Most of my ancestors are Scots-Irish, some are English but that is heavily diluted over the several centuries since the Kendricks arrived in the middle colonies in the late 1600s and my branch migrated slowly down through the Piedmont and into the Carolinas. On the other side, it's all about the hillbillies, folks who came down from the mountains after multigenerational sojourn to meet other folks and then decide to produce a branch of the family tree that includes the likes of me.
Point is, the sudden and uncomfortable prominence of Appalachia in politics hits close to home for me. These are my mountains, too. I grew up in sight of them, spent considerable time visiting there, and for me it really does feel like home. But it also feels out of time, in both senses; a part of the country the rest of us (and that is the proper term; I'm an outsider for sure) never waited for as we rushed westward and future-ward.
And now the hills have cleared their throat and been given a chance to pay back the rest of the country for progressing without its permission by having a unprecedented influence in the Democratic presidential primary race, after long being largely ignored in politics and if the mine safety issue is any indication, being ignored by the protections of the law as well.
Right now the people of Appalachia think the Democrats, at least one faction, are coming back to them in strength. One actually is, the one that supports little things like mine safety, public works, education and environmental protection so there is not only a lovely land in which to live proud but one in which it is safe to drink the water and breathe the air, to take in the vista and live off a land that will no longer poison them horribly in fifteen different ways.
The problem is, that's the faction represented by the candidate that they have been strongly encouraged to despise.
Appalachia's being sold a simple message: Everything that is good for you isn't. Those low country folk... they just want to... interfere... and thus enters fear.
It's easy to sell to the upland folk; from their perspective, most of their ancestors came to America as conscripts or indentured servants, fought the native tribes or once free to migrate moved away from the shame of servitude to start their own freeholds in the hills. They came in part because they could not stand the company of people who dared look down on them, they came in part because once free their better place was land similar in some respects to their ancient home in Scotland, rugged and in quite a few places covered in trees. And they had people up there, and people coming there. And it was theirs, all theirs, a vast region of little use and comfort to the English settlers.. though in time their ancestors and their money and, yep, their guns and laws would come to assert their authority yet again.
There is an ancient resentment in the mountains, a war that began centuries ago, an emnity among the British tribes that has echoes going back for millennia as wave after wave crashed against the shores of Avalon...then came across the Atlantic.
For the Appalachians, in a proud fashion, see themselves as a New Scotland, never quite having success over the far wealthier and more powerful outside society...but never surrendering an inch willingly on any issue, even the ones they know to be horrid...not if the matter is pressed by outsiders.
It is easy to go to Appalachia and play to xenophobia; it's been proven for generations to be a very sound core belief from the perspective of the region. Outsiders come to take the gold, the copper, the coal, the lumber and the blood of sons and daughters. The come to take the land and the shops and few skilled jobs required of a dispersed and self-sufficient people. Worst of all, they come and snicker.
So, for the first time in decades, and perhaps once the primary is done the last time, Appalachia is important in American politics and being reminded that it is despite a centuries head start significantly lagging to places new settled in the west in almost every social and economic category.
Well, that might be. But we vote, too, is the thinking.
The Clintons have found this old knife in the mountain road, the edge and bitterness and resentment of a region of the country that has done its share to support America and more, and asked for nothing more in return than to be left to itself in peace, a place where progress has come slowly, the protections of law and right that apply thanks to progress have come slowly too, and thus the prosperity that has surged in the past century elsewhere in the country has left Appalachia high and dry, some it fueled at the expense of the mountains.
But Appalachia votes, too. And in Clinton they have found a latter-day champion and a chance to stick it to the rest of the country if it chooses to take one more step forward into the future without their by-our-leave.
It might have happened anyway, given the particularities of the Democratic primary race. A urbane, well-educated, well-off, well-spoken, forward-looking son of a recent immigrant who did not share the country-boy-can-survive ethos would have been a tough sell in the most affable of Appalachian moods. Once it was pointed out, frequently, that Barack Obama just happened to be black, deep cultural resentments, the ancient rivalry of poor whites against all African-Americans but especially the highly successful ones, were fanned back to prominence.
This is not racism so much as resentment made easy to focus; that so many groups and regions have prospered but Appalachia has been left high and dry...that it is of Appalachia's own, long-reasserted choice is not the point. The point is, well, looks like you need our votes this year...and we haven't decided if there is a price we even want to ask for our support, as far as you are concerned.
The lasting danger is this is not a switch that can be turned on and off; it is an axe to the tree of civility, a possibly mortal wound that the Clinton campaign has delivered. The likely lasting consequence is to turn Appalachia into a solidly Republican bastion for the next two generations because of this stunt, forcing the Democrats to choose whether to compete on conservatism in the states containing this region or to shake it off and migrate their support and message elsewhere, most likely westward, where the future of America has been heading all along.
Ideally, the Appalachia region is brought into the Third Millennium with the rest of us, but history long before the arrival of the British set the pattern in play - that once the Scots found their new mountains, they were never going to let go of their ways, good and bad alike. It has forged a special strength in this people...but many tragic tales are played out as strife among the strong. It does not mean that both are right; it just means a fight is going to happen.
I hold the Clintons responsible for this fight. I do not think they are even aware of just how dangerous a match that they have lit by this.