Saturday, May 17, 2008

Obama's Appalachia problem stems from gender, class and economic concerns, not its heritage

Appalachian scholar Ron Eller, left, takes issue with journalist Jonathan Tilove's analysis, published here, that Barack Obama's problem with rural voters is fundamentally an Appalachian problem, stemming from the rural region's traditional culture.

"Such characterizations of Appalachia not only obscure the historical diversity of the region and project a static view of human culture but also ignore most of the recent scholarship on Appalachia that contradicts the idea of Appalachian 'otherness' and attributes its history and economic problems to political struggles that have shaped the rest of the nation," Eller, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, writes in the Daily Yonder. "Appalachian voting patterns are much more a reflection of fundamental class, racial, and gender differences in America than they are of any ethnic heritage within the region."

Eller acknowledges the role of race and education in Obama's poor performance in Appalachia, but says prejudice in the region "is often a reflection of more deeply seated insecurities that are rooted in gender and class. For blue collar voters in Appalachia, economic concerns, not Appalachian identity, shaped their decisions at the polls. Job insecurity, rising food and gas prices, and uncertain access to health care and education turned Appalachian voters toward the more working class message of Hillary Clinton, especially among women who occupy the center of the modern mountain economy."

Eller concludes, "Obama has yet to learn this basic truth about Appalachia. The cultural conservatism that has often fueled a misunderstanding of the region’s history and problems is grounded in economic conditions, hopes, and values that reflect those of the larger society. Appalachia is only the “other America” if we want to ignore the contradictions and challenges of our time. We do so at our own peril." (Read more)

Eller is author of Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, and the forthcoming Uneven Ground, a book about the development of Appalachia since World War II. He is a founding member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The maps below appeared in The New York Times today with a column by Charles M. Blow analyzing Appalachia's vote in the primaries and Obama's prospects there for the general election.

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