This piece was published in The Big Issue in October 2008.
High in the hills of Western Virginia, autumn has peaked. The wooded valleys below form an endless canopy of reds, yellows and golden browns.
At The Troubadour, a country and western joint miles from the nearest town of Winchester, owner Joltin’ Jim McCoy surveys this view from his door every morning. “In the morning I drink my coffee and watch the sun come up. And in the evening…” adds the 79-year-old, nodding toward the back yard, “I turn around and I sit with a bottle of Jim Beam and watch the sun go down on the other side.”
It must be tempting to ignore the troubles of America below, but the juddering economy leaves no one untouched. Inside at the bar, pictures of local legend Patsy Cline and other country greats loom over empty seats (McCoy once played guitar with Cline on one of her early recordings).
Only one or two customers pop in for a late afternoon beer. Rising costs mean McCoy now makes only one dollar on each crate of Budweiser. “Boy, this economy,” the old man sighs. “It’s killin’ us. Just killin’ us…”
This is the American South, where history is hard to separate from myth, and both have a way of lingering longer and larger than in other parts of the country. McCoy watches the collapse of the big banks on TV and summons the spectre of the Great Depression he lived through as a boy, right here on this hill.
“I remember food shortages, gas shortages. I remember people being scared. And it’s gettin’ that way again. Know what I heard this morning? The biggest seller at the moment is safes. People are gettin’ ready to stash their money in safes again.”
One thing appears certain: Virginia is about to turn from red state to blue, according to all the pollsters’ scoreboards. Barack Obama is poised to break Republican dominance in the South, with North Carolina also poised to swing in his favour.
It is a remarkable scenario, given Obama’s well-publicised speech to party donors in San Francisco in April, the one in which he said small-town folk neglected by government “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”.
This is a region where the right attitudes on guns and faith can get a man elected. But as the campaign has worn on, financial fears have overwhelmed issues of identity.
Jim McCoy is a reminder, however, that the Democrats still have some way to go to shift right-leaning assumptions about money.
“I think I’m probably still gonna go for McCain,” he says. “I’m just not sure about Obama and his tax breaks, because it seems like he’s gonna give to the poor. Well, that’s socialism, and we don’t like that here.”
It may be difficult to find his name on bumper stickers or front lawns, but back in the town of Winchester, enthusiasm for Obama is quietly gathering force. At the tiny Twilight Zone diner, owner Gary Leon says the place is only full at happy hour, when customers can save 25 cents on each drink.
“I mean, Jesus Christ,” he shakes his head. “It’s come to 25 cents?”
Leon is becoming a strong supporter of Obama’s economic message. The 44-year-old, like most men in town, voted for Bush twice. But he has lost $17,000 from his retirement package of stocks and bonds this year, and now despises the Republican administration for promising wealth and delivering nothing for working people.
“A lot of people feel that way. I have veterans telling me they’re voting for Obama, and this is a place you used to have to whisper you were a Democrat.”
One of the reasons I’m in town is to visit Winchester native Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting With Jesus. The book explores how his peers, the undereducated, white, working poor, were conned by the Republican right into believing they shared the same values, and abandoned by the Democrats who moved to the centre and failed to “speak redneck”.
Joe classes himself as one of the “mutt people”, those descended from Irish and Scots stock. The writer returned home a decade ago, sick of life among the ranks of the well-heeled reporters in Washington DC.
“The liberal media and financial people, they usually just fly over the rest of America, wondering what’s down there,” he scoffs. “They couldn’t figure out why people were voting for Bush.”
These days Bageant finds more drinking buddies at Royal Lunch Tavern are willing to listen to his “leftneck” rants. “The working class as a whole have been poor and getting poorer for a while – it’s only now everybody’s actually putting two and two together and starting to realise it.”
South of Virginia, where it’s hot and green, it still feels like summer. Spanish moss is everywhere. It crawls over fields, swallows whole valleys, choking trees and electricity pylons. However, it cannot hide the rusting bridges and crumbling buildings, the Foreclosure and For Sale stickers, the garbled neon signs made unintelligible by unlit letters. After half a century of progress, decay is in the air.
In Georgia, in the small, mainly white towns surrounding the Atlanta metropolis, the dream of middle-class, picket-fence perfection dies hard. In Kennesaw, there is a plethora of antique and gift shops offering rosy visions of the pre-Civil War South. A Gone With the Wind museum a few miles outside of town has Scarlett O’Hara’s honeymoon gown on display.
A darker past also infects the present. At Wildman’s Civil War Surplus, Dent Myres stands in the doorway, a gun on each hip, twirling his impressive moustache, looking every inch the ageing Confederate soldier. Turns out Dent has appeared as an extra in countless Civil War films and also takes part in battle re-enactments.
Doesn’t he get hot in the uniform? “I got real comfortable in it. Felt natural.”
He shows me round his shop stuffed full of Confederacy antiques and KKK paraphernalia. One new T-shirt bears an old rhyme: “Coon, coon, black baboon, brutal thieving worthless goon.”
It feels impolite to ask about the election campaign of 2008, as if prodding an old man from his slumber. My query about Obama and McCain only provokes a conspiracy theory rooted in the grudges of old ghosts. “If O–bam-bam gets in, I think he’s gonna get popped,” he says, making a gun with his finger.
“The government want to blame it on Southern racists so they can bring in Martial Law. It’s like ol’ stinkin’ Lincoln – they want to shut us down and take our guns away.”
Myres may be an unreconstructed relic, but the question of race is still an unhealed wound.
Most admit with an uneasy shrug that they know someone who is reluctant about Obama because of his skin colour. Most sincerely hope it will not be a deciding factor.
People talk politics everywhere, well versed in soundbites and speculation picked up from TV. In bars and bus stations, folk fall silent for CNN election updates before breaking into arguments.
And yet it’s not too hard to find blissful ignorance of changing events and ideas, even among the most bright and forthcoming of people.
I meet Heather Lewis, a 30-year-old single mother from a small town near Crawford, Georgia, travelling on the Greyhound bus to Birmingham. Heather is off to work in a women’s refuge. She’s a recovering drug addict and a born-again Christian, and feels the weekly trip to Alabama to help other users get clean is “God’s work”.
Heather, a tiny blonde ball of energy, doesn’t know how long she can carry on with unpaid employment, given her massive medical debts, which currently stack up to more than $10,000.
The idea of strengthening Medicare or overhauling health care is appealing, but she doesn’t know much about it. She phones her grandmother to ask whose side her family are on.
“Granny, are we Republican or Democrat?”
“I’m not sure about Obama,” she tells me, now satisfied of her allegiance. “He seems smart and I don’t really think he’s a Muslim like they’re saying, but he’s kinda risky, y’know? Why take a chance?”
A long sigh indicates she’s done talking politics. “I wish I was smart enough to understand this stuff.”
At the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the place where Martin Luther King became preacher in 1960, the current pastor has asked his flock to welcome newcomers like me this Sunday morning.
The Reverend Raphael G Warnock is an impressive heir to Dr King’s pulpit. The rise and fall of his powerful sermon, granted wings by patches of long-held humming from the choir, is rooted in the economic woes of the here and now. He urges his flock to worship God “in the midst of severance taxes and baked beans”.
“Where else are you going to hide? The Lehman Brothers? Let God be your hiding place instead.”
After the service, Warnock tries to explain how the Republicans claimed a certain type of Christian faith as their own. “Unfortunately, in America, the loudest voices, focusing on abortion and gay rights as value issues, are often heard most, as if how we treat the sick and the poor weren’t part of our deepest values. Unfortunately, too much of the Church has been silent on our most pressing problems.”
His spiritual forerunner dreamed big, but the current Ebenezer pastor has a more modest hope. “We have seen it with black candidates before, people who say they will vote for them can’t bring themselves to pull the lever. But I have a hunch, and it’s just a hunch, that with the confluence of so many economic problems, some people who can’t even admit it to their friends will vote for Obama.”
In Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks sat down against segregation and Dr King nurtured the civil rights movement into full bloom, hope is tempered with stoicism.
Crenshaw James, a 61-year-old taxi driver with a large wooden cross across his dashboard, remembers with joy marching alongside Dr King as a boy. “I was marching for my mother because she had to go to the back of the bus. Black people [have] been through a lot of disappointments since then, but Dr King always preached love to the white man, and told us not to be bitter.”
James thinks Obama’s chances are good. Where he comes from, on the west side of town, races are united, if only in hardship. “To most people, it don’t matter if Obama is black, white, red or blue. He’s got a lot to do to help us poor blacks and poor whites. We’re all strugglin’.”
It seems Obama’s been blessed with the enormous political fortune of economic calamity. The banking bailout has shocked some of the worst-off – who believed anything was possible if you worked hard enough – into connecting failure in Washington and Wall Street with their own diminishing returns.
In the South, betrayal is not taken kindly. Most voters here are of earnest and independent mind, and many are preparing to take a chance on Obama.
Yet, in the South, where the best and worst of America flows down the Mississippi and washes up in equal measure, change happens slowly. The fantasy of low taxes, small government and an ever-present dawn in America will not be easily swept aside, even by an Obama presidency.
Liberal will no doubt remain a dirty word. And times will surely never get so tough that a bottle of Jim Beam can’t be rustled up at the end of the working day.