Executive Editor Claire Potter, our normal Purple Wednesday columnist, is off this week; we are pleased to welcome Meagan Martin to Public Seminar in this regularly scheduled slot devoted to bridging political divisions in the United States .
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was named an essential resource for understanding the 2016 election by various outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. And yet, while it is an important book to help the rest of the U.S. understand Appalachia today, it is not useful for understanding why Donald Trump won the 2016 election, or indeed why Appalachian people overwhelmingly voted for him. Vance’s narrative, which implies that Appalachia’s voting is linked to its pessimistic outlook and that the only way to change the region’s voting is to allow them to change themselves, is grossly oversimplified, and ignores the fact that rural areas voted for Trump for different reasons.
I grew up in rural towns on the Northern Neck in Virginia. I lived in Mathews County for a brief time, and then in Gloucester, Virginia. I am writing my history thesis about Wise, Virginia, a similarly rural town on the opposite side of the state. During my research, I have discovered two things: that Wise County, a coal mining town in the southwest tip of Virginia is much more politically flexible than people give Appalachia credit for, but my hometown of Gloucester, a former fishing town turned rural suburb of Virginia Beach, is not.
Just recently, Rick Boucher, a former Democratic Congressman to Wise’s rural district, wrote an article in the “Democracy Journal” entitled “Yes, Red State Wins Are Possible.” Boucher’s main recommendation for Democrats looking to regain their foothold in blue collar America is to “show up”: to listen to rural voters’ concerns about underemployment, the opiate crisis, infrastructure, and creative approaches to jobs, like venture capital funding for agro-tourism, business startups, and, yes, renewable energy sources.
While Boucher’s observation is true for Wise, it is not for Gloucester. Gloucester’s political identity is too far removed from the town’s former status as a largely agrarian and fishing town. For too long the rural community has been transitioning into a suburb of the Hampton Roads and Richmond areas. Since then, the Republican Party and its appeals to the “silent majority” and “moral majority” have taken root to the point that Gloucester’s identity is firmly that of a “rural Republican” town.
Wise’s identity, on the other hand, is still rooted in coal, which has some inherent bi-partisan ramifications. For many years, United Mine Workers of America has given the stamp of approval needed for any candidate to win Wise. Though the union has supported both parties in the past, the Democrats’ condemnation of coal in no uncertain terms has delivered Wise to the Republicans — on the presidential level — since 1984.
These two different sources of politics have huge implications. Because Gloucester is so tied to its Republican, or rather conservative, identity, a Democrat simply cannot win there. They do not vote Democrats into even the smallest of offices. They vote for Republican measures whether or not they are beneficial to the county itself. For example, when transgender student Gavin Grimm sued his school to be allowed to use the boy’s bathroom, the Gloucester school board chose to pay thousands of dollars that the school did not have to build a gender-neutral bathroom rather than allow his request.
Because Wise is not (yet) completely tied to political parties, it can often have unpredictable views on certain issues. For example, there is a great cognitive dissonance among Wise residents on coal mining and environmentalism. Wise has been portrayed as a place that will never give up coal mining, and as such, is inherently anti-environment. However, some of the greatest proponents of environmental restrictions being put on coal mining have come from the coalfields themselves. People do not mine coal because they want to destroy the environment, people in Appalachia mine coal because those are the jobs that are available to them in their hometowns. And there are ways to mine coal itself that is not detrimental, in Wise’s view, to the surrounding mountains. Recently, the Wise City Council applied to have a wind farm be put on the non-coal mining mountains, but Dominion Energy, the largest power and energy company in Virginia, denied it. This environmentalist streak demonstrates that Wise is not yet wedded to Republican views on climate change.
The question then becomes why both of these places voted for Donald Trump. The answer for Gloucester is obvious: he ran with the Republican Party. For Wise, it is more complicated. Some pundits, like Vance, would say it is only because Trump said that he would “bring coal back.” However, Wise residents know, and have known for a long time, that coal will never again be what it was earlier in the twentieth century. For one, natural gas is cheaper than coal. Environmental laws have made mining expensive, so companies have replaced miners with machines. Wise residents are looking for someone who is going to say they are on their side. And while Donald Trump had a rally in Abingdon County, just a short way from Wise, Hillary Clinton condemned coal with no indication there would be an effort to replace those jobs. What replacement work she did offer had already been attempted in Wise or did not make sense for the community. For example, during a CNN Town Hall, Clinton suggested to “move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels,” but was vague about her resolution to joblessness, saying she had “put forward specific plans about how we incentivize more jobs.” The plan she was talking about did exist; however, the 4,300-word plan was not advertised to coal mining communities nor did it include geographic area-specific promises. The choice was clear for Wise residents, but not because Trump was part of the Republican Party.
It is wholly important that Democrats not continue to lump these two rural, predominantly white communities together as strictly “conservative.” Boucher is right that Democrats can win Wise, and places like Wise, that have not completely lost their pre-partisan identities, but they have to move fast. Because coal is quickly becoming near obsolete — with what few jobs are left being done by machines — coal miners are open to whoever says they are on their side. So far, this is Republicans. If left for too long, these former coal mining towns losing their identity will go the way of Gloucester: to completely Republican-identifying places. Democrats need to learn how to navigate the coal miners’ views on environmentalism and job creation, or they risk losing all hope of winning these areas.
Meagan Martin, the managing editor and producer for The Science of the Deal website and podcast, is a fourth year at the University of Virginia in the Distinguished Majors Program for History with a minor in Economics.