Pennsylvania Democrats must consider the opinions of ‘unhyphenated Americans’


AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Brian Kennedy, a candidate campaign volunteer, wears his “I voted” sticker beside his American flag pin as he greets voters outside a polling location on Tuesday in Evans City, Pennsylvania.

By Talia Spillerman, Senior Staff Columnist

As the votes finished rolling in late Tuesday night, and it appeared that John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro won their elections, I bet many Democrats had similar thoughts — our triumph means we can discount Republicans’ sentiments that are laced with antidemocratic, racist, sexist and homophobic ideals.

While Pennsylvanian Democrats can celebrate that the state will likely remain a haven for women and girls across the country to receive abortion services and offer protection for LGBTQ+ individuals, Democrats can’t ignore every Republican position. Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz’s many supporters don’t all share blatant hate for bodily autonomy and identity expression. Rather, many rightfully feel that the Democratic party doesn’t recognize the struggles of rural Americans.

Many unhyphenated Americans — Americans who solely identify as “American,” rather than an American derivative of another ethnicity, such as Irish-American, African-American, or Asian-American — live in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania. Their lack of a qualifier before American tends to indicate a strong sense of patriotism and American identity. 

These Americans often live in rural or southern regions, are white and have less education. Over the past 30 years, unhyphenated Americans have shifted their support from Democrats — the traditional party of the working class — to Republicans. Now, they are what many of us think of when we imagine the average Republican supporter. 

Nowadays, as more Republican candidates’ ideals are derivatives of Trump, it is important to understand the history of the Appalachian region and the significance of Trumpism

Before the Civil War, Native Americans mostly populated Appalachia. After the war, a large number of Irish immigrants settled in these towns. By working at coal mines, even without higher education, they were able to actualize the American dream — starting a family as well as buying a house and land. 

In the early 1920s, people outside of the region started a narrative about Appalaichains — that they are ignorant, lazy and gun-loving. Not only did this alienate Appalachians from city dwellers, but it also helped coal companies justify the exploitation of their workers and the land they survived on. 

Politicians neglected Appalachia’s needs — the region lacked funding for schools, infrastructure and reparations for destroyed public works. This frustration has culminated in generational disappointment in state and federal government support. 

Once the coal companies depleted all the coal possible, they left the region, leaving many jobless and feeling unequipped to adjust to the rapidly changing world. No longer was there an abundance of jobs that could support a family without higher education. 

While the Democratic party has preached diversity and inclusion of all people, many unhyphenated Americans felt left out of this vision. On the other hand, Republicans realized the untapped voting potential of appealing to this group.

The 2016 election was both a culmination and an exacerbation of this trend, which helped contribute to Donald Trump winning the presidency. His rhetoric that we know all too well — bringing back coal jobs to “Make America Great Again” — appealed to unhyphenated Americans generally neglected in the political realm. Suddenly, instead of feeling like the world has passed them by, they were included in the vision for America’s future. 

Compared to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate who referred to unhyphenated Americans as “deplorables,” a seemingly charismatic billionaire supporting their concerns appealed more to these voters — despite his tendency for racism, sexism and homophobia. The reality is when we consider the origin of unhyphenated Americans’ distaste for government, many of them accept Trumpism for different reasons than Democrats denounce it. Many support his ideology, not because of his hateful ideals but rather despite it. 

Even though not a lot changed for unhyphenated Americans during Trump’s presidency, the ideals of Trumpism are still thriving. He exploited their history of exploitation to gain support. Maybe unhyphenated Americans realized this, maybe they didn’t. But maybe that didn’t matter because, for the first time in a long time, they felt supported. They felt that they had a place in American politics. Regardless of identity — don’t we all want to feel that way?

Many of us think of these unhyphenated Republican voters as uneducated, white Americans who seem disconnected from reality. Rather they are voting for what they thought would help feed their family and keep them healthy and safe, the same things we all want. By accepting this commonality, we can begin to respect each other and solve problems that impact us all. 

As residents of Pittsburgh — which borders on Appalachia — we especially have a responsibility to consider the concerns of unhyphenated Americans in the policies and programs we support, since they are our neighbors and fellow Pennsylvanians.

So how do we move forward? How do we separate the hate from just requests for change? We can start by improving the infrastructure that is often neglected. This looks like providing schools in Appalachia with adequate resources and investing in projects to rehabilitate roads and homes destroyed by natural disasters. 

We have to start listening to the needs and desires of Appalachians rather than having people from outside the region infiltrate and dictate what they need. We can’t ignore their needs because they sometimes support politicians who pose racist sentiments but consider their circumstances and include their needs in a vision for the future. 

And as society moves away from fossil fuels, which will leave the coal industry that Appalachia was built around, our leaders need to create a plan to include these people in the job market another way rather than just leaving them out.

If Democrats better understand the Appalachian history of political isolation and neglect, they can start to have some sympathy and work to find common ground and establish better and more comprehensive solutions for all people. 

Talia Spillerman writes about anything and everything. Write to her at [email protected]