Courtney Lucas is a writer living in Pikeville, Ky.
The disaster here in eastern Kentucky was like nothing I’d ever seen before — but some of the online response to it was depressingly familiar. “These people got what they voted for,” said one post. “Elect a turtle, learn to swim,” read another. “Maybe it’s God’s punishment for being a bastion of ignorance and regression.” Or, my personal favorite, “What are those houses doing there along the river in the first place?”
I scrolled through social-media post after social-media post of self-proclaimed Democrats, liberals and leftists declaring the flood some kind of punishment for the Republican-controlled state that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls home. Whenever a natural disaster occurs in Kentucky, as with the tornados that ripped through the western part of the state in 2021, killing more than 70 people, I see online derision about climate-change-denying Republicans or just about general Republican corruption.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, my friends and acquaintances shared images of the devastation — families stranded on rooftops, a bedridden person awaiting rescue in a bedroom filling with brown water, lost pets, found pets — and desperate pleas for help escaping the rising waters or contacting missing loved ones. At least 25 people have died, and more rain is coming.
I have always proudly voted for Democratic candidates in local, state and federal elections. The first vote I cast in a presidential election was for Hillary Clinton, and I gladly voted for Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat who has gracefully led this state through the pandemic.
I support the Black Lives Matter movement, abortion rights, same-sex marriage — all the things good Democrats are supposed to support. I have also always been an Appalachian, a part of my identity that I cherish. I was born and raised in Pikeville, as were my parents, my grandparents and many generations before them.
This week, when I saw two very different stories about the flooding unfold on social media, I wondered if I was an “us” or a “them,” if I should stand with my party or my people. Democrats often justifiably accuse Republicans of choosing party over people. You don’t have to look hard for examples — in mid-July, it was Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania voting against federal protections for same-sex marriage and then three days later attending his son’s same-sex wedding.
Democrats tend to view themselves as being above such behavior. But what I saw on social media suggests that more than a few can’t put people before party even when lives are in danger.
I know, you can’t deduce too much from the awful things people say online. But when those comments draw dozens of like-minded replies, and you know plenty of these people’s friends and allies are likely thinking the same thing but just aren’t putting it online, that’s disheartening — and infuriating.
People need a scapegoat for their political frustrations, and Appalachia’s complicated history of exploitation and extraction makes it the perfect candidate. It’s a region that outsiders have a hard time understanding, a region that was blamed for helping elect Donald Trump. Too many of my fellow Democrats have become calloused to places like eastern Kentucky because they are deemed a lost cause. That makes things only more difficult for the people and organizers who are actively working to try to change this part of the country and make it a better place.
The flood waters didn’t check voter registration before taking cars, homes and lives. Yard signs proclaiming “In this house we believe …” were not going to make the water change course and spare the homes of Democrats. But even if this were possible, even if the only people affected by the floods were those who voted for McConnell and Trump, even if the only homes destroyed belonged to gun-toting, Capitol-insurrection-attending, bigoted, worst-of-the-worst Republicans, they are still human beings, and no one deserves the devastation that I’ve seen. No one.
If the choice is between party or people, I’ll choose to stand by my people every time. Although flooding on this scale is unprecedented, the people of eastern Kentucky and Appalachia are resilient, and we will continue living here and celebrating our shared culture, even when we don’t share each other’s politics.