It seems to have been forgotten in the mainstream media, but West Virginia’s Democratic Party dominated the state’s politics and held majorities on both houses of the legislature from the 1930s until 2014. Despite that recent history, it’s typically pigeonholed as a “red state.” As the Democrats’ fortunes fell, the party fell into disarray and the media fell back on stereotypes.
That may change. On September 30, 2023, the party adopted a resolution supporting the 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights, which updates an economic program laid out by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address. In that speech, Roosevelt asserted that the “inalienable” political rights upon which the nation had been founded were no longer enough to ensure freedom. “As our industrial economy expanded,” said Roosevelt, “these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”
Roosevelt’s list of economic rights was recently updated by historian Harvey J. Kaye and Alan Minsky and has been promoted by the group Minsky leads, the Progressive Democrats of America. I recently spoke with Troy Miller, a member of the West Virginia party’s Executive Committee who introduced the resolution. The Executive Committee adopted it unanimously, Miller said, making it the third state chapter to do so.
FDR’s policies helped the Democrats dominate West Virginia’s politics for more than 80 years. Could it happen again? That would require a major reset in mainstream coverage of the state as a hard-right, rural “other,” which fails to capture the nuances of the state and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nowhere is this misfire more evident than in the coverage of McDowell County, the state’s poorest, which I researched in depth when I was Bernie Sanders’s speechwriter in 2016. That year, the life expectancy for men there was the lowest of any county in the nation, with an average age at death just over 63 years. People there only lived, on average, about a year longer than people in impoverished Haiti.
Unfortunately, coastal journalists seem to view rural people as an alien species. When they write about them, they sound like amateur entomologists pondering the consciousness of bugs under glass. Snake handling often features in their coverage of West Virginia, even though it’s only practiced in a handful of tiny, mostly informal churches.
“In W.Va., Snake Handling Is Still Considered a Sign of Faith,” reads the headline of a November 2011 story in The Washington Post. But is it, really? An expert quoted in the article says the practice “boasted several thousand practitioners” at its height, “mostly, although not exclusively, in the Appalachian states.” In other words, snake handling is rare everywhere, including West Virginia. Nevertheless, the Post uses what it calls “this tiny church in an unincorporated hamlet of 1,191 souls” to characterize the faith practices of a state with 1.78 million inhabitants.
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“Penetrating a Closed, Isolated Society in Appalachia,” reads a 2014 headline about McDowell in The New York Times. But “closed” and “isolated” from whom? Certainly not each other. Their reluctance to share their personal tragedies with an urban reporter does not seem like eccentric behavior.
According to the media narrative, in 2016 the reptile-loving hillbillies of journalistic imagination embraced another cold-blooded creature: Donald Trump. A typical post-election photo essay on McDowell County was headlined, “This County Gives a Glimpse at the America That Voted Trump Into Office.”
Step right up, city folks! See the strange creatures with whom you share a nation!
The county’s voting results fed the media’s perennial appetite for exoticizing rural people. And yet, despite headlines like “Why the Poorest County in West Virginia Has Faith in Donald Trump,” the picture wasn’t nearly as clear as their coverage would have it. For one thing, McDowell County’s population was 8.2 percent Black, which isn’t dramatically different from the national average of 12.4 percent. And yet, Black people rarely figure in the condescending, Beverly Hillbillies–themed narratives.
They get the politics wrong, too. Here’s how McDowell County voted in the 2016 primaries:
Donald Trump: 785
Hillary Clinton: 817
Bernie Sanders: 1,488
That’s right: the democratic socialist got more votes than Trump or Clinton, by a factor of nearly two to one.
The general election results were as follows:
Hillary Clinton: 1,438 (less than Sanders received in the primary)
Donald Trump: 4,629
Decline to participate: 11,433
That’s a decisive victory—for political alienation. The nonparticipation rate was much higher than that of the country as a whole. Only 34.7 percent of eligible voters voted in McDowell’s general election, versus 56.9 percent nationwide.
“Trump country”? Nationally, 27 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. In McDowell, that percentage was a slightly lower (if by a statistically insignificant margin) 26.45 percent.
Yes, Trump won decisively in McDowell among those who voted. But McDowell County isn’t “Trump country.” It’s “None of the Above” country.
And yet, even though Donald Trump only won the votes of about one in four voters, the county’s residents soon became the poster children for right-wing “deplorability.”
Trump screwed them afterward, of course. Things kept getting worse: drug and alcohol deaths, suicides, rampaging addiction, and a shortage of jobs. The McDowell County Commission sued three drug companies for their roles in the opioid epidemic, although few people thought anything would come of it. Nothing did—but at least they tried.
McDowell, like the country overall, is divided. But the county and the state are not one-dimensional, right-wing caricatures. It’s true that they don’t like elitists, which is how a lot of Democrats probably seem to them. But they apparently do like people who stand up to powerful interests and doesn’t talk down to them.
Democrats recognize the challenges they face. “When you do an informal poll of people on the street,” Miller said, “and you ask them, what do Democrats stand for? There’s nothing coherent…[just] a laundry list of talk radio or Fox News–type issues.”
An Economic Bill of Rights is clear and easy to explain. It’s also opposed by forces that are despised by voters from left to right: billionaires and corporations. Will it work in West Virginia? Some Democrats are hopeful. “We are reclaiming our own story and message,” said Miller. “For the next eight months we’ll be able to recruit candidates and get all of these candidates on the same page, fighting for these issues up and down the ballot.”
Rather than demonizing or stereotyping voters in places like West Virginia, national party leaders should take bolder steps to help their residents. And those who rightfully fear for democracy’s future would be well advised to remember Roosevelt’s 1944 words. “People who are hungry and out of a job,” FDR said, “are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”