By Elizabeth Catte
It’s fitting that in Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened — a postmortem about her failed 2016 bid for the presidency — she gives the title “Country Roads” to a chapter about West Virginia. After all, John Denver’s 1971 hit song by the same name is also filled with projected fantasies. For the latter, Denver erroneously places the majestic beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River in West Virginia (they’re actually in the Commonwealth of Virginia, with scant overlap on its western neighbor). For the former, Clinton backhandedly blames her failure to speak convincingly to West Virginians on some imagined erosion of virtue amongst the state’s poor white working class.
She writes, “Now, I’ve met a lot of open-minded, big-hearted men and women who live and work in poor, rural communities. It’s hard to fault them for wanting to shake things up politically after so many years of disappointment. But anger and resentment do run deep. As Appalachian natives such as author J.D. Vance have pointed out, a culture of grievance, victimhood, and scapegoating has taken root as traditional values of self-reliance and hard work have withered.”
On the surface, Clinton’s endorsement of J.D. Vance might seem at odds with Democratic thinking. But the Hillbilly Elegy-fication of political discourse hasn’t exactly been anathema to establishment Democrats.
After Clinton’s memoir was published earlier this month, many observers of West Virginia politics focused on her writing about the town hall in March 2016, where a gaffe about putting “coal miners and coal companies out of business” was taken out of context of Clinton’s coalfield revitalization program. But it’s the aforementioned passage that I feel warrants deeper analysis.
On the surface, Clinton’s endorsement of the lessons offered by J.D. Vance’s own memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, might seem at odds with Democratic thinking and more in line with the Republican ideal of individualism over collectivism. But the Hillbilly Elegy-fication of political discourse hasn’t exactly been anathema to establishment Democrats. In fact, as Clinton’s memoir makes clear, there’s a synchronicity of narratives at work. The politically expedient belief that problems of Appalachia are self-created and a product of an imagined decline in traditional values and work ethic has served both sides of the political aisle well through the years.
For conservatives, this narrative comes from a playbook that suggests federally-backed social safety nets such as welfare are ripe for abuse and should be replaced with tough-love strategies that encourage the down-and-out to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The belief shared by liberals, Clinton included, that economically precarious white voters are motivated by grievance and victimhood is taken to confirm the rise of a self-sabotaging voting bloc too behaviorally and culturally deficient to recognize their best political allies. For operatives on either end of the political spectrum, and especially those edging toward the center, the beauty of arguments about individual failure is that they both narrow the possibilities for future responsibility to the region and absolve past civic and elected leaders, as well as the political parties they represent, of their misdeeds.
And what misdeeds might those be? A stunning example occurred in West Virginia in early August, just a month before What Happened’s release, when Governor Jim Justice, courting Donald Trump’s support for the coal industry, switched from the Democratic party to the Republican party barely a year into his term. Justice’s about-face shocked exactly no one in West Virginia (he was a registered Republican up until 2015 when he prepared to declare for the governor’s race) and those angered by his political theater rightly turned their frustrations on the state’s Democratic party, which supported Justice’s candidacy as a known liability but one with strong corporate influence, thereby killing the political ambitions of more progressive, or even moderately Democratic, candidates in the process.
There’s also the lingering resentment among West Virginia progressives about the Democratic party’s treatment of Charlotte Pritt, who in the 1996 Democratic primary for governor defeated current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin with her anti-corporate interest platform. Instead of the party supporting Pritt, prominent West Virginia Democrats, including Manchin, formed a very public political coalition to champion Cecil Underwood, the Republican nominee for governor, and Pritt narrowly lost the election.
After a 20-year hiatus, Pritt returned to politics affiliated with the state’s Mountain Party and ran against Jim Justice in the 2016 gubernatorial race as a third-party candidate. Pritt’s return, along with the ambitions of political newcomer Paula Swearengin, signals the rise of a modest but significant number of progressive candidates who’ve put the coal industry in their sights by calling out its outsized influence in politics and the state’s economy. Their success remains to be seen, but if history repeats itself, their popularity with the electorate will be shunned rather than embraced by the state’s Democratic party establishment, which has benefitted from the myth that centrist candidates like Manchin and Justice (who are both former coal barons, by the way) are the only viable options to lead a successful party in Trump Country.
When the Democratic party props up these Democrats in name only (DINOs?), which was literally the case with Justice, it rings hollow when establishment Democratic party figures like Clinton accuse West Virginians of voting against their interests.
In “Country Roads,” it is also significant that Clinton focuses on her gaffe about putting coal miners out of business without any real reflection on the remarks that came after. “We’re going to make it clear,” she elaborated at that March 2016 town hall, “that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”
While on the surface Clinton is giving due respect to the coal miner, she is playing into the “War on Coal” narrative that portrays the coal miner’s ill health and loss of life as noble sacrifices willfully given, as opposed to the dastardly result of coercive labor practices and suppression of economic diversification in the region, practices which have been supported and enabled by political leaders of all stripes. Without that acknowledgement, the progressives and independents in the region found it difficult to trust in Clinton’s promises to restore economic health to Coal Country. Most of us agree, without reservation, that the coal industry has caused considerable harm to the environment, but what we crave is a candidate brave enough to foreground the harm done to people and the value of their labor, which is unlikely to be rectified by the substitution of other industries supported by pro-business moderates.
Unwittingly or not, by invoking the dignity of coal miners past and present, Clinton played into the War on Coal narrative, which is a cruel industry argument that transforms the inevitable decline of coal in favor of cleaner and cheaper energy into a catastrophic and intentional assault on vulnerable workers. It’s a narrative that displaces blame for their plight away from the coal industry and onto ambiguous government overreach that seeks to “destroy our way of life” and insincerely celebrates coal miners as soldiers in a war over traditional values.
Narratives about a War on Coal work well in the region because they enfold and sensationalize many elements that are true. For example, it’s true that the government’s past programs for economic transition sometimes harm rather than help, and it’s difficult to argue against the fact that there’s a perceptible disdain for Appalachia from liberals outside the region. The War on Coal is a toxic mix of fantasy and reality, one that has been a major stumbling block for centrists like Clinton who are forced to play both sides. Bernie Sanders, further to the Left, navigated potential pitfalls in Coal Country more successfully by leveraging his voting record, which reflects a history of supporting low-income and working-class Americans and a willingness to challenge big business on both environmental and economic issues. Sanders won the state’s Democratic primary in May 2016.
Clinton heaps criticism on Sanders in her memoir for acting as a distracting influence and advocating what she presents as an unrealistic position of “leaving all fossil fuels in the ground, including coal.” The Clinton versus Sanders power struggle and what it represents for the future of the Democratic party has been a well-litigated component of post-election discourse that is tiresome to re-visit, but equally tiresome has been the continued narrative pitch from establishment Democrats like Clinton who are quite happy to cast Appalachia as unambiguously “Trump Country” when they lose without thoughtfully engaging the party’s real weaknesses in the region, which include as chief among them strategies that incentivize corporate growth and look to market-based solutions for West Virginia’s current economic crisis.
Hillary Clinton is fond of stating, in her memoir and in other post-election assessments, that she, unlike Donald Trump, had a well-developed economic strategy for Coal Country based on both clear-eyed acknowledgement of coal’s decline and the pressing need to invest in clean energy solutions to mitigate climate change. This is true, and needs no fact check. Clinton was also correct to acknowledge that the coal industry’s influence in state and national politics must be detached from its share of the labor force. While pundits were busy trying to shock us by revealing the coal industry employs fewer workers than Whole Foods or Arby’s, Clinton was rightly operating from a position that treated coal not just as a market or an employment sector shrinking beyond hope, but also as a complex heritage in which tensions about Appalachia’s place in the world come to be debated.
The problem, however, and the difference between Sanders and Clinton is that Clinton never spoke of coal as what it is to many of us above all else: a burden and a lived reality that tells us our value is the extent of our labor and our ability to perform a civic usefulness in the context in which it is expected. Although Clinton’s platform challenged the War on Coal narrative portraying the decline of coal as the product of government over-regulation, in pandering to corporate interests and coal allies like Manchin she borrowed strategically from its historical revisionism — a revisionism that, again, suggests that our identity is shaped by past sacrifices in the mines and mills in service of the greater good, and not by a history of being exploited by industry.
Unwittingly or not, by invoking the dignity of coal miners past and present, Clinton played into the War on Coal narrative…
What Clinton and the larger body of centrist Democrats need to understand is that the free market won’t save Appalachia, and neither will the Democrats’ most cherished strategy of luring private business to the region with generous tax breaks. Corporate incentives of this sort are not only partially responsible for Appalachia’s economic decline — local communities suffer when businesses don’t pay taxes — but they also ensure future economic decline by making it acceptable to replace well-paying jobs, some with union protections, with lower-waged work in other industries. Appalachia is littered with abandoned call centers and industrial facilities that opened to much fanfare and then closed shop when the tax breaks expired.
But what of the Far Right voters in Appalachia who helped install Donald Trump in the White House? Clinton is right in her memoir to reflect on the toxic attitudes about race and gender in Appalachia that Trump was eager to indulge. But this is another reason why her endorsement of J.D. Vance’s narrative is so disappointing. The hallmark of Vance’s punditry, and indeed the thesis of his memoir, is that poor whites are suffering from a generic yet innate cultural decline in traditional values and this, rather than their racism or misogyny, is what set them on the destructive path that culminated in the election of Donald Trump.
The narrative that Appalachia is home to a unique and sometimes justifiable brand of white resentment where individuals can only be saved by a return to traditional values is remarkably dangerous. It’s a belief also shared by white supremacists, whose activities in the region have intensified since the election. Reflecting on the aftermath of the white terrorist attack in Charlottesville in early August, Eastern Kentucky podcaster Tanya Turner commented during a recent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party: “We get all hyped up about discourse and narrative on this podcast, but actually the only thing there is are the stories that people tell their goddamn selves. Stories are the reason these Nazis are marching through Charlottesville … the whole reason they’re here and targeting this region is because of the stories they think they know about this place, the narrative they think they know.”
In other words, clinging to a narrative of organic decline to justify a political loss or, in the case of Vance, jumpstart a political career, puts people here in genuine harm. This narrative not only clouds the possibilities for a better range of political leaders and solutions, it legitimizes the stories that sinister forces want to tell about the region and its people. Of course, white racial resentment is a compelling reason why Donald Trump took the White House, but anchoring this resentment so strongly to a place in a way that naturalizes it helps no one except those who wish to shore up their reputations as wise moderates. As a result, these so-called moderates squeeze out the Charlotte Pritts and Paula Swearengens and others with a better understanding of Appalachia.
Appalachia demands a narrative in which many things might be true simultaneously. It is true that the political choices of many white individuals here are racially-motivated and should be acknowledged as such and not absorbed into an unproductive outreach strategy to entice the white working-class back into the fold. But it is also true that members of both parties have failed the region and in the process alienated a large body of voters who still believe in the common good. It is true that we believe strongly in a narrative that connects our place in the world to the dignity of work both past and present, but it is not true that this dignity is a commodity easily transferable to anyone who demands our labor. And it is also true that one can derive dignity from work that is given by an exploitative employer.
And yes, it is true that we are angry, but it is also true that for many of us our anger is not heretical or attached to defective beliefs but is instead motivated by the understanding that our region is, and would continue to be during a Clinton presidency, a zone of political and economic sacrifice. Yet despite this, many of us (although not enough) supported Clinton’s campaign when she won the Democratic nomination only to see our solidarity erased again and again by members of the party who feel Appalachia should be annihilated for its role in Trump’s election.
As I’ve often written, Appalachia exists at the intersection of projected fantasies. For Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s the toxic belief that we might make America great again by resurrecting a bygone industry. For Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, it’s the faith that there are market-based solutions, pleasing to all, that will arrest the devastation of our region caused by unchecked capitalism. And for me, it’s the hope that we might one day meet a viable progressive political candidate who offers real solutions for the region, and who can acknowledge the wrong done here by the coal barons and, more importantly, by the Republican and Democratic officials who’ve enabled them.
Banner photo credit: Marc Nozell
Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee and is the author of the forthcoming What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, February 2018). She holds a PhD in public history and is the co-owner of Passel, a historical consulting and community development firm.