as frustrated and more ambitious younger people leave for better opportunities elsewhere.  Generally, those left behind are the elderly and the less qualified educationally.

The pervasive lack of economic opportunity in the region for all but the well-educated has had social repercussions.

The poverty rate for Virginians below the age of 18 rose in 2014 to 15.9% from 14.9% the year before. Despite this increase, Virginia’s child-poverty rate is still much lower than the shocking US national average of 21.7%– in the world’s richest country, more than one in five children live below the poverty level.

In the week when Fidel Castro died, amidst all the mewling in the mainstream US media about his “tyranny”, little mention was made of Cuba’s almost complete elimination of poverty in the face of the crippling US blockade after the 1959 revolution, encapsulated in the Cuban slogan “just enough for all”.  Suffering in Cuba can be protracted, but it and its amelioration are shared.  Not so in the “land of the free”.

Typical of a SWVA town in decline is Pulaski, 25 miles from where I live.  According to US Census data, Pulaski had a population of 8,948 in 2013 (it had been over 10,000 in 1960), a 2010 median household income of $35,861, an unemployment level of 10% in 2013 (it had been 2% in 1970), and a poverty level of 22.4% in 2013 (it had been 14.7% in 1980).

People under the age of 18 made up 21% of Pulaski’s population in 2013 compared to 26% in 1980, according to census data. Likewise, in the last three decades, the share of people in the 18-34 age-range dropped from 24.5% to 20%.  Pulaski’s main source of employment had been its textile and furniture factories, but these no longer exist, and young people must look for work elsewhere.  Today’s only significant source of employment for Pulaski is the nearby Volvo truck facility, and the entire community suffers when there is a dip in orders.

Virginia is also one of the half-dozen or so US states commonly cited by law enforcement and medical practitioners as having an “epidemic” of OxyContin abuse.

This painkiller and crystal meth (aka “hillbilly cocaine”) drug crisis is concentrated in the relatively high-unemployment and low-income SWVA.  When I go to my local pharmacy to get non-prescription allergy medications, I must fill in a detailed questionnaire and produce my driver’s license, which is photocopied.

It is of course much easier for anyone so inclined to buy any number of guns from the several pawn shops and gun shows in SWVA.  Apparently, this only involves a perfunctory look at the buyer’s drivers license.

Trump lost Virginia to Clinton overall, but cleaned up in SWVA.  In Pulaski county he got 68.06% of the vote to her 27.51%.  In the county’s election for the US House of Representatives, the Republican Morgan Griffith, a stooge of the Koch brothers and the fossil-fuel industries, got 69.27% of the vote to his Democratic rival’s 28.08%.

Neither Trump nor Griffith are likely to do even a little for the economically disadvantaged in SWVA.  Griffith certainly has done nothing in his two terms in Congress.

All that those who voted for these scoundrels will get in return for their votes is a whipping-up of anti-foreigner sentiment and Tweeted assurances from Trump that their nativist ressentiment will be heard in that garish tower on 5th Avenue.  Meanwhile, austerity, privatization, downsizing, and off-shoring will continue, if Trump’s cabinet choices so far are anything to go by.

Trump, after all, has said repeatedly that “wages are too high”.  Despite this, he was supported by over 2/3rds of the voters in an SWVA town where 1 in 5 persons lives in poverty, and the median household income is somewhat less than half that of the overall figure for Virginia.

Griffith votes in Washington for economic policies which screw his SWVA electorate, but craftily offsets this by pandering wholesale on “hot button” cultural issues dear to his voters– guns, abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, lots more capital punishment, immigration control, “less government”, the same old, same old.

America’s ruling elite has failed this disadvantaged electorate for decades.  A desperate dice-throw on their part this time gave Trump his voting edge.  In their eyes, they had nothing to lose.

Trodden on, they went for Trump’s mendacious pitch that somehow only he could disengage the boots of the “liberal elites” — with their political correctness and fondness for all things foreign, etc.– from their collective necks.

Meanwhile, the websites of Trump’s hotels make a point of highlighting their splendid sushi restaurants.

Trump, on the other hand, now has everything to gain, as he and his family use the presidency to promote their businesses and line their already ample pockets, while Joe and Jill Normal of SWVA, bound hand-and-foot to the towering bar graphs of economically-stagnant livelihoods, continue to get screwed.

The first sign Joe and Jill Normal are likely to receive of Trump’s concern for them will be his support for the projected $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that will run right through SWVA for hundreds of miles, carving-up solidly Republican areas, and destroying their property values via eminent domain.  The shameless Griffith, who doesn’t even live in the district he represents, says the 42-inch pipeline, which will carry fracked natural gas, is needed because it is in “the national interest”!

This, however, is not a partisan issue, since the long-time moneyman for the presidential campaigns of both Clintons, the Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, is already on the same side as Trump and Griffith where the proposed pipeline is concerned.

When it comes to raking-in bucket loads of dosh, the elite speaks with impeccably synchronized voices.

In fairness, therefore, a Hillary Clinton presidency would also make very little difference for Joe and Jill Normal and their children.

Trump and the Clintons have charmed lives absolutely bound-up with the destiny of the American economic elite.  Only a fit of absolute madness would lead Trump to buck that destiny.

Clinton made an awkward pretense of bucking this destiny by stealing some of Bernie Sanders’ clothes.  She convinced no one.

Trump, the consummate conman, made no such obvious pretense, and simply insinuated he was the man of destiny who, in some occult way, would overcome the privations inflicted on generations of SWVA’s systemically disadvantaged citizens.

A lot of underprivileged people believed the conman—and so, at least for now, he is their man.

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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