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Morning Jay: Appalachia and the Dems' Identity Crisis

6:00 AM, May 25, 2012 • By JAY COST
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In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated his “War on Poverty,” he travelled to the heart of coal country in eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the country. It was, until recently, most reliably Democratic: In the 20th century when Democrats won the presidency, they almost always won Kentucky, thanks to strong support from the east.

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But in 2008, John McCain won Kentucky by nearly 20 points, thanks to a very strong showing in the historically Democratic parts of the state, which also backed Bush over Kerry in 2004 and split between Bush and Gore in 2000. And on Tuesday night, in the Democratic presidential primary, Obama was thoroughly embarrassed, losing over 40 percent to the choice of “Uncomitted.” 

There is a similar story to tell all throughout the Border South – in “Greater Appalachia,” as it is known, the states that run west with the Ohio River then south with the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. And what is so interesting is that the demographics of this region have been stable over the last few decades: There is the same basic type of voter in the region now as there was 30 years ago.

It’s just that now he does not vote for the Democrats anymore.

Sean Trende and Michael Barone recently explained these trends, and I recommend you read both. Today, I want to zoom up to 30,000 feet to make an argument about what the loss of Appalachia says about the modern Democratic party.

The whole point of the Democratic party, since its inception in the 1820s, was to fight the battle of the people versus the powerful. The “humble members of society,” as Andrew Jackson called them, would align against the moneyed interests.

This is why the Democrats could regularly count not only on the support of Appalachia, but also on much of the poor, rural people in the Farm Belt and the Mountain West. For instance, Wyoming backed William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Woodrow Wilson twice, FDR three times, and Truman and LBJ. Hardly any “moneyed interests” there. The same goes for a state like Oklahoma, a reliably Democratic state through 1964.

But now they’ve all gone Republican, strongly so. And so also has Appalachia. Why?

Liberals will scoff and – to varying degrees – blame racism. But that’s really just a red herring. Sure, the absurd margins by which Obama has lost these areas point to race as a partial cause, but that does not explain the broader trend: All across the country, the “humble members of society” who once powered the Democratic party to overwhelming victories have abandoned it.

And why might that be? For a long time, liberals have argued in the idiom of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? These voters, they say, have been snookered by the GOP’s class- and race-baiting rhetoric.

I see things differently. In Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, I argue that these Appalachian voters (and others like them all across the country) understand what has happened better than the liberal intelligentsia does. They perceive that the Democratic party is no longer the “party of the people,” as it was with Jackson, FDR, Truman, or LBJ. Instead, it’s now home to a slew of powerful special interest groups – certain unions (largely in the government), big city politicos, the vast panoply of upper class liberal interest groups, big business, the trial lawyers, and so on. The “people versus the powerful” rhetoric of the party during every presidential campaign is belied by what it actually does when it gets its hands on the government, and happily goes about rewarding those special groups within its coalition at the expense of the public interest.

And the people in Appalachia and the Farm Belt who no longer vote Democratic suffer insult to injury: Their defections from the party banner are explained away as being due to some form of false-consciousness; the poor fools have been so bewitched by the GOP that they cannot even perceive their true interests.

That kind of explanation is literally the inverse of Old Hickory’s view of the country, and it stands in stark contrast to the leadership the Democratic party up through the 1960s. The common folk were privileged over the wealthy and well-connected, and if the Democrats of the 1940s saw their margins collapse within the white working class as has happened to today’s party, I can assure you their leadership class would be asking what’s the matter with the us, not what’s the matter with Kansas!

So, it makes sense to me that Kentucky and Utah would vote for Harry Truman in 1948 but not Barack Obama in 2008. And no, race had little to do with it, in my opinion. It gets down to a simple question: for whom does the Democratic party stand? Ask the average Kentucky voter, or Oklahoma voter, or Utah voter, whose grandparents were proud Truman voters, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: It certainly isn’t the humble members of society.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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