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.
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.