I come from working class white Upstate New York. I was inner-city, wrong-side-of-the-tracks poor but brought up less than an hour away from the “hardscrabble” rural and small town poverty that Williamson refers to. That’s literally part of Appalachia. (Geographically, economically, and socially as well as legally under the Appalachian Regional Commission.)
What’s interesting about Appalachia is how little its changed in the past hundred years. Then it was a region of isolated population, with poor education, a heavy concentration of manual laboring jobs, and a reluctance to interfere with the power structure that gave them whatever jobs were available. All of that remains true today. The mining interests that ran West Virginia still do, even though the mines are played out and their pollution kills their own workers.
It’s this reluctance to move, change, or grow that Williamson appears to be referring to. Union workers elsewhere forced changes (yes, sometimes with violence, though responding to violence from the other side) that fulfilled most of the demands of the Progressive movement and the New Deal and completely altered working class mobility. That’s the better life for their kids that’s so much talked about now. The working class had hope because they fought for the conditions that allowed hope to foster. (Just as African-Americans did a generation later.)
This happened just about everywhere in the country outside of Appalachia. I don’t know why. It’s not simply poverty or bad schools or conniving politicians. Cities had an overabundance of those. It may be that the low population density didn’t make for cohesive movement building. Rural populations historically never rebelled well; city densities always sheltered uprisings.
The old power structure of Appalachia is almost gone. Nothing is left to acquiesce to but nothing is left to build on. It’s leave or die, but most people don’t want to leave and see no place to fit in if they do. Some, like the Trump supporters, are loud and angry about it but they aren’t fighting for the future, like the old working class; they’re demanding the return of an imaginary better past. That’s doomed to failure. Worse, that’s doomed to leave them in worse shape than they are now because they’re kicking every hand that could possibly want to reach out to them and surrounding themselves with an aura of hate that will make few want to help.
Williamson is right in general - if the snippets given properly reflect the whole unavailable article. The huge hole in his argument is that he refuses to accept any responsibility by the GOP, which has fought to destroy the union movement, fought to limit federal assistance, fought to demonize minorities, fought to uphold religious closed-mindedness, fought to apotheosize businesses, fought science and education and technology. All at the same time they courted the Appalachians all across the country to support them while they destroyed all chance they had of change. We’ll put up a fence against The Future, the GOP cried, and it won’t get to you. They did and it didn’t. Both sides wanted this. Neither likes it and neither will take responsibility. A pox on both their houses.