What West Virginia is saying at the polls

West Virginia. Photo by Jedediah Purdy.

Last night, Donald Trump won 77 percent of the primary vote in West Virginia, his first contest since becoming his party’s nominee. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who is also her party’s presumptive nominee, lost the Democratic primary by almost sixteen points to Bernie Sanders. The county where I was born and lived most of my life before leaving for college at 18 gave Sanders his highest share in the state, over 61 percent. That county, by the way, is called Calhoun, a legacy of its 1856 creation in what were then the Virginia highlands; its county seat, though, is Grantsville, named for the general who crushed the Confederacy. That divided history has never really ended.

West Virginia is what realignment looks like. In 1980, it was one of only six states where voters supported the flagging Democrat Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. In 1988, it was one of only ten to support Democrat Michael Dukakis – and the only one with any claim to be in the South. In 2012, Barack Obama won only 36 percent of the vote against Mitt Romney. It was the nadir – so far – in a short, steep slide.

Notoriously, Obama gave up almost 43 percent of Democratic primary votes in 2012 to Keith Judd, a political nonentity who was in prison at the time, suggesting many voters were there for anyone but the president. Commentators attributed the bizarre result to racism, and West Virginia has shown up high on Google metadata counts of racist search terms – a newly favored way to measure attitudes that many people know better than to express to researchers.

On Twitter last night, people who have never been near Appalachia, emboldened by the sense that We Are All Nate Silvers Now, fought over exit polls showing that many Sanders voters said they would support Trump over Clinton in the fall. Some said they would support Trump over Sanders, and some Clinton voters also said they’d be voting Trump. The exasperation of poll-readers is understandable. This tells us nothing, they say, except that West Virginia is being West Virginia again.

I haven’t lived in West Virginia for a long time, and I haven’t become a certified expert in my time away, but this is what I recall from the county where I grew up. It is, of course, my own impression, and although I offer it to make larger suggestions about the meaning of the primary results, in the end it is just my sense of the place. It is proffer, not pronouncement.

The author in Appalachia.

Many people I knew in childhood were openly racist, but in a desperate and ignorant way – not just in the sense that all such racism is ignorant, but because of the overwhelming whiteness of the place. In the majority of my years in public high school, not one student in my country-wide school identified as black. Race was more myth than experience. I still wonder just what the slurs that people used against absent others meant to them.

What mattered concretely there was class. The gradations were small, but so much turned on them. The middle class, such as it was, encompassed teachers and a handful of professionals and county bureaucrats. There was a respectable working class, with regular jobs as gas-well tenders, welders, loggers, secretaries, and school-bus drivers. Many of these men “worked away” building pipelines. And there were single mothers on welfare, dads on disability, drunks and addicts. I never saw or heard of the parents of the small brood of lookalike children who would emerge, unwashed, from a trailer near the back of one hollows to ride my bus to school.

There was a democratic spirit among kids until adolescence, at least at the poor and entirely rural elementary school where I sometimes attended classes, dances, and fairs, and where some of my friends and Little League teammates went. After that, though, it might as well have been a caste system. Even bright kids from poor families were put in their place, with slights from teachers as well as classmates. One of the few truly dedicated teachers I met there once looked at one of the smarter students in the class, child of a single mother who lived in a shack down a hollow, and remarked quietly to me, “He is very dirty.” A year later, that student was one of the untouchables who lurked on the periphery of the school during breaks and banded together so as not to be harassed. It was as if his caste status had risen up to consume his promise. When people talk about identity being socially constructed, I think of him: the construction is often through the infliction of wounds, until the hurt person cannot forget who he is supposed to be. People know their place because they have been put in it until it feels natural. Class is not just something impersonal, which you are born into; it is something that is done to you until it takes hold.

With the classes so close together in every sense – in the lunchroom and on buses together, scattered across the same countryside, probably distant cousins and separated by a single income bracket or a few bad decisions – the distinctions mattered fiercely. At the root of it seemed to me to be fear: fear of tumbling down into disreputability, and the unclean, disorderly life that waited there. There were vivid rumors, among adults as well as school children, of what waited up the hollows: incestuous patriarchs, pigs fed on poached meat, whiskey-fueled orgies. Perhaps the fear was bloated by the wish, but the fear was real. Disgust and cruelty were ways to keep at a distance what felt much too close.

It wasn’t all so gothic, and the fear definitely was not just in people’s heads. There wasn’t enough work to go around, and much of it was bad work. Even the skilled work was often dangerous, and injuries meant unemployment and the dangers of addiction. Many people owned a little land, but land wasn’t worth much, and not many owned the rights to the natural gas underneath it, which was. The land was exhausted before most people living there had been born, eroded after clear-cuts and under intensive grazing during a sheep-farming boom that provided wool for uniforms during World War One. In the coalfields, the unions had managed to wring decent pay and security from back-breaking jobs digging someone else’s mineral wealth from the ground. Natural gas and timber workers took what they could get. Now, with coal jobs collapsed and the whole industry following, much the same is true for the miners.

West Virginia is more than 51 percent rural, the third-highest rate in the country after Vermont and New Hampshire. It is 93 percent non-Hispanic white, and the black population is minute in most of rural counties outside the coalfields and the capital city, Charleston. It was an early epicenter in the national spread of opiate addiction and overdose. It has one of the oldest and least healthy populations in the country. The low support for Obama is typical of Southern whites and white people in some other rural areas. But those figures pop into view, along with many pathologies and varieties of deprivation, because it is the only state located (almost) entirely in Appalachia, with no prosperous new-economy regions or diverse cities to offset its rural core.

A generally suspicious and pissed-off attitude toward politics generally is not hard to understand in West Virginia, and is a more plausible explanation for the ideological see-sawing of the exit polls than any grand strategy. Nearly a third of Democratic primary voters said they had a family member in the coal industry. Coal workers have been in an impossible situation for years. Mining employment has fallen from over 120,000 at its 1950s peak to between 20,000 and 25,000; union membership has fallen sharply; and miners, whose culture has historically involved giving the finger to the company, have been widely convinced that environmental policies from the Obama administration are to blame. Meanwhile the company bosses, whom no miner loves, have aggressively bought political influence, including a state supreme court judge so blatantly funded and elected to reverse a ruling against Massey Coal that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him off the case. The repugnant Don Blankenship, dictatorial head of Massey when its safety-flouting practices killed 29 miners in the 2010 Big Branch explosion, was recently sentenced to one year in prison – a political victory for the ambitious federal prosecutor who put him there, but a modest sentence for what was arguably mass manslaughter. Miners have watched their industry and unions dying as mountaintop removal wrecks their landscape on the way out. Everything Bernie Sanders says about a rigged economy and political system is matter-of-fact in their experience, and so is much of what Donald Trump says on the same themes. If you want to run a grievance-based campaign, well, there are plenty of grievances here. The fact that one of those campaigns is fraudulent does not make the grievances it is exploiting any less acute.

I voted for Bernie Sanders in North Carolina, but I can’t pretend that his fifteen-point victory in my home state is an embrace of his Scandinavian-style democratic socialism. Plenty of ancestral Democrats and alienated Independents who will likely support Trump in the fall voted for Sanders because he isn’t Hillary Clinton. But it isn’t as simple as that, either. Obama carried my little home district, nearly all white and very poor, in the general elections of 2008 and 2012. In my home county tonight, Sanders won 693 votes – 431 more than Clinton, but also 213 more than Trump.

West Virginia is neither a secret socialist stronghold nor a racist fever-dream. It is one of several bleeding edges of a sharply unequal country, where people who never had much are feeling as pressed as they can remember ever being. Some are bigots. Many are not. Some, no doubt, find that Trump’s cocktail of arrogance and disgust, grievance and triumphalism, reassuringly resembles their own psychic survival strategies, blown up into world-historical dimensions. Others are voting for the socialist for the same reason they voted for the Chicago community organizer: a desire for a more equal society, born out of the lived experience of inequality. Maybe future organizing and leadership, like the decades-long fight that first built the unions and the Democratic party in the coalfields, will show that they are not alone in that.