In the end Appalachia remained out of sync with much of America this year. West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and much of the hill country went for John McCain. Senator’s Obama’s message of “hope” did not play as well here as elsewhere.
This may seem a bit odd. The major targets of the election were Joe six-pack, Joe the plumber; Joe the ordinary man. Joe represented the disaffected males, the lost ones yearning for a simpler time and a better time. Enough Joes in other states voted for Obama to get him a spectacular victory in places like Ohio, Florida and Michigan.
But no one thought much of Joe the coal miner and not much thought has been given to what this election means to the many “Joes” who live in Appalachia. For too many generations, our Joes have either hunkered down and worked the coalfields, or eked out a meager living on rocky hillside terrain. Many survive on the cash economy, tinkering as best they could to put together a living. My father tells me his grandfather made mandolins to supplement his farm earnings and played them at family gatherings. He describes his upbringing as poor, but happy.
There were town centers where, as my dad put it, families would come to “trade” on the weekends. Baseball teams formed and played in the circuit of small towns. I once saw a 1914 picture of my grandfather as a member of one of those teams – called the Mize Nine. Today you could not get nine people together in Mize, now barely a wide place in the road.
It is a world where the much discussed disappearance of the middle class didn’t apply because it never existed. Like my father, many of them left for the factories of the north in the 40s and 50s. The culture was and is a story of unparalleled literary and artistic musical strength, but little in the way of jobs outside of coal.
Appalachian people were sometimes portrayed during the primary as racist, ignorant and pathetic. Appalachian towns like Inez, Kentucky – the site of LBJ’s proclamation of the war on poverty in 1964 – were visited and heralded as the towns to be rescued – only to once again be left behind.
In an era of demand for change, what can be expected of or for Appalachia? It is a land where minerals are king and largely owned by outside interests. It has resisted change and remains ridden with poverty and an image that defies change even in the face of success – and there are some success stories in Appalachia.
Barack Obama is the candidate known for his message of hope. He is known for his soaring speeches that lift us up. But, he is a Chicago kind of guy and seems to grasp the need to pay attention to the big cities and surrounding regions where 75 percent of Americans will likely live in the year 2050.
But, “hope” also applies to places like Appalachia. We don’t need to be caricatured in the national media as pathetic, poor and somehow outside the brave new world.
Yet we should not expect that help will come from Washington and solve the problem. It is dawning on all of us that what is big and glittery may not be what we seek. The environmental, energy and fiscal crises have converged to drive home what Katrina only began – the need for a realignment of our priorities.
Those priorities are not fundamentally about big new investments in infrastructure or Washington support for improved education. Those would be welcome, but the change that will work long-term comes from the local level, from the ability of smaller places to reinvent themselves.
I see some signs of this. Places that were left behind or written off are coming alive once recalling the early days of the Mize Nine as we seek to build locally what is beyond our scale in those more glamorous venues.
Being “left behind” is something that implies that others must reach out and provide the rescue. In Inez, the people are speaking and they are saying we will take control of our own destiny. We want to write a new story that transcends poverty and the painting of images by the 24 hour news outlets. Perhaps, instead of trying to catch-up, these places can leap forward to lead the way toward local prosperity and a better quality of life. Will we in Appalachia now finally make the intentional choices to secure a better future or will we continue to let others tell our story of woe and misery?
The truth is that the story won’t change if we don’t begin to write and tell our own stories. As the new administration grapples with the many issues it faces – health care, energy and fiscal distress to name just a few – it should remember the words of Colin Powell: “All villages matter.” Small places – and big ones – do not need Washington to save them, just to acknowledge that they are important and deserving in their own way.
So, as President-elect Obama looks to the future, he should grasp the opportunity that is upon us to build great communities in all corners of the nation under the new rules of the game of the 21st century. Appalachia may not have voted with him, but we are still part of his constituency; “red” America, as he suggested last night, is still part of his America.
Our new President needs to realize – as do we – that the tired old policies of Washington will not work any longer – “handouts” have never been the answer. And, as one voter here said: “We intend to hold Obama accountable in his presidency.” She paused before adding: “And, we expect him to hold us accountable as well.”
Sylvia L. Lovely is the Executive Director/CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities and the founder and president of the NewCities Institute. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her blog at sylvia.newcities.org.