Politics & Policy

The Matter with Coal Country

Coal miner at a mine near Gilbert, West Virgnia, 2014. (Reuters photo: Robert Galbraith)
It’s not only Kansas that confounds Democrats.

Harlan County, Ky., has a long history with two dirty businesses: coal and the Democratic party.

As with much of Appalachia, Kentucky’s politics are more complicated than often is understood. There are many dividing lines in Kentucky, some of them familiar: Donald Trump won the state in the 2016 presidential election, but Hillary Rodham Clinton won the state’s two most populous and urban counties, which together account for about a quarter of the state’s population. But other political borders are more Appalachia-specific, and one of those is the distinction between areas where coal is mined and those where it isn’t.

In Harlan County, the archetype of coal country, Republicans have not had much of a shot until the day before yesterday. With the exception of George McGovern, Harlan supported every Democratic presidential candidate between 1960 and 2000, even rallying behind Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan. Coal miners were union men, and union men voted Democrat, as did their sons and grandsons.

But the Democratic party over the years has grown more urban and suburban. It is a very different institution today than it was when the Panhandle farmers in Monroe, Texas, decided to change the name of their little town to New Deal. The suburbanite Democrats are consumers of luxury political goods, and as such they feel very strongly about such exotica as alternative energy. And they hate coal mining.

Coal mining hates them back. George W. Bush won 60 percent of the Harlan County vote in 2000. John McCain won 70 percent in 2008, and Mitt Romney won 80 percent in 2012. Trump came in at just under 85 percent. Which is to say, Trump is about as popular in Harlan County as Clinton is in Philadelphia.

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Conservatives, and populists such as Trump, sometimes look at the voting habits of low-income African Americans in such Democratic strongholds as Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit, and wonder what in hell is wrong with these voters. They keep voting for the same Democrats and getting the same terrible results. Conservative “plantation” rhetoric is the obverse of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” thinking, the idea that certain Americans do not understand their own interests well enough to vote accordingly and that cultural and racial issues are used to distract them from the economic facts of life.

Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos (I am forever indebted to his publication for its first-rate journalism in uncovering the fact that I am African American, which neither I nor my parents had known before) responds to this year’s elections and Clinton’s losses in coal country in exactly the way one would expect at this moment of delicious and amusing progressive hysteria: “F*** these people,” essentially. More precisely, he writes that we should be happy that certain coal miners are losing their health insurance, because “they are getting exactly what they voted for.”

Charming fellow.

The facts on the ground in coal country are, as indicated above, a little more complicated. The United Mine Workers retirement fund, which pays for pensions and health-care benefits for retired coal miners, is in deep financial trouble. It is in deep financial trouble because the coal industry is in trouble, with companies going bankrupt left and right, and hiring and maintaining far fewer workers than they once did. The coal pension situation is a familiar case of upside-down retirement economics: Because of declining mine employment, there are a dozen retirees for every active coal miner, which makes funding those benefits a challenge, to say the least. Bankrupt companies can reduce or eliminate their obligations to the pension funds, which puts even more stress on retirement finances.

Moulitsas et al. are strangely incurious about why these companies and their industry are in so much trouble in the first place. Did the miners vote for that, too?

Not since 1996, they haven’t.

#share#Coal mining is a victim of both organic economic development and political pressure. With natural-gas prices low and promising to stay low thanks to fracking and other advances in petroleum extraction, a great many industrial facilities that once would have run on coal today run on relatively cheap, plentiful, and clean natural gas — and many future facilities will be designed for gas rather than coal. That is a good thing for the world but a tough thing for coal miners. The good news for coal miners is that the world has not lost its appetite for coal, and that both old-fashioned coal plants and more modern clean-coal facilities are still being built around the world and are hungry for fuel. But Democrats are doing their best to keep American producers from connecting with foreign consumers, for instance by blocking the construction of coal-export facilities on specious environmental grounds.

Coal mining is a victim of both organic economic development and political pressure.

Perhaps it is not the case after all that coal miners fail to understand their own economic interests and are here voting to reduce federal programs on which they depend out of spite, ignorance, or pique. Perhaps instead it is the case that they do not wish to be federal dependents at all, that they resent the political policies that have reduced them to such dependency, and that they hope that President-elect Trump’s promises to pressure China into buying more American exports will result in China’s buying a great deal more of one of its favorite American exports: coal.

Consider a policy parallel: Urban black voters have long expressed enthusiasm for school-choice programs, and progressives respond to this with dismay. “We have built these wonderful schools for you” — but they are not wonderful — “why would you support a program that is going to weaken them in order to make it easier for well-off people to send their children to some fancy private school?”

#related#And that all makes perfectly good sense unless you are a low-income black father who wants to send his children to Horace Mann or Dalton. People may be dependent or partly dependent upon public programs while also being dissatisfied with them. People who live in housing projects may support policies that benefit suburban homeowners if it is the case that they hope themselves to become suburban homeowners someday. Our attitudes are influenced at least as much by where we hope to be as by where we are.

But the current progressive freakout, like the case for gun control, is not about policy differences or sober analysis of causes, effects, and trade-offs. It is Kulturkampf, rooted in the loathing and detestation of certain people and classes of people who order their lives in a way that is aesthetically or morally displeasing to such observers as Markos Moulitsas. That is a two-way street, and Democrats have just discovered that theirs is the narrower lane, at least in 2016.

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