How the Democrats Lost West Virginia


C’mon, fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says?

You’re going back to work.”

—Donald Trump on signing an executive order to reverse the Obama Administration’s rules on coal, March 28, 2017.

Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 buried Barry Goldwater in West Virginia, 67.9 percent to 32.1 percent. By 2016, Trump completely reversed that landslide by defeating Hillary Clinton 67.9 percent to 26.2 percent. What happened to turn such a deep blue state into flaming red?

The Democratic Party establishment has a simple explanation: West Virginians are so hung up on cultural issues like guns, gays, abortion and their mythical self-image as “coal country” that they vote against their own material interests. They seem impervious to the fact that they are major beneficiaries of Obamacare and Medicaid. They don’t seem to notice that health care jobs far exceed coal-related jobs, which have been decimated by new technologies, and market competition from natural gas and renewables.

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently writes, “So West Virginia voted overwhelmingly against its own interests. …Coal country residents…. were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more.”

The Democrat Party’s Love Affair with Neoliberalism

But is the real problem inside the heads of West Virginians? Or is it in the story the Democrats have been telling themselves for the past 40 years—namely that neoliberal capitalism can solve all problems by making the rich even richer?

Ever since Bill Clinton triangulated the Democrats onto Wall Street and declared “the era of big government is over,” the neoliberal catechism has spread throughout both political parties—that unleashing the private sector will bring jobs and prosperity to all.

Hillary Clinton, to her credit, candidly revealed during the primaries just how she would use neoliberalism to turn around West Virginia’s economy.

“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?

… Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on. … So I am passionate about this, which is why I have put forward specific plans about how we incentivize more jobs, more investment in poor communities, and put people to work.”

Her passion for “incentivizing” private investment with government tax breaks and cash is at the core of Democratic neoliberalism. Put simply, the idea is to bribe the private sector to come into hard-hit areas like West Virginia to create jobs.

Except this never happens. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama failed to bring a modicum of economic prosperity to West Virginia. Donald Trump’s deregulatory approach will also leave West Virginia in poverty. The fact is that encouraging the rich to make more and more money does not create good-paying jobs. For at least 40 years this has failed miserably leading to an ever increasing gap between the super-rich and the rest of us.

Contrast this failed approach to the Democratic Party of FDR, JFK and LBJ. Those presidents, though staunch defenders of capitalism, understood that the excruciating poverty of Appalachia could not be cured by free enterprise alone. They made a difference through direct government interventions. The New Deal put the unemployed back to work building hundreds of parks, roads and other facilities in West Virginia. The creation of Social Security supported the elderly. The Kennedy-Johnson administration provided Medicare and Medicaid. Little wonder that West Virginians idolized these Democratic leaders.

Those days are over. Coal isn’t coming back, nor should it. West Virginia, however, remains poor and will become even more so unless the federal government intervenes directly.

A Real Economic Transformation for Coal Country?

The alternative to economic and environmental devastation is for the federal government to guarantee all the unemployed in West Virginia a job at a living wage. And there’s plenty to do. Tens of thousands of workers could be employed to restore in some way the mountain tops that have been removed to satiate the greed of the coal mine owners. Following the New Deal’s WPA model, these scarred mountains could be turned into recreation sites, locations for alternative energy or other uses limited only by our creativity and imagination.

To protect the population and create more jobs, Medicare should be improved and expanded to cover all West Virginians. Free pre-K programs should be made available for 2- to 5-year-olds, and tuition eliminated at all public post-high school educational institutions. And for those who want to leave the area to seek employment in other regions, moving expenses should be provided.

While we may disagree on the mix of policy interventions needed, the point is that only massive government intervention can bring shared prosperity to West Virginians.

Will Environmentalists Abandon Neoliberal Wishful Thinking?

Environmental activists want to shut down the coal industry, and for good reason. They are rightly concerned that unless fossil fuel emissions are dramatically curtailed, we will cook the planet.

Environmental groups use the phrase “just transition” to explain how current fossil fuel workers and their communities can move to a safer, more prosperous green economy. Yet too often this approach relies on the neoliberal model to get from here to there:

  • “There are more jobs now in alternative energy than there are in fossil fuels.” True enough. But there is no realistic path through which those with the old jobs get the new ones, which usually are located far away and pay far less.

  • “Coal miners are losing their jobs anyway due to technology. It’s just like the fate of elevator operators…” Yet there are still 116,000 coal mining jobs in West Virginia, where the next available job, if you are lucky enough to find one, pays less than half as much with no benefits.

  • “It’s really competition from natural gas and renewables that are putting coal out of business, not environmental regulations.” That may be the case, but don’t we still have a real obligation to the dislocated, regardless of the proximate cause?

  • “Stopping the climate catastrophe is more important than jobs. End of story.” But that’s the start of a very bad story if it’s your job, your family’s livelihood and your community’s survival.

It’s a very positive development that environmental organizations are calling for a just transition. But idea won’t work unless it also calls for direct government intervention backed by lots of money.

Where does the money come from? It comes from moving it from Wall Street to Main Street, through policies such as a financial transaction tax, public banks and wealth taxes on those with over $10 million in net assets. It comes from reversing runaway inequality, something corporate Democrats are loathe to discuss, let alone do something about it.

Won’t Trump Screw West Virginians Even More?

Of course he will. He also believes that catering to the rich and powerful is what the economy is all about. But as long as the Democrats’ only vision is to offer public/private partnerships loaded with bribes and vague promises of future jobs, Trump has nothing to worry about.

So what can we do about it?

We need a new movement dedicated to reversing runaway inequality from the hollows of West Virginia to our urban inner cities, while dramatically curtailing greenhouse gases. This requires that labor, environmental and community activists build a common vision, a common agenda and a common organization.

To get from here to there requires that fossil fuel workers and environmentalists talk to each other. There is common ground to be found if we are willing to think outside the neoliberal box. Toward that end, our fledgling runawayinequality.org educational network is piloting blue-green workshops in which union and environmental activists discuss the connections between the financial strip-mining of our economy and the destruction of the environment. The initial results are promising but we have a long, long way to go and little time to get there. (See here).

We need to tell the story of why trickle down has failed and what real alternatives look like. And we need tens of thousands of people to help tell that story. (For more information about becoming a runawayinequality.org trainer, see here.)

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

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