We Don’t Vote Against Our Own Best Interests, Our Interests Ain’t Never Been on the Ballot

Picture of Southern/Appalachian States

Let’s impeach the president for hijacking our religion and using it to get elected, Dividing our country into colors, And still leaving black people neglected-Neil Young

Can’t gamble feedin’ baby on that dope money, might not always be sufficient, but the United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss, so now you back in the trap just that, trapped.-Outkast

It’s that time again, political punditry fans, that time when the entire world lets us know how dumb, poor, Southern voters vote against our dumb, poor, hillbilly interests.

Its hard to write this without rage spilling from my pen. Propaganda from without and within have convinced everyone not from here that we can barely use a #2 pencil on a bubble sheet, much less understand a party platform. It has convinced those of us here that change is impossible, so what’s even the point? Nevermind the hundreds of organizers and movement makers whose work has only become more difficult since the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Nevermind the billions of dollars in messaging that has created a propaganda black hole where the truth is sucked in and stereotypes spewed out. Just you nevermind that.

The truth, though, exists and it is this: Our interests aren’t on the ballot, have never been on the ballot, but lip-service is always on the ballot and in a region like ours, people will take what they can get.

Voter suppression wears many masks. It isn’t always poll taxes and Brian Kemp. It’s wording that reads like a push poll, with leading language that’s difficult for a “well-read” intellectual to understand. So what’s a voter educated in an under-funded country school supposed to do? It’s candidates listed multiple times in an order decided by the party in power, which, down here and in rural areas everywhere, has been the GOP for 60 years. The Ballot Order Effect is real and smart political operatives know it.

But candidates aren’t interests. Consequently, even when we can access the ballot and can easily understand what’s on it, our interests are nowhere to be found. But y’all don’t know nuthin’ about that, because you’ve bought into stereotypes like it’s all Deliverance and dueling banjos in one of the most diverse areas of the country (I’m looking at you, Oregon).

Who are we, really? The American Community Survey shows y’all what we already know: while whites are a large majority, like most areas in the United States, a full 40% of the South/Southern Appalachia region is non-white. 30% are Black. A Latinx population that is vibrant and exploding in Atlanta, Vidalia, Southern Alabama, and West Virginia. We have the most diverse food culture in the US. The Blues, Country, Jazz, and Rock ’n’ Roll were born here in the mountains, the low-country, and the Mississippi Delta. And y’all’ll respect Houston chopped ’n’ screwed and the iconic sounds of Organized Noize

Despite this incredible culture that reaches from Texas to West Virginia where 116 million Americans live, you stereotype, demonize, and discuss us but never with us. Except for Virginia and Maryland, the South-Eastern and Appalachian states have the lowest median income in the country. Which, since property values determine educational funding, keeps us poorly educated and desperate for opportunity.

But where are those opportunities found? On the ballot? No, Cousin. No, Friend. No, Brother East Coast Elite. No, Sister Orange County.

I teach to students who think $8 an hour is a good wage. I’ve been doing an activity with them for years, to show what a working-class family of three needs to survive. I’ve taught from Atlanta to Brevard and not one time have we added up our own bills that we actually pay and found anything less than $25 an hour to be sufficient. To survive. Not to thrive. Not to get a vacation even once. Not to save for a rainy day. Just to make it. Their faces when they realize they’ve been lied to about what hard work should get you is heartbreaking.

A $15 per hour minimum wage is wildly popular nationwide. Black Americans, 30% of the Southern population, support this increase by a rate of 9–1, whites support it 60/40.

And yet…

It is not the minimum wage on the ballot. You know what is? Roy Cooper in North Carolina, a Democrat who says a $15 minimum wage need not be the $15-an-hour phase-in many Democrats have called for”. A state government gerrymandered with such “surgical precision”, that it dissected away any chance for poor and working-class families of all races and ethnicities to put anything progressive on the ballot. Not a “progressive” candidate, and certainly not a standalone initiative for a fair wage increase.

Even in the age of Trump, where the rhetoric about supporting the troops has ratcheted up significantly from even two years ago, military intervention and the sale of arms willy-nilly to other countries is wildly unpopular. But whether we sell arms to Saudi Arabia or pull out of Afghanistan is not on the ballot. Senator Lindsay Graham, he’s on the ballot and he “supports our troops”, hell he is a troop. He has over 30 years of military service that only ended five years ago. A non-veteran playing to an audience whose kids serve at higher rates than every other region and see service as an opportunity for an education, home ownership, and the ability to see other parts of the world is gonna need a fiddle in the band. Jamie Harrison is the first Democrat in SC in a long time that has even challenged a GOP incumbent, and it’s partially through acknowledging the high rates of service and the incredible responsibility a country should have to those enlisted.

And yet…

There is no ballot initiative for parents to vote on whether to send their child to a war they would never support. There is only a politician singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon.

Medicaid expansion is popular in SC, TX, VA, MS, AL, and LA. Not that it matters. Because when our interests somehow find their way onto that oft inaccessible ballot, we are thwarted at every turn.

“Two-thirds of residents in states whose officials oppose expansion support broadening the program, a May Kaiser Family Foundation poll found. And over 70% of households that experienced a job or income loss due to COVID-19 support expansion.”

Rural hospitals provide 20% of all hospital beds in the United States. But continued cuts to Medicare, cuts unpopular at every turn, mean more and more of these essential institutions are closing. They introduce bills, Congress neglects them. Medicaid expansion passes by ballot initiative, state governments ignore the people’s wishes. All the while, our people get sicker, die younger, have higher infant mortality rates, Black mothers die more often, and the interests we voted for languish in legislatures we often had no choice to vote out.

As early voting has begun, mail-in ballots, and absentee castings make their way to election offices all over the country, we see 11 hours wait times, destruction of PPE and water by police (in liberal NY), and fake ballot boxes in poor and Black communities (in liberal CA). Are those places voting against their own best interests? Or are efforts to deny that opportunity at play in places that never receive that condemnation?

“Best interests” can mean many things, but “consent of the governed” seems like one we can all agree on. If that consent is violated or much more likely, never even obtained, where, I ask, can we find those interests to vote for?

Queerbilly, sociologist, mom, partner, social justice hillbilly. Let’s have a hootenanny!

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