Un-Ignore Appalachia

A doctoral student at Columbia University complains that political scientists have been ignoring the 25 million residents of Appalachia.

Surely, he is wrong! Everybody has been made aware that, just two years ago, a prison inmate scored 41 percent of the West Virginia primary vote against Barack Obama; and who could forget the equally strong run by "uncommitted" against the sitting President in Kentucky?

Seriously, however, Steven White is correct. Political scholars have paid only flitting attention to Appalachia since V.O. Key, Jr., the godfather of southern politics, wrote about the peculiar ways of these mountain people (Southern Politics in State and Nation, 1949).

Appalachia: Different From the Old Confederacy and the Rest of America?

Now White urges his colleagues to get interested again in a southernish sub-region that, he claims, is different from both the Old Confederacy and the rest of America. He made his pitch most recently in a presentation at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC.

Of course, at least symbolically, Appalachia has occupied a special place in discourse on the American nation. Journalists directed public concern there during the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s War on Poverty. A thriving subfield of Appalachian Studies regularly covers folklore, music, and literature of the region. Most recently, in 2008, Appalachia took center stage on the nightly news, as Hillary Clinton soundly whipped Obama in West Virginia and Kentucky primaries.

But, again, as White argues, coverage by political scientists is rare; thus he exhorts our discipline to pay more attention to this distinct area.

That is what he is doing in his doctoral research and his paper at the Charleston conference. And perhaps I can assist him in this effort.

Where Is Appalachia?

White's definition of Appalachia includes the 420 counties covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission, where one in every dozen Americans lives. He explains that it "begins in northeastern Mississippi and extends through northern Alabama and Georgia, western North and South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, the entire state of West Virginia, eastern Ohio, a small stretch of western Maryland, much of western and central Pennsylvania, and the part of New York state close to the Pennsylvania border."

Economic and Social Issues.

White is interested in the character of the Appalachian people as a distinctive political subculture; and he examined public opinion data from the 2004 and 2008 National Annenberg Election Surveys. He was able to isolate pertinent counties to depict a composite Appalachia (spanning 13 states) and Central Appalachia (Kentucky and small sections of bordering counties in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee).

He looked first at economic issues, specifically attitudes relating to labor unions, free trade deals, and federal healthcare programs. He found that Appalachian residents were clearly opposed to free trade deals, but there was no statistical relationship for labor unions and federal intervention in health care.

For social issues, he examined attitudes toward abortion, gay rights and Muslims. He found that Appalachian residents were negatively inclined on all three counts, with especially strong feelings about gay organizations and gay marriages.

White also found, in accord with a beginning hypothesis, that Central Appalachia represented a core constituency for most of these economic and social sentiments. For example, Central Appalachia was strongly pro-union and economically protectionist (but it demonstrated mixed feelings about healthcare). On social issues, Central Appalachia scored very strongly against abortion and gay rights.


White, who grew up in Appalachia, depicted curious patterns of public opinion in his part of the country:

(1) He found a somewhat limited form of economic leftism in Appalachia (mostly related to anti-free trade sentiment) and Central Appalachia (more positive feelings about labor unions).

(2) However, there was much stronger evidence of substantially greater social conservatism in Appalachia and Central Appalachia.

White pointed out that this disparate combination -- i.e., economic leftism and very strong social conservatism -- is very unusual in elite discourse.


Score a point for Steven White. He challenged political scientists to quit ignoring Appalachia; he tackled some of the impediments to studying this distinct sub-region; and he has gifted us some interesting findings about these 26 million Americans.


Author note: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every other year since 1978; and it has become a main event for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about 50 academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.