“Why do so many folks vote against their interests?” This is the most patronizing question in the American political lexicon. And it is one reason why more and more West Virginians are running away from the political establishment. We are tired of being treated like we are stupid.
The anger of Appalachian voters is rational. Though we may not be experts on every policy, we know a lot more about our own experience than the leadership of any party, think tank or newspaper.
We know that compared to our parents’ generation, we’ve got fewer jobs. We know those jobs pay less than they used to, and that those jobs are harder to get, and harder to keep. We know that all that economic turmoil has decimated every other institution in our communities. Schools, unions, churches, even extended families are disintegrated.
We know that overdose deaths and divorce and mental illness have skyrocketed. Is it any wonder why?
We know that too many government programs don’t work the way they’re supposed to. We know that for a hundred years, West Virginia workers have fueled America’s energy needs and filled the ranks of her military. And we know that our country has failed to repay those debts.
That’s why West Virginia is voting against the political establishment. (In the last 25 years, nearly one-fifth of West Virginia’s electorate switched parties — to independent.)
Most of all, we know that the only way change is going to come is from the ground up. That’s why most of us are more focused on making a difference than on watching CNN. That’s what we love about our state. We’re busy rebuilding our flood-ravaged communities, digging community gardens and walking trails, leveraging public-private partnerships (like the POWER program) to mentor homegrown entrepreneurs and workers, uniting police and communities to fight racism, reviving our main streets and strengthening local institutions: schools, congregations, unions, community foundations.
When we do get involved in politics, we tend to do so at the local level, for candidates we have the power to hold accountable. We focus on elections where we can make a difference. At the 21 nonpartisan candidate forums held by the Our Children, Our Future Campaign this year, no citizen talked about email servers or building a wall. They asked for drug treatment centers, grocery stores and jobs.
You can count on the political and media establishment learning all the wrong lessons from what happens on Nov. 8: that we are all backwards, that we vote against our own interests. You can count on them to ignore what’s happening at the grassroots.
And you can count on them to ignore the fact that the majority of West Virginians will likely cast their ballot for a third party, or won’t vote at all. West Virginia voters know that no single candidate will save us.
Only we can do that.
So, we will keep building our state’s future the only way real change ever happens: from the ground up. There is no doubt that West Virginia faces more than our fair share of challenges, but we believe in the Appalachian values of faith, family and resourcefulness. These are the values that will get us through these tough times, whether CNN notices or not.
Brandon Dennison is executive director of the Coalfield Development Corporation, and Stephen Smith is executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.