Three Suggestions for the Future of Recent Appalachian History

I was struck by Paul Krugman’s May 26, 2017, column “It’s All about Trump’s Contempt,” in which he explained that West Virginia voters had been motivated by ignorance, “maybe” racism, and “presumably” Trump’s promise to bring back coal. The total lack of evidence for these claims was striking, and at the end of the column he wondered if West Virginians would “ever realize” that they had been scammed and would “punish” Trump by voting for Democrats. After stewing over this column for days, I decided that we needed to do a better job of writing 20th-century Appalachian history.

In this paper, I have three suggestions. The first is to write more histories of Appalachia in the age of neoliberalism, charting its rise in the 1970s through the present. Historians could better situate the economic decline of numerous Appalachian communities within the broader national and global context of deregulation, free trade, destruction of the labor movement, and dramatic cuts to social spending—the consequences of which for rural and working-class America have been ignored Krugman and many others. Second, the history of politics within the region in this period has received too little attention despite dramatic transformations at the local and state level. Finally, Krugman is a reminder that stereotypes of the region persist not just because of people who perpetuate them but because of their social function, pointing toward a history of the consumption of Appalachian stereotypes.