In the wake of disastrous flooding that claimed the lives of more than 30 Kentucky residents, residents across the state are not only facing cleanup efforts, but also vitriolic comments suggesting the victims deserved their fate due to the political makeup of Eastern Kentucky.
Many Kentuckians of all political stripes have, with one voice, denounced these critics as lacking a basic level of empathy and humanity.
An anonymous user tweeted that, while heartbreaking, “this is what they (Kentuckians) voted for”.
“It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time, that’s what they voted for… The sad thing is that I think they will keep voting for the same people over and over again.”
Another tweeted that “now the blue states will bail them out – yet they elect (Senators) Mitch (McConnell) and Rand (Paul)”.
It is true that many Kentucky politicians at the federal level, especially those in the GOP, have voted against legislation aimed at addressing climate change. But Kentuckians everywhere have sharply criticized the justification for the devastation inflicted on the victims, many of whom are poor and represent a slice of Kentucky’s 4.5 million people, blaming them for the state’s electoral behavior.
Responding to a tragedy by saying the government should adopt different policies is one thing – several climate scientists have blamed the global rise in CO2 emissions – but quite another to suggest that someone “the brought in” because of his perceived political leanings, they pointed out.
Writing for UK-based publication The Independent, East Tennessee native Skylar Baker-Jordan said in an article titled “Liberals Saying Kentucky Deserves These Floods Must Watch Each Other Carefully.”
“Blame the people in power, by all means,” Baker-Jordan wrote. “But don’t blame some of the poorest, most neglected, most mocked and marginalized people in our country.”
The five counties confirmed to have lost their lives in the floods – Knott, Perry, Breathitt, Letcher and Clay – average median household income of $32,464.
22 to 37% of their inhabitants live in poverty.
Kentucky’s median household income is $52,238 and 15% of residents live at or below the poverty line. The median US household income is over $67,500.
Baker-Jordan, a political leftist, said that “A Democrat from Appalachia, I can hardly believe what I see from people who should be on the same side as me.”
And many Democrats have, just as resoundingly, called the blame game.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge put it bluntly: “If your view of the devastation in Eastern Kentucky is to say that people ‘deserve it’ for the way they vote, you are a *** hole.”
Eastern Kentucky author Silas House cast the reaction of some cynics as part and parcel of negative attitudes towards the region that disregard its once central role in the US economy.
“There are so many here (Twitter) talking to me about how my people make a living from it. No. Appalachia has powered this country from the beginning. With lumber, coal, gas, our children, our lives. We keep being pushed down and we keep getting back up,” House wrote.
Another nuance often overlooked by outsiders commenting on the tragedy: Eastern Kentucky is not a political monolith and was until recently under the control of the opposing side.
For a long time, Appalachian Kentucky, in the eastern part of the state, was firmly under Democratic control.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that a majority of Eastern Kentuckians reliably voted for Republicans at the federal level. Change has happened more slowly at the state level, and much of local politics in eastern Kentucky counties is still dominated by Democrats. The Herald-Leader published a report on the region’s political shifting sands in June.
Richard Young, executive director of CivicLex, wrote in a Herald-Leader op-ed that some vitriolic responses to the floods are partly due to the “partisan rot” that has infected American politics.
But the best counterexample, he said, is the behavior of the people of eastern Kentucky themselves.
“In our own home we can find hope,” Young wrote. “Despite these trends, the past few days have shown that Kentuckians know the way forward. As soon as it became clear that our eastern Kentucky neighbors needed care, people across the state began organizing supply deliveries, fundraisers and mutual aid.