Anyone coming from a background like Dennis White ’19 would most likely perceive his enrollment at a school like Wesleyan as a paradox or a hoax. For most white working-class kids growing up in rural West Virginia, a state wrought with poverty and sporting the lowest college graduation rate in the country, opioid addiction, and emblematic for the failures in our democracy, higher education would be out of the question. For someone like White, a military veteran whose father and grandfather both fought in the army and didn’t attend college, stepping foot onto Wesleyan’s campus as a freshman might have been more foreign than the desert battlefields of Iraq where he served.
In 2002, when White was a recent high-school dropout working at a Wendy’s for $5.15 an hour, his future attendance at Wesleyan certainly would have seemed unfathomable.
“When I dropped out of high school my dad didn’t have any way to support me, so I had to move to [Charleston, W.V.] where I lived in these ratty trailers and apartments working for whoever would pay me,” White said in his prominent Appalachian accent. “Five-fifteen an hour, that’s rough living. That’s where I came from, and there was no real way out of it.”
Since the 2016 election campaigns, West Virginia, which overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the general election (more so than traditionally conservative states such as Alabama and Mississippi) became a highly discussed part of the country, scrutinized in an effort to understand the Trump phenomenon. The state seemed to embody the conglomeration of cultural and economic forces that laid the groundwork for Trump’s appeal to a working-class voter base. With the plethora of articles and political punditry that has focused on the nebulous notion of the “white working class” in wake of the election, White’s home county offers a vivid depiction of the type of voters that would be enticed by a candidate like Trump, many of whom found hope in his boorish rhetoric and promises to bring back coal jobs.
“Working-class West Virginians tend to be crass,” White said. “Most people who work in industrialized labor like coal miners, construction workers, soldiers just build up this crass culture and Trump spoke to that. And he came and talked right to the workers.”
White grew up just outside the capitol in Boone County, an area that serves as a microcosm for the economic changes that have plagued the state. While the average income in the county now is just over $20,000, with 20 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line, during the golden age of coal mining, Boone County was one of the most prosperous parts of the state with most residents holding stable jobs in the coal industry. However, in the second half of the 20th century, the economy shifted away from coal and toward natural gas and renewable energy, leading to unemployment for miners whose former jobs did not translate into new employment in developing sectors of the economy.
“When coal was really booming, Boone County was the wealthiest part of the state, so all the political and economic structures revolved around coal from the time they discovered it until the decline in the 1980s and then it still revolves around coal, but it’s just a dying industry that’s come with brain drain and population decline,” White said. “Shit jobs is all they have now unless you have a STEM degree and work in the energy field, but you need higher education, which most miners haven’t received.”
While over 70 percent of Boone County voted for Trump, White has identified with leftist politics since a very young age, due in large part to his experience growing up in poverty. His mother worked as a nurse, but due to certain mental health problems, could not always keep a stable job. White’s father was a coal miner, always putting food on the table, but tenuously providing for the family paycheck to paycheck.
“When I was a kid, the union used to be a big deal in West Virginia, so my dad would take me to the picket line,” White said. “We would stay until he got a contract, so that was the politics I was involved in. I always had leftist tendencies growing up, but I think I was largely alone in that sentiment.”
West Virginia has been run for most of its history by a Democratic Party composed of blue dog Democrats that brokered between the two often-conflicting forces in the daily lives of working miners: the coal companies and unions.
“Most of the members of my father’s union wouldn’t subscribe to left or right, because they aren’t so much motivated by political sentiment as much as they just want a square deal,” White said. “Outside of the union there was no politics. People voted for the Democrats because that’s what they knew so it was essentially one-party rule for 80 years with the Democrats.”
Despite White’s political fervor, a career in politics never seemed to be on his horizon growing up. Once White dropped out of high school, where he never performed very well, he went through a series of low-paying jobs without benefits that barely kept him alive. Without a high school diploma, White’s options were limited and his future seemed bleak. Despite being adamantly opposed to the ideology of war, White has a long line of military service in his family and chose to enlist in the army to escape the economic netherworld of the West Virginia job market.
“When you come from nothing, the military doesn’t seem that bad,” White said. “You get fed three times a day, and you get paid pretty well, so it wasn’t a bad move for me especially because I got to escape that crazy economy at the time of the recession. I was very anti-war when I joined and I thought it was the worst thing ever, but I needed to get out of where I was at. It was deadly living there.”
In 2006, White enlisted as an infantryman, and trained for six months in Fort Hood, Texas, before being deployed to Iraq. White arrived at a calamitous point in the Iraq war right before the 2007 Surge of US Troops when it looked as if the United States might lose the war. White fought on the ground for all of the two years that he was stationed in Iraq and experienced the evolving military strategies taking place.
“At first, the relationship with the Iraqis was bad, from a tactical perspective,” White said. “What changed all this was starting to ask, ‘Well, why are these people fighting us?’ and then allowing them to control their neighborhoods rather than us controlling them for maybe an hour or two a day. So when the Awakening happened, we had a really good relationship with the local Iraqis.”
White found himself fighting in a war that he didn’t believe in, sacrificing his life for a cause he did not support. An existential conflict that would seem unimaginable. Ultimately, what allowed White to get through his time in Iraq and later Afghanistan was the camaraderie.
“You fight for the guys to your left and right,” White said. “You’re all Americans, and when there are bullets flying by your head, you just have to fight to survive. That’s how I deal with that. You’re ordered to do it, and if you don’t do it then someone else will.”
During White’s time in the military, where he was surrounded largely by other working-class kids who joined for similar reasons, his political views didn’t change.
“If anything, I went farther to the left,” he said.
While military culture fosters an antipathy to political discussions, White had to ask fellow soldiers to take down Confederate flags that they hung up in their barracks a few times. However, White’s perception of education did radically transform as he began to see the possibilities that a college degree opens up in the world.
“In West Virginia, college is not really a thing pushed on boys,” White said. “Men and boys work with their hands and women become teachers and nurses and that’s about what you hear across the state. That’s how I grew up, so I thought college was for wimps.”
White’s cultural aversion to higher education, associated with snobby, elite Northeasterners, was challenged once he struggled to rise in the ranks of the military.
“Joining the military and seeing officers I didn’t think were that smart giving me commands and running platoons made me think, ‘Why can’t I run a platoon?’ and it’s like ‘Oh, you didn’t go to college,’ and I started figuring out that college is extremely important and opens doors, and helps get you to where you want to be,” he said. “It’s freedom, so that changed my mindset a lot.”
After returning to the United States, White finished his service with the National Guard and immediately enrolled at Austin Community College. While he was studying, he also worked as a fellow on Democrat Wendy Davis’ campaign for Governor of Texas. The experience gave White his first insight into the flaws of Democratic campaigning and messaging, which became instrumental in his later political projects.
“She never really discussed issues on a community level and didn’t run hard enough in the Hispanic communities which is what you have to do as a Democrat in Texas,” White said. “It was my first experience of how Obama-style campaigning won’t work. It worked for him but won’t work in working-class areas like Texas or West Virginia. The DNC needs to free people up a little bit to figure out how to run, because they’re not going to win by dictating their policies from Massachusetts to Texas.”
White did well at Austin Community College and was recommended by his professors to apply for the Posse Program. Along with a number of other elite universities, White applied to Wesleyan and was accepted ED.
“At other programs, you aren’t really part of the school but at Wesleyan, I feel like I’m actually part of the student body, which I really like,” White said.
Coming from an impoverished and underfunded school system in West Virginia, the schoolwork has certainly been challenging for White, who is majoring in the College of Social Studies.
“I came in determined to make it through four years and it has been tough, but graduating is the most important thing for me,” White said.
After Wesleyan, White plans to attend law school and has already started working on various public service projects to try to mend the broken social and economic fabric in his home state. While at school, White founded the Appalachian Scholars Project, which aims to tutor high school students, mostly in West Virginia, and get them into colleges.
“Coal companies have had a stranglehold on education in West Virginia, and it has created this atmosphere where people don’t think they need to go to college,” White said. “The challenge we face with the project is to go change people’s entire concept of higher education because it’s just not part of the culture.”
Over the summer, White met with college counselors at high schools across the state and even went door-to-door meeting with families to get their children involved. While the project is relatively small now, White looks to expand the project in the next few years and has even received funding offers from Democratic Socialists of America chapters in the state. However, the project has certainly been met with backlash as well.
“Because I think we have such a broad sweeping goal of cultural reform, it becomes really difficult when you say to these parents, give me your kid for two weeks from nine to five and teach them critical reading and writing skills in the morning and college search and survival skills in the evening,” White said.
In addition, White also works on a congressional campaign in West Virginia for State Senator Richard Ojeda, a military veteran running on a Democratic platform that mirrors the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. White sees Ojeda as the answer to the collapse of Democratic Party ties to the working class, which used to be its voter base, partially leading to the rise of Trump.
“These towns in rural West Virginia have largely been forgotten about and Ojeda-type candidates are the answer,” he said. “He connects right to working-class people, and it’s not just about the white working class but the working class in general. His main message is to give the poor working class a voice in Washington and to be accountable and to be accessible. He wants to make time for constituents.”
Ojeda made headlines back in 2016 during his state senate campaign against Art Kirkendoll, whose brother tried to kill Ojeda in a Walmart parking lot with brass knuckles. The incident offers a glimpse into the political tactics used in West Virginia against those who deviate from the political precedents set by the establishment. Political violence, in large part, has been normalized over the course of the state’s history.
“That’s how politics work in Logan County,” White said. “Logan County has a long history of violent politics.”
The altercation, however, propelled Ojeda into national news, which may have eventually helped him win the election. Along with diversifying the economy, Ojeda has run on an anti-corruption platform, promising to curb Citizens United and the influence that special interests have in state politics, an issue that has rubbed the Democratic establishment the wrong way.
“They don’t want Ojeda to come in and start sticking his nose in places where it doesn’t belong,” he said. “Now that he’s there, he’s shining a bright, hot light on all the corruption and they don’t like it. Most of our opponents are scared of that because they know we are going to expose the dishonest stuff that they’ve been doing.”
In the primaries for the 2018 midterm elections, Ojeda will be the underdog running against Steve Williams, a candidate that the party heads have made clear they prefer over Ojeda.
“Steve Williams is a Hillary Clinton-type Democrat with all the right connections, knows all the right people, has a good finance director, all the stuff you need to run the right campaign,” White explained. “We have the scrappy, hard work working-class kids that we’re hoping to win. We are trying to think about things in ways that the Democratic establishment wouldn’t. We have a lot of African-American women, a lot of people who are interested in building a start-up culture in West Virginia, so you have an interesting group of people.”
Because he isn’t receiving financial support from the establishment, Ojeda addressed the shortcomings in money by running a door-to-door campaign, outworking his opponents and talking directly to the lower class who’ve been most affected by the policies put forth in Washington. This strategy has made the campaign aware of the extent to which the opioid crisis has devastated rural West Virginia.
“On the way over there Spruce Hollow, which is a poorer part of West Virginia, we saw one lady overdosed in her driveway and four guys overdosed in a car in broad daylight at like 3 o’clock,” White said. “When we spoke with the fire department, they told us that they’d never seen a politician up here. Ever. So our idea is to go to those places up close and personal and highlight issues and the blights in these communities. Steve Williams doesn’t do that. He talks about how great these places are but if you drive through you would think this is a very scary place.”
For the Democratic Party and the United States in general, the Ojeda campaign offers an opportunity for reconciliation with the past and a hopeful path forward for the future. White’s experience of life in West Virginia speaks to a troubling reality about the state of American politics and culture; however, it also is the place to start toward rebuilding.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.