Kentuckian Silas House is one of the most popular southern novelists in the country. His essay for The Atlantic today, A Warning from a Democrat In A Red State explores the concept of collective guilt. Should he-- an activist, environmental hero and outspoken gay man, for example-- be blamed, along with every one of the 816,184 Democrats who voted against McConnell (33,710 more Kentuckians than the 772,474 who voted for Biden), for McConnell's sins? "Time and again," he wrote, "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 him. 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?"
It's worth keeping in mind that what House is saying about Kentucky is something that could also be felt by our comrades in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia... until a few years ago, Virginia, etc. "Tens of thousands of us here in Kentucky," wrote House, "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 among poor and working-class people throughout the South, include 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 of my own 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.
This morning, my friend Helen was complaining about an interview with UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild on a video I posted yesterday. Helen said she found it "fascinating" but that "other thoughts percolated up after I had some time to think about it. I especially disagree with her take that Trump supporters who were conned by him should not be held accountable. That is despicable and unacceptable. So sedition by congressional members should be excused because they were 'conned' and therefore not their fault?"
Well, no. I'm certain Hochschild, wasn't talking about Louie Gohmert or Ted Cruz, but about the same folks who populate House's books and who he wasn't throwing the pity party for above. "Her stance," continued Helen, "is a knife into democracy by bleeding heart liberals. Did Lincoln try to make peace with the confederacy? Hell no. He fought the battle.
We are at war for democracy and we must fight for it. You cannot make peace until the war is won. Lincoln knew it. Does Biden? Probably not. Reaching out an olive branch in the midst of war just looks weak and pathetic and the other side could not care less. Robert Reich gave her a pass. He did not raise critical points. Reality needs to be asserted with full frontal force. You cannot compromise democracy."
I reminded her that Lincoln had already decided on a path of reconciliation with the traitors instead of hanging them. Helen-- whose father, a Tankie, was immensely influential on both of us-- thinks the traitors should have been sent to the gallows as well. "Amen," she-- a dyed-in-the-wool atheist-- said. Hichschild, she acknowledged "did mean the poor schmucks who voted to keep an authoritarian in office. And I do not excuse the 'poor schmucks'-- they are supporting sedition and insisting Republicans in Congress do if they want to be re-elected. They are the ones keeping seditionists in power. NOT off the hook in my book. Amends can be made AFTER all is exposed and those held accountable, NOT before... She is giving bleeding heart liberals a lousy impotent stance."
That acorn sure didn't fall far from the tree. I remember arguing with her father in the summer of 1968 about the Russian tanks plowing into Prague. Her father was fine with it. I was flipping out. Decades later I was in the White House with Lou Reed, who introduced me to then-Czechoslovakia's then-President Václav Havel and we talked about the folks who I have recently come to learn are called Tankies. I know I need to write about that but meanwhile, can I suggest this powerful essay by Noah Smith from New Years Eve?