On Dec. 12, the people of Alabama found themselves in a tenuous position. Would they dismiss the sexual-assault allegations levied against religious conservative Roy Moore, and vote in support of their evangelical, pro-life, pro-gun past? Or would they pull the lever for pro-choice, economic progressive Doug Jones and bank on their future?
When I looked at that Senate race, of course I saw the allegations of sexual abuse. But I also focused on the commentary that is just as common in Kentucky: Democrats are baby killers who want to take away our guns; Muslims hate “our Christian way of life;” gay marriage is an abomination; the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights.
I moved to rural Kentucky from California’s Silicon Valley in 2014. One of the first questions people asked was, “Where do you go to church?” People talked openly and often about guns. President Barack Obama and his wife were the butt of jokes. Any mention of women’s reproductive rights were conversation killers. And people voted accordingly.
What we need are jobs. Coal is not coming back. Factories are not coming back. Whether we like it or not, Kentucky needs companies from other places to invest in us. Yet it remains hard to persuade them to come.
In Silicon Valley, my husband worked in high tech and his company often looked to invest in states with available, trainable workforce. But there were often social roadblocks.
A story about Louisiana stands out. The governor was on a mission to bring in new industry, using state funds and the federal disaster relief monies they’d received after Hurricane Katrina. Officials had partnered with the local community college for high-tech training; Barksdale Air Force Base helped with community outreach and support. Louisiana had erected in Bossier City a first-class data center with state-of-the-art networks and power grids.
Before the trip, a representative of the task force called and asked what he’d like to do to get a feel for the place: go to the horse-racing track, gamble on the riverboats, or fire weapons at a shooting range. The last option was to take a tour of the Air Force base.
The task force director took my husband on the tour of the base in his Suburban, the back filled with rifles and shotgun cases. At one point, the director proudly pulled a big revolver from between his driver’s seat and console to show it off, along with a special bullet he said he used to shoot coyotes and other wildlife. He said, “Of course, it works on criminals, too!”
When they drove up to a security gate, they were just waved through. Barksdale is where long-range, supersonic bombers are loaded and ready to take off with nuclear payload at any instant. Then came dinner with task force members, all men, where the night’s conversation went to guns, hunting and fishing, derogatory remarks about Middle Easterners, and jokes about women.
My husband and I are not naive. Between the two of us, we have lived in a dozen states, from Texas to Minnesota to Iowa to Washington. We were both raised in conservative, rural areas — Rush Limbaugh and I share the same hometown, after all — where families go to church on Sundays, men carry guns in their trucks and factories have long-since shuttered their doors.
But what my husband knew immediately, and sadly, was this: He would never be able to get his best managers — who might be Indians, Iranians, Asians, Muslims, atheists — to move to Bossier City with their families, no matter the state-of-the-art building or how plentiful the workforce. The governor might have been ready for outside companies and progressive industry, but the culture was not.
Watching the Alabama race play out — and seeing that incredible Vice video, led by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, where locals shared their conspiracy theories about the allegations against Moore — I remembered Louisiana. Like Bossier City, small towns in Alabama and Kentucky desperately need jobs to come in from the outside, but there is little to no tolerance for outsiders.
President Donald Trump and some members of Congress basically dismissed Moore’s accusers; but they also remain silent on issues like guns and abortion. Alabamans, they said, did not want or need a bunch of outsiders telling them what to do.
Sound familiar? The reality is this: Our towns are dying. Our communities will not survive if we continue to cast single-issue votes on the Bible, guns and abortion.
Come the 2018 elections, those of us in the South and so-called “flyover” states would do well to follow Alabama’s lead. If we truly want to make our towns great again, we have to open our doors and our minds. We have to stop clinging so hard to the past that we cannot reach for our future.
Reach Teri Carter, a writer in Lawrenceburg, at www.tericarter.net/