Losing West Virginia

Few states better illustrate the contradictions and failures of the Democratic Party than West Virginia.

Illustration by Axel Pfaender

West Virginia got a lot of attention in this year’s presidential election cycle. It was spotlighted regularly by the media to explain the phenomenon of the “Trump voter.” Unlike states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s victory in West Virginia was predicted far in advance. On Election Day he took the state in a landslide, with 68 percent of the vote.

The story of West Virginia’s drift to the right in presidential elections is well known. George W. Bush’s first campaign marked a significant shift in the state’s voting patterns as it switched from reliably voting Democrat to Republican in presidential elections. This move is typically explained by pointing to West Virginia’s declining unions, opposition to climate-change regulations that would impact the state’s coal industry, and the rising appeal of social conservatism.

Less discussed is the decline of the West Virginia Democratic Party, particularly its collapse in the last two years. The Democratic Party controlled both houses of the West Virginia legislature for eighty-two years from 1932 to 2014. But in the space of two years the party has become a shadow of its former self: the Democrats went from holding 71 percent of the seats in the House of Delegates in 2008 to 54 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2014 (and maintained 37 percent in 2016). Democratic representation in the state senate fell from 71 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2014 to 35 percent in 2016.

So while the focus on West Virginia over the past year was largely superficial, the attention wasn’t entirely unwarranted. Few states illustrate the contradictions and failures of the Democratic Party’s economic policy — and the challenges ahead in rebuilding the Left — better than West Virginia.

The Unmaking of a Party

The West Virginia Democratic Party — brought to power in the early 1930s on the heels of a coal market crash and the Great Depression — has historically drawn its strongest base of support from the state’s union movement. The United Mine Workers of America, bolstered by the pro-labor policies of the Roosevelt administration, emerged as a powerful force in West Virginia politics in the thirties, and in the decades that followed West Virginia’s industrial and coal-mining unions continued to exert political power. In the mid-1960s, about 35 percent of West Virginia workers were in a union, compared to less than 30 percent nationally.

But after peaking in the early 1980s, West Virginia union membership fell dramatically as manufacturing (notably in the steel industry) and mining jobs disappeared. In 2015, only 12.4 percent of West Virginia workers were unionized. With the decline of its union base, the state’s Democratic Party became increasingly vulnerable. The recent collapse of West Virginia’s coal industry was the final straw.

After a 2008 boom in global coal markets, West Virginia coal production and coal-mining employment began a rapid decline from which it is not expected to recover. Coal production fell 39 percent from 2008 to 2015, with the state’s southern coalfields (long the base of the state’s Democratic Party machine) seeing a drop of 59 percent. Since 2008, more than seven thousand miners in West Virginia’s southern coalfields lost their jobs; in Boone County, formerly the state’s largest coal-producing county, mining employment fell 58 percent from 2011–15.

The main reasons for the collapse are structural: geology (the state’s southern coalfields are increasingly uncompetitive as the easiest-to-mine coal is gone), the increasing use of natural gas for power generation nationally, and a weak market for coal exports. But the drop in coal production and employment coincided with Obama’s presidency, creating an opportunity for the West Virginia Republican Party. Despite the fact that federal environmental regulations have had minimal impact on the decline of the state’s coal industry, the sector’s rapid decline provided the perfect opportunity for Republicans to attack the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

West Virginia’s state elections came to be seen by Republicans as up for grabs, and out-of-state money and politicians flooded in to make the “war on coal” the dominant issue. In early 2013, Republican Alex Mooney moved from Maryland to West Virginia to make a successful run for House of Representatives the next year. Patrick Morrisey moved to eastern West Virginia in 2006 (he still maintains a home in Alexandria, VA) and won the 2012 state attorney general race, the first time a Republican held the office in nearly a hundred years. The national Republican Attorneys General Association plunked down $3.4 million to ensure Morrisey’s reelection in 2016.

Seemingly overnight the Democratic Party’s control over the West Virginia political system collapsed.

A Party of Coal

Yet the failure of the West Virginia Democratic Party can’t simply be placed at the feet of global coal prices or opportunistic Republicans. The Democrats’ failure to develop an economic vision that would benefit West Virginia workers is central to the story.

The West Virginia Democratic Party has long been beholden to dominant economic interests in the state, particularly coal mining. Even back in the 1950s, a proposal by Democratic governor William Marland to impose what would have been the first severance tax on the coal industry was soundly defeated by his Democratic legislature after an industry outcry. Today, West Virginia’s Democratic politicians don’t just represent the industry — some are the industry. Senator Joe Manchin has made millions from his family’s coal brokerage business and Governor-elect Jim Justice is a coal-mining CEO.

The party’s capture by industry has intensified in recent decades as union influence has waned in the face of mechanization. Coal mining has gone through a series of booms and busts in West Virginia, but each successive boom has employed far fewer people. At its peak in 1948, coal mining employed nearly 132,000 miners; in the mid-1970s, mining employment peaked again at 64,000 miners, and in 2008, mining employment reached a high of 22,034. And of these only one in three miners worked on the highly mechanized mountaintop removal mines, which accounted for nearly half of the state’s coal production.

While mechanization has systematically destroyed coal-mining jobs, the state Democratic Party has postured as an advocate for workers, opposing environmental regulations on the industry as a way to “save jobs.” But their pro-worker position is a façade. The party has attacked restrictions on mountaintop-removal mining (by systematically under-enforcing federal surface-mining regulations), despite the fact that mountaintop mining employs far fewer miners than underground mining. West Virginia Democrats have also catered to the coal industry on worker safety issues, failing to meaningfully increase mine safety regulations even after the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion killed twenty-nine miners.

The state Democratic Party acknowledges no contradiction in its cozy relationship with coal, arguing that what’s good for the industry is good for jobs. As governor, Joe Manchin even tried to change the state’s official motto from “wild and wonderful” to “open for business” until public outcry forced him to backtrack. Under Manchin, the state eliminated the business franchise tax and cut other corporate taxes by $425 million a year.

The fragile position of West Virginia workers has been exacerbated by the West Virginia Democrats’ long-term failure to pursue meaningful economic diversification in the state, itself a product of industry capture. Rather than pursuing other opportunities for economic diversification, the party has doubled down on extractive industries. For example, the state Democratic Party embraced the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom that swept into the state in the late 2000s, catering to another out-of-state extractive industry rather than building and retaining wealth and jobs within the state.

The Democratic Party’s attempts at true economic diversification have been meager at best. In 2009, the Democratic legislature passed an “alternative and renewable energy portfolio standard” that was ostensibly designed to diversify the state’s electricity system. In reality, it did literally nothing because it allowed utilities to count their existing coal-fired power plants as “alternative energy resources.” And unlike some other extraction-intensive states (Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota), for decades West Virginia’s legislature failed to establish a permanent mineral trust fund to keep natural resource wealth in the state during times of bust. When it finally did so in 2014, the legislature severely underfunded it.

The Last Straws

The WV Democratic Party’s accelerating representation of coal industry interests in the wake of weakening union power left it ill-prepared to deal with the recent structural decline of the state’s coal industry. The party had no real answer to offer thousands of laid-off coal miners or the towns and counties whose budgets were slashed by the decline in coal severance tax revenues.

When confronted by the Republican Party’s decision to opportunistically blame the decline of the coal industry on Obama’s “war on coal” and the “job-killing EPA,” the West Virginia Democratic Party could not articulate any alternative vision. Instead, many Democratic politicians chose to run even further to the right, joining in with the bashing of the Environmental Protection Agency and distancing themselves from Obama.

This strategy worked for a few Democrats. Governor Joe Manchin successfully ran for US Senate in 2010; one of his campaign ads featured him picking up a gun and shooting a cap-and-trade bill. In 2016, the party also managed to get Jim Justice elected as governor — Justice escaped being tarred with the “war on coal” brush by virtue of being a coal-mining CEO and the wealthiest man in the state. He was also a registered Republican until three months before deciding to run.

But on the whole, the party was annihilated. At first glance, this is somewhat puzzling. After all, shouldn’t the West Virginia Democrats’ steadfast support for the industry have insulated them from the Republicans’ “war on coal” rhetoric?

The Republican strategy was successful for two reasons: the constant message tying the Democrats to Obama and his “war on coal” — a message that also played to dog-whistle racism in an overwhelmingly white state — made it all but impossible for state Democrats to fully distance themselves from the national party of the same name. As Charleston Gazette-Mail journalist Ken Ward Jr wrote in 2015, “every 2016 race in West Virginia will again be about President Obama, who won’t be on the ballot.”

What’s more, the decision of most Democratic candidates to run further to the right, emulating Republicans, underscored the fact that the Democrats have no new ideas to offer. After more than eighty years of Democratic rule at the state house, the Republican Party successfully positioned itself as the party of change and channeled real anger at the economic desperation in West Virginia.

Boone County — which voted for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 — is perhaps the starkest example of this economic desperation. In 2008, the county was the largest coal producer in the state. From 2008 to 2015, coal production there fell 72 percent, and in just the last four years mining employment fell 58 percent.

West Virginia’s overall economic outlook has been declining, as well. In 2015, the state experienced the third largest employment decline in the country. The job gains that have occurred have been in low-wage sectors, exacerbating poverty in a state that historically ranks at or near the bottom of most economic indicators, including per capita income and life expectancy.

Ultimately, the West Virginia Democratic Party found itself caught in its own version of the internal contradictions plaguing the national Democratic Party. For the last three decades, the national Democratic and Republican Party establishments have maintained a consensus on core economic issues. These have revolved around support for the financial industry (including bank bailouts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis) and big corporations, and trade deals that prioritize the free flow of capital and fail to incorporate labor or environmental standards. These policies have resulted in widening inequality and pervasive economic insecurity, making it harder for the Democrats to credibly position themselves as representatives of the working class.

The West Virginia Democratic Party created an analogous situation by championing dominant extractive industries in the state while also claiming to be the party of labor. The decline of the coal industry laid bare the fact that the state Democratic Party has no real vision for supporting workers, particularly as the tensions between creating jobs and protecting the environment become increasingly fraught.

At the national level, environmental policy has never been coupled with social and economic policy to aid communities transitioning away from fossil fuels, leaving the national Democratic Party open to attack for pitting workers against the environment. The same “jobs vs. environment” argument was used effectively by Republicans in West Virginia to crush the state Democratic Party.

Yet the WV Democratic Party itself has failed to articulate any critique of the ways in which neoliberalism and mechanization have destroyed the working class in West Virginia — or how a different economy could provide both dignified work and a “just transition.”

Such an analysis would not have been foreign to prominent West Virginia politicians of the early twentieth century, some of whom who clearly saw how the extraction of wealth from the state and its people went hand in hand with environmental degradation. Republican governor Henry Hatfield (1913–17) once asked:

Why will not those who have large holdings in our commonwealth assist in the up-building of the state? When will relief come to us? Will it be when these hills and valleys have been exhausted of their bounties of nature and when these great mountains have shed their last stately oak, and when the hills will resound with emptiness because the mineral beds that once reposed within have been exhausted in a market beyond the state borders?

It is difficult to imagine an elected official of either party posing such a question today.

The Republican Vision

The future for West Virginia seems bleak. At the state level, since the Republicans took power in 2014, they have rolled back protections for workers, repealing the state’s prevailing wage law (which had set a minimum wage for state-funded construction projects) and making West Virginia a “right-to-work” state.

At the federal level, it is unlikely a Trump presidency will do much to benefit the state, despite his campaign promise to bring back coal. Trump will be unable to deliver on his pledges to make both natural gas and coal “great” because the fuels are in direct competition with each other for electricity generation; given that natural gas is cheaper, it will presumably win out. Even notorious coal baron Bob Murray, an early backer of Trump’s campaign, urged Trump to moderate his campaign promises to coal miners because of the impossibility of delivering on them. Quoted in the industry publication SNL Financial in May 2016 Murray said, “[Trump] wants to bring the mines back and I told him that was not possible.”

And considering that Trump’s pick for treasury secretary is a former Goldman Sachs banker, there is no reason to expect that Trump will improve overall economic conditions in the rest of the country either. The Steven Mnuchin pick all but assures that campaign promises to enact protective tariffs to bring back jobs will not materialize. Instead, a continued prioritization of the interests of finance will exacerbate the trend of widening income inequality and growing economic discontent that contributed to Trump’s rise in the first place.

In Search of Alternatives

The recent history of the West Virginia Democratic Party underscores the desperate need for an economic vision in West Virginia, and in the rest of the country, that actually works for working people.

Bernie Sanders began to provide an outline of what this vision could look like in West Virginia. Campaigning in the state he challenged the Democratic establishment’s ties to Wall Street — and also to the pharmaceutical industry that has flooded the state with prescription painkillers over the last decade. He spoke directly about climate change, a problem that West Virginia Democrats prefer to pretend does not exist. And he addressed the reality that the Democratic Party has abandoned the working class in West Virginia.

Sanders won all fifty-five counties in the state’s Democratic primary. His victory suggests that the challenge of winning back a state that voted 68 percent Trump may be less impossible than it appears.

But winning will require the articulation of a real analysis of the state’s problems rather than a continuation of the myth that what’s good for the state’s extractive industries is necessarily good for workers.

Nationally, an economic vision for the working class must seriously address the twin crises of economic insecurity and climate crisis. Addressing climate change solely through technological innovation and regulating polluters — the Democratic Party’s approach so far — will leave behind states like West Virginia whose economies have depended on fossil-fuel extraction for decades.

A path to a future that protects both workers and the environment will require transitioning towards an economic system that does not produce sacrifice zones in pursuit of fossil-fuel extraction and in which communities have the resources to weather the serious climate change impacts that are already on the way. It will involve breaking up large monopolies and large concentrations of wealth in order to return greater political power and control over resources to local communities.

The economic transformation needed to build an economic system in the interest of workers while remaining within natural limits is a long-term transformation. But we must begin it. The alternative, a continued failure to address underlying economic realities, will continue to drive voters to the Right.

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