Appalachian Sunrise: Why I Must Let Bernie Sanders Go


Yet another generation of blighted homes and businesses dots the hills, hollows and near-ghost towns of the central Appalachian landscape – visceral evidence of the 2008 recession that further destabilized an already rickety sub-economy.

Equally palpable in the wake of the latest economic downturn is the region’s deep sense of disenfranchisement and contempt for government in general, and federalism in particular.

Indeed, pro-Trump scuttle here in middle Appalachia ironically turns on their candidate’s stated agenda to depose what one follower describes as “faceless power brokers that control Americans’ lives from distant corner offices and marbled halls of power.”

This narrative of victimization at the hands of Big Brother remains a driving force in the ongoing conservatization of this once resolutely Democratic voting bloc – a narrative Trump has co-opted, framing every new EPA regulation, every presidential directive to reduce dependence on coal as yet another assault on the working class and poor.

Given the broad and inherent distrust in federalism, Trump’s Appalachian formula may prove as unsettlingly simple as the one employed during a campaign stop in Charleston, W. Va., last May: 1. Blame Washington; and 2. Let the anti-government sentiment do the rest.

Meanwhile nothing is simple about Hillary Clinton’s status in these parts. Anecdotally and statistically, no politician engages and polarizes the hill country as she.

Clinton draws strong turnouts in her trips to central Appalachia, the majority set in urban centers. But in a characteristic act of Clintonian moxie, Clinton in May veered off the interstate and headed straight for the heart of the West Virginia coal fields, where she anticipated and sure enough got a mixed reception.

Following a short stump speech rife with the usual wonkish details, Clinton was confronted with questions about earlier remarks indicating she would “put coal companies and coal miners out of work” as part of a renewable energy plan.

She gave a halting apology that rang shrill to the gathered and opened the floodgates for critics, including West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin: “There is no way you can some into this type of a setting, where people are hurting so bad, unless you wanted to help them [and] I know that is not in her heart.”

Lost in the bustle and parsing of her motives were details for how a Clinton administration would work with state and local bodies to improve conditions for some of the very people heard protesting outside the venue: earmarking $30 billion to retrain former coal miners for other jobs; maintaining health care and retirement funds for mineworkers; and vetting businesses for locations hit hardest by layoffs.

Joe Manchin missed that part. And so did most of the reporters in attendance.

Like many progressives here and elsewhere, I struggle to come to terms with Hillary Clinton’s perplexing humanity and priorities. I’d hoped to live in Bernie’s world despite the long odds, and Hillary’s costly gaffes do little to help me get past what might have been.

But from where I sit as the sun rises over the summer hills, the pending election is among many other things a referendum on government’s shared, moral responsibility to the ailing people and scarred land on the other side of those hills.

Only one candidate holds out hope. I can only spend so much time missing what might have been.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2016

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