On November 5, The New York Times web site ran an interactive map illustrating which of the nation’s counties went more strongly for McCain in 2008 than for Bush in 2004. The counties, as it turned out, were clustered around Appalachia. Pundits were quick to jump on this data point. “Appalachia Only Part of Country Where McCain Did Better Than Bush” ran a headline on The Huffington Post. “Ah, yes, Appalachia. … Obviously concerned about marginal tax rates for those earning over $250,000 a year, I suppose,” Andrew Sullivan remarked. The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Chicago Tribune all ran a November 8 AP story about the reddening of Appalachia and the Deep South, a story that seems to validate the “Appalachia Problem” decried in The New Yorker’s October 6 issue.
At a time when the American mood is youthful, hopeful, and expansive, it would be easy to cast Appalachia as the foil—tired, wary, and recoiling. Whether through the lens of pity or contempt, Appalachia has often been seen as the odd region out. Isolation and neglect have made it what it is, goes the long-standing attitude, and the result is at best inept and hapless—at worst violent and ignorant. But after a month spent in southeast Ohio where we volunteered as organizers for the Obama campaign, our impression could hardly contrast more sharply with this bleak picture.
What we saw were machinists and truck drivers, farmers and Wal-Mart employees, NRA members and Vietnam vets who so enthusiastically decked out their pickups with “Rednecks for Obama” signs that it was impossible for us to keep enough in stock. We encountered tableaus pulled straight from Walker Evans photographs but populated by tough-minded, well-informed voters, happy to chat a while about healthcare or taxes. One man came out of his trailer to greet us and, leaning against a refrigerator that was coming to pieces in his front lawn, began to wax eloquent about the Colin Powell endorsement he had just seen on Meet the Press. Another emerged from his sagging shanty to yell, “This here’s an Obama holler. Ain’t safe in this holler if you don’t like Obama.”
We found no shortage of people—traditionally educated or not—who were shocked to see neighbors voting against their own interests. “Obama’s for people like us,” was one of the refrains we came across most frequently, often followed by expressions of incredulity aimed at those folks that “ain’t got two nickles to rub together” yet had McCain-Palin signs in their yards. An old man told us he was voting for Obama because “we can’t take four more years of stupid.” A no-nonsense woman described McCain as having “one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.”
But it was by no means just the Obama die-hards who belied the stereotypes about the region. The undecided voters we met up in the hills had a willingness to listen and, when it came down to it, to be convinced. This willingness stood in stark contrast to anything we had encountered while canvassing in more affluent, cosmopolitan areas in Columbus and New Hampshire. Many of the Appalachians we met seemed equipped with a rare, ready acknowledgment that they didn’t have it all figured out just yet, which went hand-in-hand, more often than not, with an eagerness to get the facts straight. One woman was grateful almost to tears when she heard that Obama was not actually a friend to terrorists, because she very much liked his economic policies. She and her fellow undecided neighbors were willing to listen and learn because they did not have the luxury of relying on abstract and sometimes self-righteous ideology. In the country’s most bare-bones areas, a change in policy could, quite literally, mean the difference between feeding one’s family and going without.
In a place more or less ignored for the past 300-odd years, except when being ridiculed in hillbilly jokes or stripped of natural resources, it is hardly surprising that we came upon some instances of distrust among inhabitants of all ages. There’s a fatalistic Appalachian saying, “If the good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise,” and we did run into a few who figured the creek would just keep on rising no matter which candidate ended up in the White House. But far more striking was the prevalence of a youthful conviction—sometimes coming from people who had lived by that creek for nearly a century—that something had to give. Out here especially, it seems, trust is renewable.
Yes, Appalachia is still steeped in poverty. Yes, there are some gloomy souls stuck fast in their ways and suspicious of change. And, no, the numbers don’t lie: the 22% of counties that voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004 were largely Appalachian. But it would be a mistake to conclude from those numbers that Appalachia is not sharing in the moment’s resurgence of American optimism. In fact, given the region’s long history of abuse and neglect, the exuberance we saw in those hardscrabble hills is all the more dazzling and brave.