December 08, 2020

West Virginia's southern strategy

Around 1969, a Nixon advisor named Kevin Phillips wrote an influential book titled The Emerging Republican Majority. A very crude summary of its main thesis is that the backlash of white voters against the civil rights movement would provide a base in that party in what had historically been a Democratic stronghold for years to come. It took a while, but this "southern strategy" eventually worked, ironically flipping the historical traditions of both parties. 

West Virginia's equivalent of a southern strategy arguably worked better and faster. It was the creation of a "war on coal" narrative that conveniently blamed all hardships in the coalfields, where employment had been on  a steady downward trend since the end of WWII, on the nation's first black president. 

As the Church Lady would say on the old SNL skits, "Isn't that convenient?"

According to this narrative, President Obama's environmental zeal--or just plain meanness--was the cause of all things bad rather than market forces. It worked like a charm, eventually helping not just to flip the legislature for the first time since 1932 in the 2014 elections, but even contributing to supermajorities in both houses of the legislature in 2020.

When Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to bring back mining jobs, even telling miners here "you're going to be working your asses off." The results are in. No doubt some current or former miners are doing just that, although it might not be in a coal mine. The number of working miners in the state, around 11,000, is lower than it was when even you-know-who was president, despite the Trump administration's efforts to roll back regulations.

As conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval (who a few years ago touted coal's comeback under Trump) noted, "there were other forces at work, market forces that are making thermal coal less marketable."

I'm sure that knowledgeable people among industry supporters knew this was going to happen. But by then the spell had achieved its purpose. 

And the political results of West Virginia's southern strategy for workers, including miners, has been disastrous, with repeal of the state's prevailing wage, passage of right-to-work-for-less, and proposed policies to undermine public sector labor organizations. 

Attacks on the labor movement ultimately undermine the position of all workers. Union jobs typically pay better and have more benefits than non-union jobs, but many non-union employers feel compelled to improve wages and conditions to be compete for workers. The more unions decline, the less pressure employers feel to step up and the harder it is to push for worker-friendly policies. And the race to the bottom continues on its merry way.

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