What’s the Matter with West Virginia: Culture War or Class War?

Student protesters demonstrate against Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship as he speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

What’s the Matter with West Virginia: Culture War or Class War?

It turns out that what’s the matter with Kansas or West Virginia is the wrong question. What’s the matter with the Democrats is what we should be asking.

“The trick never ages, the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.” —Thomas Frank, fromWhat’s the Matter with Kansas (2004)

Our conventional wisdom, shaped by Frank’s book, is that working-class people vote against their economic interests by supporting Republicans who promote cultural issues.

Or as a good friend put it: “The Republicans hold up a shiny object with one hand and say “look at this!” – while with the other hand they pick their supporters’ pockets.”

Today, political pundit Ronald Brownstein calls this “the class inversion,” which he describes as “the growing tendency of voters to divide the parties based on cultural attitudes, rather than class interests.”

Put less politely, Brownstein and Frank imply that working-class people have been so attracted by Republican racial dog whistles, anti-immigrant demagoguing, and anti-gay rhetoric that they will vote for the very right-wingers who, once elected, will screw them by giving handouts to the rich while cutting programs needed by the working class.

The evidence is irrefutable, they claim. Republicans hold a strong majority of congressional districts that have older voters on Medicare, lower-income voters, and voters without health insurance. The class interests of these voters should be solidly Democrat because Republicans want to gut those programs.

But does any of this explain what happened to Mingo County, West Virginia, which had a poverty rate of 28.3% in 2021?

Up through the 1990s, this county was solidly Democratic, reflecting the party’s support for unions. In Mingo’s case the United Mineworkers. In 1996, Bill Clinton, a notorious draft-dodger, received a whopping 69.7% of the vote in Mingo. In 2020, Al Gore, a noted environmentalist, crushed George W. Bush, winning 60.2% of the vote. Even John Kerry, who was the poster-boy for liberal elitism with his windsurfing and refined language, garnered a strong 56.2% majority in 2004.

Those results reflect a slide, however, a slide that became more evident when Barack Obama received only 42.1% of the Mingo vote in 2008, and then a measly 27.5% in 2012. By the time Joe Biden came around in 2020, it was nearly impossible to find a Democratic voter in Mingo County. Biden received a microscopic 13.9% of the county’s votes.

If the Democrats had taken a real interest in the plight of coal country, it would have been relatively easy to work out a New Deal-like plan for redevelopment.

What caused this utter collapse of the Democratic vote? Did Mingo County residents, 97.1% of whom are white, somehow resist falling for right-wing cultural issues until Barack Obama took office? Was a Black president finally their excuse to express their repressed racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia by voting for Republicans? Not likely, given that Obama still received three times as many votes as Biden.

A more credible explanation is that Mingo voters really did vote for their class interests. With a population of 23,821, Mingo County saw the number of local coal jobs fall from 3,257 in 1995, to only 322 in 2020. And those are just the direct coal jobs and don’t count the jobs lost in related and supportive businesses.

During 16 years of Democratic presidential administrations, sandwiched around eight years of George W. Bush, what exactly was done to provide a “just transition” away from a coal economy for these workers, their families, and their neighbors as the country weened itself from the dirtiest of fossil fuels?

Here are the available governmental programs according to Mingo County Health Department:

Medicaid, WVCHIP, Medicaid for Long-Term-Care, Medicare Premium Assistance Programs, Non-Emergency Medical Transportation (NEMT), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Emergency Assistance, Indigent Burial Program, Refugee Resettlement, Tel-Assistance, SNAP E&T, Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), 20% Discount Utility program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), School Clothing Allowance (SCA) and Other Needs Assistance Disaster Programs

What’s missing? There are no federally funded jobs programs. No government investments in new energy sources to help alleviate climate change. And no long-term wage-placement programs for the battered and displaced workers.

Instead, Democrats (and Republicans too) left this county to the mercy of a free market version of “just transition.” And that was a sight to behold. The free-market turned Mingo County into a massive opioid zone as it became the pill mill capital of the mid-Atlantic states. People poured into the county to obtain opioid prescriptions and have them filled. As an expose in The Guardian revealed, there was no shortage of entrepreneurial zeal in Mingo County:

Each day, hundreds of people lined up outside an old animal feed store where a group of doctors were set up by a former pimp, just out of federal prison for running a gay prostitution ring in Washington, DC, to churn out opioid prescriptions faster than West Virginia’s major hospitals.

In the true spirit of free-market capitalism, other entrepreneurs entered this lucrative market. A rival pharmacy owner recruited a doctor an hour away to lend his name to prescriptions already written by a local nurse. As a result, this rival operation filled one opioid prescription per minute, making this tiny drug store the 22nd most prolific in the entire nation for hydrocodone purchases.

When Mingo County turned to the Republicans, there was no “class inversion.” There was aversion to the Democratic Party by the victims of what the Republicans called the “War on Coal.” To the 3,000 miners who lost their jobs, and to the dead and those dying of opioid overdoses, it was a major conflagration, not a cultural talking point. As I write in my upcoming book, Wall Street’s War on Workers:

“Not surprisingly, abandoning West Virginia to the pharmaceutical drug pushers gave the state the hideous distinction of leading the nation in overdose death rates—81.4 per 100,000 in 2020. The next highest state, Kentucky (at 58.1), has also hemorrhaged coal jobs. The 2020 national average was 29.6 overdose deaths per 100,000. Coal mining always was a dangerous industry, but not as dangerous as the opioid epidemic unleashed by unmitigated laissez-faire economics.”

If the Democrats had taken a real interest in the plight of coal country, it would have been relatively easy to work out a New Deal-like plan for redevelopment. The region needs improved physical infrastructure, stronger schools, and better healthcare facilities. The area could truly benefit from an increase in environmental reclamation jobs funded by the federal government. West Virginians care about the rivers, streams, and forests in which they hunt, fish, and hike. The reclamation of the local environment should have created strong connections between the local population and national Democratic environmentalists. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the Democrats wrote off the state. Good riddance.

As the Republicans continue to press cultural issues, as Tom Frank described, they leave the door open for Democratic solutions that could stop mass layoffs and create sustainable jobs from the millions who have been left behind. The Biden Administration’s bipartisan infrastructure program and green-energy Inflation Reduction Act, as currently conceived, won’t put the people of Mingo County back to work. Furthermore, these voters remember that Frank’s list of anti-working-class economic policies—deregulation, cuts in capital gains taxes, monopolization, and runaway inequality—all had the strong backing of the Democratic Party leadership.

It turns out that what’s the matter with Kansas or West Virginia is the wrong question. What’s the matter with the Democrats is what we should be asking.

Zach Shrewsbury in West Virginia and Dan Osborne in Nebraska are answering that question as they run for the U.S. Senate as unabashed working-class candidates. (See Steve Early’s excellent reporting.)

Osborne, a former local union president who led a successful strike against the WK Kellogg Company in 2021, actually is leading in the polls against three-term Republican Senator Deb Fischer. For the first time in decades, the voters in these two states are hearing a progressive populist message from senatorial candidates, and it is ringing true.

The Democratic Party should listen carefully to what Shrewsbury says West Virginia needs.

“We need leaders that are cut from the working-class cloth," he says. "We need representation that will go toe to toe with corporate parasites and their bought politicians. We need a leader who will not waver in the face of these powers that keep the boot on our neck.”

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