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Class Matters

ELIZABETH CATTE IS RIGHT that the media treated Donald Trump voters as a group needing to be explained. Pundits in search of a grand narrative found it in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016). It helped that Vance had escaped the great rural unknown to attend Yale Law School and work in Silicon Valley. His memoir told the story of a dysfunctional family that could, some thought, stand for all of Appalachia—and by extension, all white working-class Americans trapped in dying cities or rural wastelands.

Vance’s book received praise from both liberals and conservatives. For Republicans, it was a tale of self-reinvention and self-reliance: he refused to blame the state for his family’s troubles and claimed, in the end, that his mother had only herself to blame for her addiction. The message was simple: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. For liberals and progressives, Vance painted a picture of an alien world of rural whites trapped in false consciousness and a spiral of self-destructive tendencies. Theirs was a broken culture that required diagnosis. By turning Hillbilly Central—West Virginia—into Trump Country, the media did what they usually do, reducing the complicated history of a diverse region into a snappy sound bite of white rage.

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“Rural spaces,” writes Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “are often thought of as places absent of things, from people of color to modern amenities to radical politics. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.” With activists, historians, and political scientists as guides, Left Elsewhere explores the radical politics of rural America—its past, its priorities, and its moral commitments—that mainstream progressives overlook. This volume shows how these communities are fighting, and winning, some of the left’s biggest battles. From novel health care initiatives in the face of the opioid crisis to living wages for teachers, these struggles do not fall neatly into the “puny language,” as Rev. William Barber says, of Democrat or Republican. Instead they help us rethink the rural–urban opposition at the heart of U.S. politics. The future of the left, this collection argues, could be found elsewhere. With contributions from William J. Barber II, Lesly-Marie Buer, Elizabeth Catte, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Nancy Isenberg, Elaine C. Kamarck, Michael Kazin, Toussaint Losier, Robin McDowell, Bob Moser, Hugh Ryan, Matt Stoller, Ruy Teixeira, Makani Themba, and Jessica Wilkerson.