How to oversimplify coalfield politics (and policy)

January 15, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Earlier this week, the National Journal published a piece called The Shift Of King Coal: The coal industry still dominates in Appalachia, and that’s bad news for the Democratic party. Here’s how it started out:

When West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller formally announced his decision to quit the Senate on Friday, he opened the next chapter in one of the few true historic shifts taking place in American politics. Even before his announcement, Republicans were eyeing his seat as a prime pickup opportunity, a reflection of the ascendance of the Republican Party in Appalachia, a shift in which working-class white voters who have reliably cast ballots for Democratic politicians for the better part of a century are moving inexorably, and perhaps permanently, toward the Republican Party.

That’s because in Appalachia, coal is still king.

The piece reminded me of the one that the Wall Street Journal published way back in June 2001, in which it explained George W. Bush’s victory in West Virginia with this similar, one-issue narrative.  Several observers of Appalachian politics and culture commented on Twitter about the National Journal piece. For example, Elaine McMillion (the filmmaker behind the interactive piece, “Hollow“) wrote:

This shift is much more complex than ‘coal and guns’.

And poet Crystal Good tweeted:

This red and blue article totally ignores the possibility that WV could have voted white against black.

One thing that jumped out at me from this National Journal piece was the map shown above (which is you go to their site is actually interactive, and shows blue counties changing to red over the years). The story explained the map this way:

President Obama won just 30 of the 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to a National Journal analysis of election results. Just one of those 30 counties, Elliott, was in Kentucky; Obama lost every county in West Virginia. He only came within ten points of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in three of the state’s 55 counties.

The problem with this analysis is that, of those 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission, only 118 of them are considered “major coal-producing counties,” according to this report prepared for the ARC by the University of Kentucky. It’s hard, given that, to make the case that the National Journal “analysis” really helps make the case the article puts forward. And as I tried to get at just after last November’s election, looking at races across the nation’s coalfields makes this all even more complicated:

… Look around the country at other places where Republicans and the coal industry tried to play the Obama “war on coal” game: Outside of West Virginia, Democrats who were endorsed by the United Mine Workers, but painted as not pro-coal and anti-Obama enough by their opponents, won six crucial U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico and Indiana. Or consider that in southeastern Ohio, while the major coal counties all backed Romney, turnout in those counties dropped by 7 percent over 2008, meaning there simply weren’t enough votes there to help Romney overcome the Obama advantage in other parts of the state.

Of course, President Obama’s unpopularity in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia is not just about coal, and it’s not just about race. It’s more complicated than that, as historian Ron Eller tried to explain four years ago. Writing after Obama lost the 2008 primary here, Ron explained:

Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory in the West Virginia Democratic primary has provided yet another opportunity to reduce economic and political issues in Appalachia to time-honored tropes about cultural differentness. Within the past week, an embarrassment of journalists, bloggers, and late-night television hosts have turned Senator Clinton’s support among blue collar voters in West Virginia into a confirmation of the white “otherness” of Appalachian culture rather than an expression of fundamental (and more complex) issues of class, gender, and race or even political organization in the Mountain State.

For blue collar voters in Appalachia, economic concerns, not Appalachian identity, shaped their decisions at the polls. Job insecurity, rising food and gas prices, and uncertain access to health care and education turned Appalachian voters toward the more working class message of Hillary Clinton, especially among women who occupy the center of the modern mountain economy. Perhaps because of the race issue, Obama conceded West Virginia to Clinton, who was able to use the local Democratic political machinery to her advantage.

Unlike John Kennedy, who came to Appalachia during the 1960 primary season to confront anti-Catholicism directly, the Obama strategy of side-stepping the race issue (so recently raised by the Reverend Wright controversy) left the playing field to the opposition. Kennedy quickly learned that economic distress was of greater concern to mountain voters than religious difference, and by appealing to those concerns, he carried the state.

Obama has yet to learn this basic truth about Appalachia. The cultural conservatism that has often fueled a misunderstanding of the region’s history and problems is grounded in economic conditions, hopes, and values that reflect those of the larger society. Appalachia is only the “other America” if we want to ignore the contradictions and challenges of our time.

What’s especially troubling about this simplistic analysis by the National Journal is that these sorts of national media reports tend to be taken as gospel by locals, even otherwise thoughtful and progressive political watchers. I’m thinking, for instance, of the quotes attributed to political consultant Mike Plante in one of our Gazette stories about what a Democrat would have to do to beat Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., in the 2014 race for Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat:

They would have to carve out an identity that they’re an independent-minded, West Virginia Democrat, not a Washington Democrat. They need to be pro-coal and conservative on social issues.

This notion of being a “pro-coal” candidate, of course, gets quickly translated to its least-common denominator: A candidate that, like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, promises repeatedly to get the federal EPA “off our backs” and ignores the very real problems the coal industry creates and the serious implications of the ongoing decline in Central Appalachia’s coal industry.

It’s true that West Virginians, when asked, offer positive opinions of the coal industry and coal companies. But they also tend to voice opposition to the more extreme and damaging practices of the mining industry, such as mountaintop removal.

When political leaders, elected officials and the media create this simplistic narrative, they ignore the internal contradictions the polling data suggests exist within many West Virginians: They don’t like blowing up mountains (or more importantly, coal miners), but they also aren’t too happy when their neighbors start losing their jobs. Making it a simple thing — as the industry’s relentless “war on coal” campaign does — of being for or against coal leaves little political space for anything else. No leader or potential leader can talk honestly about both the damage coal does to workers, the environment and the climate, but also express concern about the lack of any plan for doing anything else in our coalfield communities.

It’s how someone like Sen. Rockefeller gets painted as being against the coal industry, just for saying something pretty simple like this:

Let me be clear. I’m frustrated with some of the top levels of the coal industry, but I’m not giving up hope for a strong clean coal future. To get there, we’ll need a bold partner, innovation and major public and private investments.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget that coal fired power plants provide good jobs for thousands of West Virginians. It remains the underpinning for many small communities and I will always be focused foremost on their future.

Instead of finger pointing, we should commit ourselves to a smart action plan that will help with job transition opportunities, sparking new manufacturing and exploring the next generation of technology.

None of this is impossible. Solving big challenges with American ingenuity is what we do. West Virginia knows energy and West Virginia doesn’t shrink from challenge. We have the chance here to not just grudgingly accept the future – but to boldly embrace it.

If the industry — and the national media — succeed in blocking the political space for even very moderate positions like that, there’s little hope that West Virginia is going to boldly embrace any sort of prosperous future.

5 Responses to “How to oversimplify coalfield politics (and policy)”

  1. Jim Sconyers says:

    What shocked me in the 2012 election in WV was the way every single office and candidate somehow came down to “I am a friend of coal,” even in places and offices where coal had never been an issue.

  2. Walt Auvil says:

    “This notion of being a “pro-coal” candidate, of course, gets quickly translated to its least-common denominator: A candidate that, like Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, promises repeatedly to get the federal EPA “off our backs” and ignores the very real problems the coal industry creates and the serious implications of the ongoing decline in Central Appalachia’s coal industry.”

    Exactly – and the “one party state” approach of each of both political parties -ignoring the reality of declining coal and instead trying to engage each other in a race to the bottom – fails the WV public because it leads them to believe the problems are due to “outsiders” and have nothing to do with the dynamics of the industry itself.

  3. Soyedina says:

    I think Ken is being far too skeptical here, clearly all the coal miners in NC, SC and GA were a huge factor in Obama losing those counties.

  4. Steve says:

    What historians and the press forget is that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson came to WV. and taught us all how we were so poor. Before that, most of us didn’t even know!

  5. Mary Love says:

    Looking at the interactive map on the National Journal’s page, I wondered how much the loss of union jobs in the mines led to the switch from Democrat to Republican.