With his wife, Cindi, and their 17-year-old son, Andrew, he lives in a tan, one-story home off a country road surrounded by mountains. His kitchen walls are wood-paneled, covered with Cracker Barrel-style knickknacks and a pair of decorative cloth bouquet hangings.
Sparks, 49, makes a good living for a resident of Blairsville, Ga. He pulls in more than $45,000 a year from Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, where he works as a warehouseman. But his worn face and ragged English betray a life of hard work and hard times. Sparks grew up a self-described Kennedy Democrat, born to a single mom in 1954, a time when single mothers weren't too popular, he notes. After high school, he joined the military for a short stint, got out and went to work at his uncle's sawmill before joining an EMC right-of-way crew. That was before they used chainsaws.
"They's people in prison don't work as hard as what we worked," he recalls, "but I had to have it." His motivation was a wife and a baby girl.
Watching him light up Winstons, listening to his adventures in syntax, you might try to pigeonhole Sparks after about 10 seconds. You'd be wrong. He defies easy categorization.
One minute, he's spewing out Fox News/talk radio cliches about "big government" and school prayer. But the next minute, he's expressing himself eloquently on the real problems he and his neighbors face in 21st century rural America.
"To me ... if you're working a public job, basically what you're going to wind up with, if you can pay for a house, if you can drive a relatively new car -- not a new car, but a newer used car -- and send your kids to college, that's a pretty good chunk. And then on top of that, save a little bit for retirement," Sparks says. It's humble and anti-materialist. "Now, that don't seem like a whole lot of goals to put in front of you starting out in life, but that's basically what it wound up being."
In Sparks lies the great conundrum of modern Southern politics: The average, white, working-class guy is having a hard time making ends meet -- as if consumer debt recently topping $2 trillion for the first time wasn't enough of a clue. His wages have dropped when adjusted for inflation. His health insurance premiums have skyrocketed (if he has health insurance). He and his wife both have to work, and they pay astronomical childcare bills. His younger kids' schools are crappy and under-funded. His older kids' college tuition jumped (14 percent in the last year, on average). And, if he's like Sparks, 30 percent of what he managed to stash away for retirement evaporated in a stock market fiasco fueled by corporate greed that a bit more government oversight could have prevented.
So where's the anger? And why in the world is he going to vote for a president based on a side issue such as which candidate hates gay marriage?
I spent a week on the road trying to figure out why traditionally Democratic rural whites have so solidly embraced a Republican Party whose economic program runs directly counter to their own interests.
I started in the mountain hamlet of Young Harris, Ga. -- hometown of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller -- and in nearby Blairsville. Then, on to Seneca, S.C., birthplace of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. Finally, I headed to Polk County, one of the poorest parts of Central Florida.
Like much of the rural South, each town I visited was poor and overwhelmingly white, with residents who voted for President Bush in 2000. At each stop, I looked for working poor and middle-income people, asked them how they voted and why. The answers were depressingly facile, filled with the perfectly parroted lingo of the right-wing echo chamber, and yet, once I dug, often so thin, disconnected and confused that I wondered whether a strong wind (or populist candidate with the right message) might reorder the political landscape.
"Part of the problem that any political party would have ... is: Do you take the political world as you find it or do you try to change the electorate?" says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.
The answer for progressives and populists is the latter if they intend to solve the riddle of their dwindling support, because these are the places where politicians fear to tread, places populated by the most ignored voters in the country.
In the parking
lot of Mary Ann's, one of Miller's favorite eateries, four men huddle around a cream-colored, rust-pocked Silverado pickup. A red, white and blue placard below the sign for the Young Harris Motel proudly reads, "American Owned." It's cold, and the sky is promising snow.
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