The fickle shifting sands of American electoral politics have periodically reduced the most impenetrable electoral coalitions into rag-tag groups of minority legislators and local office holders. In modern politics, this phenomenon is most starkly illustrated by the Democrats’ staggered fall from grace in their white, working class rural union homelands.
Once reflexively Democratic voters have forever abandoned the party in the face of America’s ever-intensifying culture war and have relegated once all-conquering state Democratic parties to the status of irrelevance. Elections in states like West Virginia and Kentucky have moved rapidly from predictable exercises in rubber-stamping terms of elected office for coal country Democrats to trawling through election results to see which few ancestral Democratic officeholders have narrowly held on to their jobs.
The sharp decline
This trend is evidenced most noticeably by a comparison between Barrack Obama’s 2008 presidential election victory and John Kerry’s 2004 defeat. In such a comparison, America is various shades of blue from sea to shining sea. There are a handful of exceptions; McCain’s home state of Arizona, Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts and a line of counties that runs from Southwest Pennsylvania to East Texas & Oklahoma’s “Little Dixie”.
If the unstoppable tide of Obama’s incredible electoral performance could not stop the bleeding, there is a story to tell. So what has happened to the Democratic Party in Appalachia and the rural South where they were once so strong? And can the party ever hope to return to competitiveness in those areas?
When you read the story of the 2008 presidential election, you will rightly hear the praises of Barrack Obama’s phenomenal accomplishment near-universally. Obama as a candidate had the electoral elixir of increasing turnout among his base, winning moderate voters and expanding his party’s coalition. This delivered clear victories in swing states like Wisconsin as well as Republican-trending rural areas like Iowa and Ohio while expanding the Democratic Electoral College map to North Carolina and Virginia (two states that even Bill Clinton failed to win).
The small note of disappointment in Obama’s commanding victory was the ancestral Democratic belt that runs from northeastern coal country, through rural southern Appalachia, through the deep south and into the great plains.
In this article, I will focus on how and why the once dominant union-based Democratic Party in Appalachia specifically has slowly descended into irrelevance and whether modern Democrats can counter the increasing Republican political and cultural dominance in their former heartlands.
The blue bastions
The Presidential election of 1968 marked the catalyst for a partisan realignment in American politics. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act drew a line in the sand for the relationship between the new liberal Democratic Party and many of its culturally conservative former adherents.
This spelt the end for the party in the Deep South, where the end of segregation was seen as a betrayal of the cultural roots of the party and its traditional voters. After an electoral synthesis of this betrayal and the Republican mantra of limited government in the economic sense, former bastions of the “solid south” such as Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana have been extremely difficult waters to navigate for Democrats.
Union country, however had been a different story. While voters in Appalachia through Kentucky and parts of Tennessee into eastern Oklahoma were certainly culturally conservative, they remained largely loyal to their old allegiances. To this day, West Virginia, Kentucky and eastern Oklahoma have a plurality of registered Democratic voters.
The powerhouse politician Cecil Underwood and more moderate (later felon) Arch Moore remain the only individuals elected as Republicans to be Governor of West Virginia since 1933. Moore’s daughter, Shelly Moore Capito, is the first Republican to hold a Senate seat in the state since 1958 and only the third since 1932.
Since the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, only the nationwide GOP landslides of Eisenhower in 1952, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984 had persuaded West Virginia’s rural, evangelical and culturally conservative electorate to abandon the Democratic Party. Similar stories can be told throughout Appalachia, with western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, as well as the panhandles of Virginia and North Carolina remaining bastions of Democratic politics as the turn of the millennium.
But what changed? The Democratic Party has been moving in a more diverse, liberal and less religious direction since the Presidency of Kennedy. Despite this, in the full heat of the 2000 Presidential election results that will be remembered for the dubious Florida results propelling George Bush to the White House, some commentators uttered words considered alien to the current political reality: Democrats shouldn’t be losing states like West Virginia.
An Environmental disaster
Over the course of the 1990s, the leadership of the Democrats by Bill Clinton had the effect of slowing the bleeding among Appalachian voters. Clinton’s third way politics and authenticity appealed to white workers in a similar way to Democratic stalwarts of yesteryear who dominated elections in these areas.
Clinton’s Vice President, however would not prove such a match. While Al Gore had been the moderate darling of white southern Democrats as a Senator from Tennessee, his 2000 campaign marks a turning point in voters’ perceptions of the party.
After the prolonged period of Democratic dominance cushioned by Bill Clinton’s appeal to traditional union voters, Gore’s environmentalism seriously alienated West Virginia’s coal culture voter base. Gore, now synonymous with environmental alarmism, represented an existential threat to the West Virginian way of life.
Such a betrayal in the eyes of voters is linked to a wider pattern of alienation of the Democratic Party from its former base. Not only are West Virginians 10% less likely to be alarmed by climate change than America as a whole, but under half of voters accept the scientific consensus that climate change is powered by human action.
This is doubtless informed less by the potential risks of climate change to the state than it is informed by the allegiance to coal and the prominent role coal has had in the community structure of the state. A similar value is placed on coal as an economic and cultural phenomenon in the regions of Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina where Democratic success has receded at a similar rate.
A similar phenomenon appears to exist in industrial areas on Pennsylvania regarding steel. It makes sense for us to draw the conclusion that changes in the culture of the Democratic Party have become incompatible with the political culture of these areas.
The coal legacy
When we discuss coal, we can see that Al Gore truly kickstarted the Democratic Party as the climate voters party. It can also be said that the Democrats have become perceived as the more globalist party (particularly in the era of Trump), which makes them vulnerable to electoral liabilities concerning steel jobs moving oversees.
The reality is that steel and coal are not coming back. Coal is no longer a competitive energy source and steel can be produced much more cheaply outside of the U.S. When Trump promised that coal was coming back, he was predictably selling snake oil to the people who vote loyally with the interests of the coal industry.
Contrast to Hillary Clinton who expressed her desire to rid the US of its coal industry. Trump also based his platform on opposing foreign trade deals, while Clinton was synonymous with the free trade neoliberal consensus of her husband’s era.
This stark contrast reflects the shift of Appalachian voters. The Democratic Party’s desire for environmentalism and some form of globalism isn’t just about coal per se, it is seen as a mission to sign the death warrant for the culture, values and traditions of their former loyal voters.
Democrats try to atone for this by promising that a green revolution would be focused on providing the jobs of the new economy to those left behind by the old. Such investment promises would previously have pleased those in Appalachia who emphasise the dignity of work. But it isn’t about economics anymore, voters are striking back against something deeper.
Liberalism, leftism and polarisation
The past success of the Democratic Party in Appalachia tends to boil down to one major factor: union loyalty. The GOP was seen as representing the interests of capital, while the Democrats were heavily affiliated with labour. This “which side are you on?” mentality coupled with promises of job creation and better working conditions naturally appealed to voter heavily invested in coal and steel.
But as I mentioned, climate change is indicative of the alienation caused by a switch in the emphasis which voters place on certain issues. Little has changed in the Democratic platform in terms of expenditure focused on job creation, attempts to legislate better working conditions, or their affiliation with the unions. But who cares? These issues do not represent the current paradigm of Appalachian voting habits.
2008 represents the final tipping point from Democrats being synonymous with the working man to Democrats being the embodiment of globalism and social liberalism. In Barrack Obama, the Democrats had a standard bearer whose represented through his own essence and political ideology a full throated move towards America’s future.
Obama as a pro-free trade and pro-choice candidate with a focus on racial issues and pluralism was the point at which Democrats dropped any pretence of continuing Bill Clinton’s third way moderation. As such a strong reaction emerged from his Presidency, healthcare reform lit the spark of accusations that Obama and the Democrats represented an existential threat to the continued stability of American culture.
It is no coincidence that the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, which will go down in history as the zenith of reactionary victory against President Obama, were the elections that did untold damage to Appalachian Democrats.
We have seen such a phenomenon across western democracies. Working class voters who have traditionally backed the main party of the left have turned to the right as the left has become interlinked with the “wrong” side of the culture war.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s landslide was powered by traditional labour voters in the “red wall” of old industrial towns across northern England and Wales which backed leaving the EU. As union power recedes and certain cultural movements become the catalyst for voting, the left is left wanting.
With that, the elastic that held America’s political ideologies towards the centre was broken. For Democrats, this meant that conservative, rural white people fell far out of reach, an effect that extended to its full fruition in the 2016 Presidential election.
The combination of Democrats’ becoming descriptively and politically emblematic of America’s future and Donald rump’s promise to restore America’s past has finally seen the misfits of the Democratic Party in Appalachia fall to the GOP.
Conservative principles, and with it a set of grievances born from the material loss of living standards and society in Appalachia, are simply a better fit for those voters than anything the Democrats have to offer them.
Republicans have won the soul of Appalachia. No longer do unions and economics dominate voting in Appalachia, but instead the full extent of the reactionary side of the culture war. For as long as Democrats are synonymous with a changing America which alienates these voters, little will change.
Foregone conclusion or a chance for redemption?
For any Democrat committed to winning back their former heartlands, recent elections must leave them melancholy. From a shade of near-instant dark blue throughout the 20th Century, West Virginia, Kentucky, Southwest Pennsylvania and the panhandles of North Carolina and Virginia are the embodiment of Trump’s base.
There does, however remain some hope. In Kentucky, Governor Andy Bashear showed how a moderate campaign with a focus on the basics can keep rural margins of defeat low and even win back some areas the Democrats have lost. Only recently have Democrats lost the coal dominated Kentucky House of Representatives seat of former Rep. Rocky Adkins, a darling of pro-life Democrats and they remain bullish of winning it back this November.
In West Virginia, John Perdue remains Treasurer and Democrats are quietly confident in their ability to perform well in the Attorney General Election. Incumbent Governor Jim Justice won election as a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-coal Democrat, even as Trump won the state by 42%. In 2018, Democrats gained deeply Trump-friendly seats in the legislature.
In Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb demonstrated that that a union-led campaign can still harness old allegiances to organised labour to create success for the left.
The upcoming Presidential election will be fascinating to see if there is a way forward for Democrats in the region. As I write, Joe Biden’s lead in the polls is commanding. But most importantly, this is the first election where an crucial intersection exists; Democrats have nominated a candidate with the potential to appeal to white, rural working class voters more than their last nominee and where the Republican Party may have maximised their dominance among that group in the previous election.
Biden as a nominee is showing some signs of modest improvements among the constituency as well as older voters and if he holds his large lead into November, a landslide would be more likely to take more voters with it than Clinton’s campaign.
Biden’s performance with conservative Democrats in the primary demonstrated his potential. While the group is small, it has backed the protest candidate, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ performances in ancestral democratic and white working class counties across the country in 2016 or for the more moderate candidate when no protest was available. Given the wide slate of candidates in the 2020 Primaries and Biden’s status as frontrunner, his commanding win with the group is notable.
To add to the intrigue, Democrats in West Virginia in particular had an interesting experiment in their attempt to win back these former voters. The primary for Governor featured a populist, anti-establishment grassroots candidate in Ben Smith who was running to bring forward a more left-wing economic focus as his offer to voters.
In contrast, front runner Ben Salango ran a similar campaign to Andy Bashear in Kentucky in that he will attempt to emphasize his experience and moderation in a “back to basics” focus on healthcare and infrastructure.
Salango came out victorious, but intriguingly each of the three candidates representing the progressive, moderate and conservative ways forward won a Congressional District in the primary.
This represents the deep divide that still exists among Appalachian Democrats. With over 14% Democrats in the state voting for local offices and state offices but leaving the Presidential ballot blank and unknown candidate David Rice receiving 8% of the vote, the anger among legacy Democrats is also palpable.
Given some catastrophic performances, the dwindling number of party voters and the divides within their base, coming back to the fore will be an extraordinarily tough task for the Democrats. But candidates across Appalachia have shown that it can be done with the right message in the right environment.
This November’s Presidential election, as well as the West Virginia and North Carolina Gubernatorial elections and the plethora of state legislative, local and row office elections will be crucial in determining both the viability of a Democratic comeback and what form it should take.
Maybe the task is too much of an uphill struggle in this polarised and vitriolic moment of political history in which we find ourselves. Perhaps Democrats will have to wait for a more open and less charged circumstance or maybe a breakout star will define the regional party brand for a period of time.
Either way, there is a job to be done for the Party and there is no time like the present.