Liberals Sneer at Rural America—Then Expect Our Votes | Opinion

Do Democrats hate America's working class? You'd be forgiven for thinking that given how they've reacted to two separate news stories over the past two weeks: the implosion of President Biden's Build Back Better act and the devastating storm that left at least 76 of my fellow Kentuckians are dead.

Build Back Better was effectively killed by one senator—Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, who revealed Sunday that he would not vote for the bill. His decision unleashed a flood of rage—at the people of West Virginia.

"What Joe Manchin, who represents a population smaller than Brooklyn, has done to the rest of America, who wants to move forward, not backward, like his state, is horrible," Grammy-winning singer Bette Midler tweeted last night. "He sold us out. He wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out."

Midler was widely panned for the remark. But she was far from alone in stereotyping West Virginians as toothless, drug-addled rubes who deserve what they get. High profile folks from across the Democrats' coalition tweeted things like "The next time a climate disaster hits West Virginia and @Sen_JoeManchin wants federal disaster $, he should get a big FU as a response" and "A quarter of West Virginians 65 and older have no natural teeth."

Of course, it's frustrating that Manchin could singlehandedly tank a popular piece of legislation, to say nothing of his own classist comments leaked to the Huffington Post, in which Manchin allegedly expressed fears to confidantes that parents would use the child tax credit to buy drugs rather than support their kids. As an Appalachian, I'm furious at Manchin for allegedly believing that working and poor people aren't responsible enough to manage their own money.

But resorting to stereotypes about "poor, illiterate... strung out" hicks in the hills and hollows is out of order.

Let's call it what it is: bigotry. And it's why Democrats continue to lose in states like West Virginia.

I am not from the Mountain State, but I am proud to be from the mountains. My roots run deep in the eastern coalfields of Kentucky, where my family has been for generations. Yet many on social media, people like Bette Midler, seem to believe I should make apology for being from Appalachia.

You saw this penchant on full display earlier this month, after a terrible storm hit my beloved Commonwealth, leaving a 250-mile long path of destruction from the Mississippi River in the southwest to the foothills of the Appalachians in the northeast. For too many, this presented an opportunity to gloat, chide and reprimand us for "voting against our interests" on things like climate change.

Manchin voters
MORGANTOWN, WV - NOVEMBER 05: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) (L) campaigns ahead of midterm elections at the Triple S Harley-Davidson on November 5, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Manchin is closing out his Senate Candidate campaign for reelection against Republican Patrick Morrisey on a motorcycle tour across West Virginia. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

This notion that voters in flyover states like Kentucky and West Virginia are "voting against their own interests" and therefore don't deserve sympathy, or that their representatives enact unpopular policies and they deserve what they get for voting them in, is elitist, out-of-touch, and flat out wrong. After all, Data for Progress found that a majority of West Virginians support Build Back Better, putting Senator Manchin out of step with his own constituents—the ones he himself looks down on.

And the truth is, Manchin gets away with it because for the most part, he doesn't openly hate on the very people he's asking to vote for him. We only know about Manchin's alleged comments because sources leaked them to the Huffington Post. Outwardly, Manchin respects West Virginians and their culture—a culture which includes things that many liberals find distasteful: church, guns, and cultural conservatism.

You cannot claim to support America's poor and working class while simultaneously despising them and their culture. No one is going to vote for you if you openly loathe them and expecting them to is the height of hubris.

So too is the "voting against their own interests" line tired, cliché, and wrong. We live in a neoliberal capitalist society which has gutted the welfare state to the point to where the social safety net is barely two strings loosely knotted around twigs. People fall through all the time. And churches are frequently left to fill the gap, organizing food pantries, clothing drives, even drug treatment programs to help with the opioid crisis. These churches are usually conservative and often evangelical. But they're there. They show up, they do the work, and they make a material difference in the lives of the rural people.

To then say that rural folks are voting against their own interests when they vote for conservatives, be they Democrats or Republicans, is clearly wrong. From their perspective, it is conservatives who care about them. It is conservatives who step in to lend a helping hand, raise money, and improve their lives.

The Left needs to stop sneering at West Virginia and rural America and start making inroads in these communities. That involves getting out of your liberal bubbles and venturing into the backwards hinterlands you hold in such contempt. It means opening your minds and your ears to listen to the good people of rural America rather than lecturing them about what it is you think they need. And it means not tweeting that they are all a bunch of strung-out illiterates.

The people of West Virginia are hurting. The people of Kentucky even more so right now. Rather than deriding us for our senators, come on down and help us build back better. Do the work. Play the long game. But for the love of God, stop blaming us for your own shortcomings.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based. He lives in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.