Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mountaineer Meet and Greet

Hillbilly or ridge runner, my mother would accept either with whimsy. She was raised in the mountains of West Virginia and maintained pride in the plain-spoken independence of her background.

In full disclosure though, she married a soldier sort. We lived in various states and a couple of places in Japan. Moreover, the town where she grew up and I spent my summers and holidays was in the Eastern Panhandle. There, the landscapes were not cluttered with smokestacks, rather apple and peach orchards.

I learned to swim in the Potomac and stupidly joined the other guys in plunging into the river from the towering South Branch bridge. There were certainly poor people in Hampshire County. Also, I had relatives who chose to live without indoor plumbing in their farm houses. They had a pride of place and lifestyle that I could not truly understand.

I was 19 before I saw an ugly part of the state. The coal mines are largely at the bottom. The Kanawha Valley around Charleston then had grey hills above grey river. The land that George Washington proclaimed at the most beautiful he had ever seen and where he wanted to retire had changed considerably for the worse. In my late teens, I discovered each town down there had its own stench; Carbide smelled of its namesake and Diamond, where they made matches, reeked of sulfur. A friend of mine's grandfather blamed Ford's poor quality for the paint peeling of the family cars.

While she didn't grow up around the hillbillies, my mother took a perverse pride in accepting the stereotype and even folks telling her that was seemed far too bright and cultured to be from West Virginia. She never once that I know of pointed out that the traits folk love to ascribe to Southern mountain dwellers fit just as well in New England or Oregon. My chum Uncle has many tales of the same minds and behaviors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. We here can hit the safe targets down there and ignore our shameful history of slavery, segregation and racism up here. At least the percentage of the bigoted is smaller.

To the current election, we should ask why West Virginians went so solidly for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Given TV interviews with locals there who said they could never vote for a Black for public office, that would seem to settle the matter. That doesn't explain it though.

Hillary by the Numbers

If you look at a primary returns map and roll over the counties, you see Obama's demographic challenge, probably insurmountable. The state went 67% for Clinton, 26% for Obama and 7% for Edwards. The farther you are from a city, the more economically distressed the county, the lower Obama's results. At one extreme, Logan went 84%/11%/5% and Mingo 88%/8%/4%. In contrast, Jefferson County was 49%/46%/5%. It is in the far eastern end of the Eastern Panhandle. It is within commuting distance of D.C. and has many yuppie non-native residents. Nearby Berkeley was not as good for Obama, but was 54%/40%/6%.

Rural and poor went for the urban, urbane and rich Clinton — go figure. There is certainly something to the bigot angle.

We in Yankeeland tend to also stereotype southern states as having large percentages of Black voters, as we saw in results from the Carolinas. That's not true in West Virginia, where slavery was rare and without huge cities like Chicago and New York offering the promise of new, more prosperous lives for immigrants.

Blacks as Non-Factors

As an extreme example, in my youth, there were 14 Black families in Romney, where my grandparents lived. I knew them all. That was largely because of my grandfather. Many white people among the county population of about 2,000 rarely saw any Black folk, much less had any contact with any. While it is vaguely amusing that the papa of the only Jewish family in town was the long-term mayor, Black residents were not a political factor at all.

To various degrees, the same is true throughout the state. About 3.5% of West Virginians are Black and under 0.5% Hispanic. There, politicians are talking to poor white folk.

So, assuming that Obama is the Dem nominee, does he have any shot in West Virginia and Kentucky? Over at Salon, Kentuckian Dee Davis jumps into this, offering slim hope, but hope.

She accepts that there is considerable overt racism in both states, but also writes that such swing states "could be up for grabs." She quotes Dem pollster Anna Greenberg as saying, "This competitiveness reflects the ongoing problems facing the Republican brand, as well as the deep economic anxiety rural voters feel. Concerns about the cost of living are intense, particularly gas prices in a part of the country where many drive long distances to work. Moreover, we see real ambivalence about all three presidential choices -- each candidate has a real opportunity to define the race on his or her terms."

What's been missing is face time. For quite awhile, Dems have ceded rural America to Republicans. She also asserts "that when Democratic candidates run competitively in rural America, they win national elections. And when they get creamed in rural America, they lose."

Davis concludes, "How Obama fares in rural America may, in the end, have to do with whether he shows up."

I would add that the Republicans have done their absolute best to abuse voters and other Americans in every possible way. They may well have done it so severely that even such deep prejudices as about race may be less important than tossing the bastards.

If Hillary steps back, the best thing she could do for the party and nation would be to show Obama how to put an organization on the street level to get voters to the polls. The rest is, as Davis writes, up to him to visit, glad hand, and chat it up.

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1 comment:

Uncle said...

Just testifying here that a good many of my childhood neighbours in NH would absolutely give the worst WV has to offer a run for their money, not to mention a number of folk I've met and worked with since I moved to tropical MA. It's the geography between the ears that seems to matter. It is to wonder how Hillary, Wellesley '69, became the champion of the downtrodden. I read a quote from IN, I think, from a woman who said Hillary would be a better choice because her husband could help her out at tough moments. No please, don't go *there!* Perhaps we are looking at the wrong "ism" to explain this curiosity.