I grew up and went to school deep in Appalachia, in far Southwest Virginia, near the Tennessee line.
While the region is trying to reinvent itself, it still suffers the hangover of the decline of coal and manufacturing, and depopulation.
Many of my friends from high school and college still live in the region. Others are scattered around the south, including in Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
In some ways, they’re The Deplorables – one of them said it, not me.
They’re also a weird mix of libertarians, hardcore Republicans and the strangest unicorn of all, the Obama-turned-Trump voter.
This past weekend, seven of us met up in Nashville for a weekend of country music, hot chicken and cheap beer.
Two of us may have – at different points – fallen off a bar stool. I blame faulty stool design and a rain-slicked, beer splattered floor. You can draw your own conclusions.
The common joke is that we’re still friends because they need to show that they have a liberal friend (me).
Our relationships over the years have required head shaking on both sides. Our worlds are very different, and they hold views that, in some instances, I would not tolerate from someone I just met.
They are also hardworking, loving husbands and fathers, business owners, teachers and coaches. One builds aircraft carriers, another is a successful restaurateur and craft beer aficionado. All of us are trying to be better people.
In recent years, our relationship has grown into one of respectful engagement and political disagreement. Sometimes it gets heated, particularly on social media, less so in person. I’m convinced that sometimes, they say things, use language and take views mostly designed to get my goat.
As a group, we try to get together at least once a year, although after a trip to Baltimore I wondered if we had grown too far apart and too different for the trips to continue – at least with an invitation to me.
This year was different, maybe because of the venue. Maybe because of two years of President Donald Trump. Maybe because there’s more distance between the 2016 election and today.
During the weekend, some of them used language that I don’t approve of. They said things that were designed to be hurtful and to get a reaction – “can’t you take a joke anymore.” I called them on it, refusing to get baited into a fight, but staying consistent, calm – and, unfortunately – condescending.
They have challenged me on policies that have hurt them – and which they blame on liberals like me – most specifically the high cost of health insurance and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on some small businesses. We’ve also talked about the impact of a higher minimum wage, particularly on service industries like restaurants and on waiters and waitresses who do well under a tip system.
We debated the value of a college education in our lives and talked about our efforts to raise good kids who will be more successful and better than we are.
Here’s what I learned from them: They think the government shutdown is stupid and is hurting people, though they wonder if it doesn’t show that government couldn’t be smaller and cheaper. They are generally supportive of immigration, and they hire people without regard to who they love or how they look.
They don’t live and breath politics like I do, but they feel like government has let them down and that some of their communities have been left behind.
One of the guys – I’ll call him Shawn because that’s his name – bet me I wouldn’t write about the trip. We’ll see if he pays up. (He’s also the other person who found the floor of a honky tonk thanks to a poorly designed bar stool).
Working in politics, I truly believe that we can change hearts and minds through respectful, long-term engagement. I’ve seen it happen time and again. I’m an optimist. And I’ll also keep the most important commandment of the New Testament when it comes to these guys: To love one another.
I’ll never give up on them; and I hope they won’t give up on me.