Political Science Educator: volume 26, issue 2
Chaz Briscoe, Virginia Tech University, and Jasmine Noelle Yarish University of the District of Columbia
When I set out to teach a course entitled “Political Participation” in Fall 2022, I wanted to center the question” “Why do people engage the political?” As a theorist, I designed a course that challenged the typical approach to the subfield. I asked my students to unpack the “why” behind people’s actions, as opposed to starting from a set of assumed variables and moving forward. Exposing students first to the writings of Antonio Gramsci (1971) and Cedric Robinson (2016), the course sought to expand their understanding of the “political.” What is this amorphous thing that people were hoping to change, influence, and wield?
The class explored multiple forms and modes of political participation from this conceptual foundation before attuning to empirical examples. One case study we utilized took the form of the now two-time failed U.S. Senate hopeful from my home state of Kentucky, Charles Booker. Analyzing his memoir, From the Hood to the Holler (2022), we examined Booker’s reasons for engaging the political, what he hoped to gain, who he was accountable to, and his vision of political efficacy.
Booker’s struggle between aspiration and reality in the U.S. democratic process became apparent with our guest speaker – Dr. Jasmine Noelle Yarish. During her presentation, Yarish compared Booker’s memoir with that of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016). Yarish detailed how spatial exclusion, representation, and what Booker calls “the old boy system” categorized a lot of the issues endemic to Appalachia. Her argument was modeled after Travis Linnemann and Corina Medley’s “Down and Out in Middletown and Jackson: Drugs, Dependency, and Decline in J.D. Vance’s Capitalist Realism” (2019), which was an assigned reading for her atypical “Politics & Media” course with its focus on the interdisciplinary literature of prison abolition. While I was expanding the approach to “Political Participation,” Yarish was doing something similar at her institution, the public university in the nation’s capital that also happens to be an HBCU and the only explicitly urban land grant university in the U.S. By including this for her guest lecture, we were able to draw on the positionality of my students, her upbringing from the region claimed by Vance, my shared homespace with Booker – to use a term by bell hooks (2009) – and our collective engagement in curricular expansion from the subfield of political theory into the largely behavioral dominant one of American politics.
By sharing this discussion of our recent and ongoing collaboration, Yarish from central Pennsylvania representing her roots in Appalachia, and my roots in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky, we wanted to present how important the lived experience is to the curriculum of political science. Our view of theory is grounded in contradictions. Our experiences embody these contradictions. Contradictions of the community we come from, the people we know, and our direct relationships with these environments. In retrospect, my students required a greater understanding of our racialized political economy to benefit from the connections that Yarish and I have begun to make here.
Below, Yarish and I present our initial discussion about the relative positioning of both Booker and Vance, with more attention to the former, as a potential model for others hoping to center lived experience in their teaching.
Apparent in both memoirs, Booker and Vance’s link with Appalachia is important for their political aspirations. Booker’s text attempts to build coalitions between the urban poverty of Louisville and the rural Appalachian regions of Eastern Kentucky. Vance positions his analysis as a representative in exile from his home in Appalachia, blaming Appalachia in his realist depiction, conjuring the image of a self-defeating region unable to get out of its way. And though Booker and Vance differ here, their overlap presents us with a series of questions. How do racial politics obscure the specificity and commonality of location and poverty? What lie does this mythology serve in the exploitation of Appalachia?
Our intent during this course and the guest lecture was to investigate what realities get left out of Appalachian discourses. For us, the obscurity is in the understanding that the real fight is over the region’s political economy. The struggle over the commons and the persistence of the logics of extraction are the Appalachian landscape. From Linnemann and Medley’s read of Vance’s text, the spatial exclusion of Appalachia is enabled by our inability to separate the public health issue of drug overdoses from the punishment response of the region’s governance apparatus. By missing this connection, we miss how the punishment apparatus shores up the local economy and perpetuates racial antagonism across the urban-rural spectrum.
Booker and Vance both explore narratives about the Appalachian region as “white trash.” Booker attempts to disrupt the white trash narrative by finding connections between the folks of rural Kentucky and the people of the West End of Louisville (2022, 154). By blaming the people of the region as their problem, Vance obscures the old boy system that wields political power in the region. Though Booker does not collapse into a capitalist realist position and opens toward the future, our intention for the students was to get them to observe the struggle behind these seamless narratives. Booker too backs into the old boy system in his read of Mitch McConnell.
Of course, that system maintains its relevance. Following McConnell’s example of wielding political rhetoric that exploits the tensions between rural and urban spaces, Vance won his maiden bid to become the next U.S. Senator from Ohio. Though unsuccessful thus far in his senatorial aspirations, Booker does point to a multiracial democratic future in his reflections over the time he served in Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. By focusing on the overlap between drug use in urban spaces and rural locations, Booker bridges the working-class pride expressed by people in Pikeville, Prestonburg, and the primarily Black neighborhoods of Louisville.
“Their stories reminded me of my uncle Lamont. He was a great guy whom I loved deeply, but after some health issues, he consistently battled drug use. He struggled to keep a job or a home. These rural Kentuckians weren’t labeled as criminals in the same way that people in my hood were, but they were definitely suffering from the same problems.” (Booker 2022, 155)
Instead of collapsing into isolating people from their failures, Booker finds commonality all the while pointing out the larger structural issue of criminality and its corresponding logic of carcerality falling along racial lines. However, where he falls out is in identifying the role of capital in creating and maintaining these issues. The same logic of extraction that strips eastern Kentucky and Appalachia for coal also exploits neglectful governance structures that place refineries and incinerators in Louisville. Identifying the problem of poverty is the first step. Being able to call racism bad is also important, and collectivism provides but one solution. Theory allows us to ask, and answer, why and for whose benefit this poverty serves, as theory helps frame the process that legitimizes these relationships of oppression against lived experiences.
To conclude, let us return to Booker’s text, particularly his discussion of the Blackjewel miners’ movement and their resistance to their company’s refusal to pay them the wages they earned.
“Standing on the tracks, I listened to them talk about the future of the industry. ‘Rep. Booker,’ they told me, ‘we would love to do other things than go down in those mines. We would love to see new industries like solar. No one ever listens to us, though. This is all we have.’” (Booker 2022, 231)
Being from the regions Booker seeks to bridge, Yarish and I know these hopes and the contradictions of these wishes for the future. However, without a firm grasp of racial theory and political economy, we fail to anticipate these contradictions, and we fail to understand the realities they facilitate and the power structures that will continue to frustrate these alternative futures. We also fail to truly grasp the radically different conditions of a similar act of political participation, running for the U.S. Senate with Vance succeeding and Booker failing (again). These persistent contradictions of the past, contradictions of present struggles, and frustrations for the future are why we study participation in the political process in the first place.
Booker, Charles. 2022. From the Hood to the Holler: A Story of Separate Worlds, Shared Dreams, and the Fight for America’s Future. New York: Crown.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. Reprint, 1989 edition. London: International Publishers Co.
hooks, bell. 2009. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge.
Linnemann, Travis, and Corina Medley. 2019. “Down and Out in Middletown and Jackson: Drugs, Dependency, and Decline in J.D. Vance’s Capitalist Realism.” In Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, 136–54. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.
Robinson, Cedric J. 2016. The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books.
Vance, J. D. 2016. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins.
Chaz Briscoe is a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech University.
Jasmine Noelle Yarish is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia.
Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.
Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)
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