A Warning From a Democrat in a Red State

Democrats need to see beyond an electoral map to acknowledge that people are pushing for liberal ideas even in the reddest of areas.

A demonstration in Berea, Kentucky (Meg Wilson)

As a novelist, I often travel the country to talk about my books. During those events, almost invariably someone will ask me why my home state of Kentucky is so conservative. Many of these people ask why we’ve kept Mitch McConnell in office for almost 36 years. They take their anger at him out on me.

Once, a fellow writer told me I shouldn’t have been invited to a literary conference because of my state’s complicity in McConnell’s obstructionism during Barack Obama’s presidency. “Aren’t you ashamed to be a Kentuckian?” he asked, spittle flying from his lips. Recently, during a virtual event while I was discussing the theme of forgiveness in my novels, a woman typed into the comments: “I guess we’ll just have to forgive you for Mitch McConnell.”

Time and again, I’ve been called out for his presence in the Senate—during Q&As in front of a thousand people and in whispers at the signing table after events. For all of these people, I was the living embodiment of every voter in the state who had betrayed them. I can’t blame them for hating McConnell. Hardly anyone has done more to impede our democracy, and empower Donald Trump, than he has. The latest example of his constant failure of the American people came last week when he blocked a vote on $2,000 in stimulus money, denying low-income and middle-class Americans an increase in much-needed aid.

Sometimes it feels as though all citizens of red states are lumped together, as if everyone here, especially those in rural areas, is the same. In early December when McConnell shot down the $908 billion stimulus plan, Twitter lit up with hatred for Kentuckians. Shortly before the November election, the MSNBC journalist Joy Reid tweeted her dismay with the state’s voters. Her followers responded by talking about the stupidity of Kentuckians, many posting memes of shirtless men with mullets or declarations that all people in the state are white supremacists. After the election, the hashtag #FuckKentucky was popular on Twitter. Social media is not known for its decorum, but what troubled me more than the hashtag was the way Kentuckians were painted with broad strokes as hicks, hillbillies, and a host of derogatory terms who live in “the armpit of America” and who wouldn’t deserve pity even if we were “ravaged by COVID.” These volatile responses trouble me, not only because I don’t like being reduced to a stereotype, but also because that response feeds the GOP rhetoric I hear at home: The liberals just think you’re deplorable, so why not flex your muscle any way you can to spit in their faces?

Tens of thousands of us here in Kentucky are fighting for progressive causes, even as we are forced to defend ourselves against other liberals in the country who should be supporting us. I’m not organizing a pity party. Instead, I’m issuing a warning: Everyday Democrats need to see beyond the electoral map to acknowledge the folks pushing for liberal ideas even in the reddest of areas. If they don’t, the cultural divide will grow only wider.

I am ashamed of McConnell, but I am never ashamed to be a Kentuckian. My state is a complicated, beautiful place with a rich heritage and people who have contributed a huge amount to the American experiment. I will defend the state to all outsiders, even as I complain about its flaws.

Those flaws feel glaring after I see election returns. This time around, 62 percent of Kentuckians voted for Trump and nearly 58 percent cast ballots for McConnell. I don’t understand why he continues to win. I used to think it was because many Kentuckians were working so hard just to make ends meet that they didn’t have time to be informed enough about what McConnell was doing. Then I realized that I was just as busy as anyone else, yet I managed to keep up with the news. I saw that my response was condescending to my own people. Maybe, as McConnell has said, Kentuckians want to hold on to his power. But from my point of view, he rarely uses that power to benefit us. All I know is that we don’t always vote Republican. Bill Clinton easily won Kentucky two times. Our state has had only six Republican governors in the past 100 years, and none of them was elected to a second term. Our current Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, has become a hero to many of us, even across party lines, with his tireless leadership through the pandemic.

I do understand the inclination to wave off a large part of an electorate and to close up ranks. Over the past 10 years, my husband and I have gradually moved farther away from home, first to a college town straddling the line between Appalachia and the Bluegrass and, last year, to one of the two blue islands in the wide red sea of our state. The city of Lexington is a place of diversity, horse farms, and lots of Appalachian refugees like me, who are eager for a life in a more progressive place, but within an easy drive of our homeland.

I miss hearing the dialect of my people in Eastern Kentucky, being called “honey” by strangers, and how the mist creeps over the ridge in the evenings. I long to be close to the history of my family: the creeks where they have waded, the hills where they have worked and loved.

As much as I am homesick while living in the city, though, I appreciate being in a place that flies rainbow flags on Main Street during the annual Pride celebration and possesses a beautiful Black Lives Matter mural downtown. The city has a diverse immigrant population and takes a principled stand on equality for all of its citizens.

Injustice and discrimination happen here, like anywhere else, but many of us on the ground work at the grassroots level to nudge the place toward more progressive thought and action. For example, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust has bought more than 50,000 acres of threatened land to save it from devastation and let it grow wild; among the major leaders of Southern Crossroads, an organization working toward a multiracial alliance of poor and working-class people throughout the South, are two working-class Kentuckians, and the group will be focusing on voter engagement in the state beginning this year; over the past three decades, Kentucky Refugee Ministries has welcomed and helped resettle more than 16,000 refugees in the Commonwealth.

Although I could easily find sanctuary in my blue oasis and ignore the many Kentuckians who voted against people like me, I must also remind myself that sweeping generalizations simply fuel cultural fires. Pride events are popping up all over the state, including in the small town of Morehead, better known for being the hometown of Kim Davis, the former county clerk who became an icon to many evangelicals after she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Thousands of rural Kentuckians turned out to march for justice for Breonna Taylor, raising their voices against police brutality and racial injustice.

Yes, the majority of voters in Kentucky are fervent supporters of Trump and McConnell. In Laurel County, where I grew up, 22,040 votes—78 percent—were cast for McConnell. Yet, when I saw the name-calling on social media about our responsibility for the demise of the nation, my mind flew to the 17 percent—4,883 souls—back home who cast ballots against him. They made a principled stand against enormous peer pressure that people outside the region cannot possibly understand. Some who voted against McConnell and Trump were even accused of being “traitors” and “murderers.” As a gay man, I left home to feel safer and more comfortable. I think of the 4,883 there who are fighting back, and I am thankful for each one.

Some Kentuckians get angry at me for criticizing the state. I understand why. When the entire world has told you your whole life that you are in the wrong, you don’t want to hear it from anyone else, certainly not a native of the place. But I complain about the way my state votes because I love my state. And I complain about Democrats outside of the state because I believe in the party and I believe it can gain a foothold even in the reddest of areas. More progressives live in red states than are acknowledged, outnumbered though we may be. Fellow Democrats should remember those of us who are working against the odds—most of us quietly. Think of those 4,883 people in my home county. Think of how they deserve respect for their defiance.