This new article at The Daily Beast on West Virginia politics is as true as true can be. I saw the shift that Michael Tomasky describes here happening first hand during my two years there, and clearly it has continued to gain strength since my departure in 2011. It’s sad in many ways, because it represents a state full of people in a precarious situation turning their backs on their own best interests, at the behest of a few powerful (and rich) voices.
So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.
The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.
The southern part of the state, which is where I lived, is indeed in real trouble, and the people do indeed know it. And yet, rather than looking around them, looking to the horizon where new opportunities and untried options may await, most local and regional leaders have chosen to hunker down, to circle the wagons, the demand faithfulness to the status quo, and to paint those who wish to think bigger as traitors.
In a word, that means pledging fealty to King Coal. Loyalty to the coal industry is the one thing necessary, the sine qua non of politics and culture. And it will condemn the state and its people to (even greater) irrelevance a generation from now, unless something changes.
Tomasky’s entire article, here, is worth a look.