You're walking down the street, minding your own business when all of a sudden a well-dressed man in an expensive three-piece suit jumps out of an alley, whips a contract out of his pocket and yells "Give me all your money!" You're terrified of reading all the legalese and he's got a whole pack of lawyers and bankers and bought off government officials in his entourage, so you fork over all your cash and promise to make a monthly payment.
The well-dressed man in the three-piece suit starts to walk away and you think to yourself, "Hey, wait a minute! I just got robbed!" Angry, you storm after him, tap him on the shoulder and yell, "Hey, I just lost all my money!"
But this is when the well-dressed man in the three-piece suit shows his true criminal genius. "You're right!" he says, throwing you off guard. You hadn't expected him to agree with you and validate your anger. And he says it with such enthusiasm and charisma, and here is this very wealthy man who seems to identify with you on an emotional level. It feels good. "I can't believe all that you've lost! You've made sacrifices! You're down on your luck! That's not fair at all!"
"Yeah!" you say. "It's not fair!"
"You would still have all your money if it weren't for that guy across the street!" says the well-dressed man in the three-piece suit. "I wouldn't have been forced to take all of your money if it weren't for that guy over there who still has all his money!" He points out a middle-class type in a blue jeans and a t-shirt. "Why that guy can still afford to have dinner tonight! Hell, he might even be able to catch a movie afterward. And he might even take a vacation day tomorrow because he will have a few bucks left over!"
"That bastard!" you exclaim. "Man that guy has it good. I really hate that guy. He should have to have no money and a monthly fee to pay just like me!"
"Damn right!" yells the well-dressed man in the three-piece suit, making you feel all vindicated and warm and fuzzy inside. "Now march over there and take that guy's money and give it to me! Then we'll all be even!"
"Yeah!" you yell back in affirmation, looking for a baseball bat so you can go give that no-good uppity guy in the blue jeans and a t-shirt some what for.
Later, after you hand over the t-shirt guy's money to the well-dressed man in a three-piece suit, he gives you a shiny nickel. "Here," he says magnanimously, "You've earned it." Wow, you think as you walk home with your shiny nickel. The American dream is alive and well. Anyone really can make it in this world with just a little hard work.
It's hard to believe, isn't it? Could anyone really be this stupid? And while this imaginary scenario is admittedly an exaggeration, we're seeing something very much like this sad story play out across our country right before our eyes. There are lots of ways to pull off this bait and switch. You can pit white against black against brown. You can pit Christian against Muslim. You can pit secular against religious. You can pit "native" against foreign (all the while shipping jobs overseas). Now it seems you can pit private sector versus public sector.
How did this happen? When did become okay to bash labor and unions in the very region of the country where the labor movement was born and grew and flexed its muscles? How do you bash labor (and win elections!) in states populated by steel workers and auto workers and mine workers and teamsters and get away with it?
I can't claim to have all the answers. But I want to look closely at the state in which I grew up and in which I have lived for about two-thirds of my time on this earth. I want to look at West Virginia. When you understand why Democrats are struggling here, you'll understand why Democrats struggle across the battlegrounds of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
This turned out to be a very long diary. The topic headings divide it into roughly four parts so you can read in chunks if you like. I apologize for the length, and I don't claim to be able to tell you all the reasons why the story like the one I just told can happen. But we've got to try to figure it out.
What's the Matter with West Virginia?
Thomas Frank already wrote the book on Kansas. But I think that my own home state of West Virginia has an even more interesting story to tell. Kansas did have a radically progressive past at times, but Kansas was already voting Republican in presidential elections in 1940. Kansas voted against FDR. Twice!
West Virginia, on the other hand, voted Democratic in all but three presidential elections between 1932 and 1996. The only times West Virginia went Republican were in absolute blow-out years--1984, 1972, and 1956. But aside from voting for every Democratic candidate that won the presidency, West Virginia also voted with several losing Democrats. West Virginia voted for Adlai Stevenson in '52, Hubert Humphrey in '68, Jimmy Carter in '80 and Mike Dukakis in '88.
The thought of George W. Bush winning here in West Virginia in 2000 was almost inconceivable to most political operatives on the Democratic side at the time. Al Gore didn't even bother to campaign here until the last weekend of the election, when late polls showed that the inconceivable (I don't think that word means what you think it means!) was in fact about to happen. And if he had just held onto West Virginia, which had voted Democratic in huge losses in '80 and '88, he wouldn't have ever had to worry about Florida. Just five more electoral votes would have put him over the top.
So what happened here? Don't think you can just chalk it up to racism because Obama got shellacked here in 2008. Obama lost by almost the exact same percentage that John Kerry had lost by just four years earlier (about 13 points). And you can't just apply Frank Rich's Kansas thesis to the Mountain State either. Sure, it's a socially conservative state. But mountaineers clung tenaciously to their guns fifty years ago as much as they do today. And it's not like the state suddenly went pro-life in 2000. Roe vs. Wade was unpopular here right from the start and we still voted for Carter, Dukakis and Clinton. The Republicans have had the "cultural" edge in West Virginia since at least the late 1960's.
So what gives? Why is it that West Virginia (and to some extent Kentucky) did not join the "solid south" after the Republican party introduced its "southern strategy" in the late 1960s? And how did the Republicans make gains in this state and region in the time since? How are Republicans winning in an area where seemingly everyone's fathers and grandfathers were a union men?
I think there are three main sets of reasons. The first set of reasons has to do with economic and demographic realities that no one can easily change, though Republicans have eagerly seized on these realities while Democrats fumbled the ball until they had lost the state altogether. The second set are those activities of Republicans, conservatives and others have taken to gain a stranglehold on the news and information that most West Virginians receive. Finally, I'll talk about what Democrats have foolishly done to convince working people that NO ONE represents their interests so they might as well vote their cultural values anyway!
Economic and Demographic Realities
I've got four words for you: coal, education, age and race.
The first is maybe the most important, and perhaps the single biggest wedge that Republicans have been able to drive between Democrats and West Virginia voters. The same story plays out in the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, southern Indiana and other states in this region. Republicans have successfully crafted and capitalized on a simple message: "Democrats are out to kill coal." I've written more extensively on this issue recently, so I won't belabor the point here. All I'll say is that in the year 2000, Rove moved eagerly and early to define Al Gore as the green tree-hugger candidate who was going to put every West Virginia coal miner out of work. This message continues to this day. They use ad campaigns about being "friends of coal" to try and put coal miners on the same side as the industry bosses who have shown little concern for their well-being, health and even physical safety (especially in non-union mines).
Second there is the education problem and the related problem of a rapidly aging (and shrinking) population. Because the economy has been so bad in West Virginia for so long, we have the unfortunate problem that most people either leave to get their college education or, now that we're actually making some great strides to provide college education to our young people, finding there's no professional work here after graduation and leaving then. Whether or not someone has a college education was one of the strongest predictors of whether someone would vote for Obama or McCain in 2008. Fewer West Virginians earn college degrees than in other states, and of those who do earn them, fewer and fewer are able to stay in the state. Less education means a shift toward the right. It also means an older population, which means a shift to the right. These are on mostly social issues, though, and as I said before, West Virginia has been socially conservative for a long time.
And yes, race does play a role. Right around 95% of West Virginians are white. No, we are not all racists. I think this did play a role in Obama's not doing BETTER than John Kerry, even when he did so in most other states. But it does not explain why Democrats in general are doing poorly. We've lost three presidential elections here and now for the first time in...I don't even know how long, two of our three representatives are Republican (and one of our senators might as well be).
Media Manipulation: National, Local, Corporate
A less well-educated population is ripe for the kinds of media that make their living off the "low-information" voter. Fox News, with its emotionally salient while factually lacking broadcasts, is the kind of media that "feels" right on a "gut level" here. Glenn Beck, I would argue, is the perfect example. He has no idea what is going on in the world. His theories are insane. But his tone and his body language FEEL right, even to me. Live here for awhile. It really does feel like the whole world is falling apart (drive through downtown Wheeling, see the ruined factories and boarded up storefronts and empty lots and you'll know what it will look like after the zombie apocalypse) and that no one is really standing up for us or doing anything about it. Of course, the ones really out to get us are the top 1% who already have everything, but I digress.
The right has done a great job with connecting with West Virginians and with workers across this country on an emotional level. Like the well-dressed man in the three-piece suit at the beginning of my diary today, they make you feel like they identify with you. They are culturally like you. They feel your pain.
And they do a hell of a job co-opting the good feelings you already have to other groups. One way that they have successfully done this is by taking almost complete control of local newspapers and TV stations in the region. Only the Charleston Gazette could be described as even center-left. My own hometown paper runs editorial content no a constant basis about Obama's "war on coal," the "spending crisis," and the liberals who are out to destroy God and guns. I wrote previously about how one ridiculous commentary responded to the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona by saying we should consider banning the Koran.
Just this weekend, the editorial mocked Move On's Defend the Dream rallies and said that working people know it's really the liberals and out of control spending that is destroying the American dream. One of the letters to the editor, from a man across the river in Ohio, showed just how effective the constant local messaging or a national talking point can be. Here, in what I always considered to be the very heart of union country, you can hear something I've been hearing from more and more people in the Ohio Valley:
Collective bargaining is a well-earned right by the private sector labor force that too often suffered from abusive employers. Public sector union bosses now blatantly abuse the process that they did not earn and they certainly do not deserve. Public employee union bosses have made collective bargaining a facade of our time. Their abuse of collective bargaining is extortion of the taxpayer.
There you have it. Private vs. public. Worker vs. worker. The constant media messaging is working. But why?
People in smaller communities (and even big cities, for that matter) have an affinity for everything local. Buy local. Shop local. Trust local. These aren't even bad ideas, necessarily. For a long time, most local papers in smaller markets were truly locally owned and operated. They represented the people in the communities they worked for. People are much more likely to trust what they read in their "local" paper than what they read in the New York Times or what they see on MSNBC. Many local papers and TV stations built up goodwill over decades of truly decent local journalism by truly decent journalists. The right has co-opted the goodwill most people feel for these "local" institutions by buying them up and going national.
Take for instance Ogden Newspapers. This a chain that has its flagship paper, The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, right here in my hometown. Local paper, right? Small town. Good guys.
Except they now own small town "local" papers in twelve different states. This isn't necessarily an evil thing. But the content in national news and in the opinion sections is virtually identical from state to state and from town to town. Here is the link to all the papers that they own. Follow a few and see for yourself just how similar the language, the framing, the narrative and even the page layout is on nearly every single one of these sites. Apparently, everyone from Topeka, Kansas to Wheeling, West Virginia to Ft. Wayne, Indiana and even all the way out in Hawaii has the same concerns. And it's always "big government" and "out of control spending" and the liberal war on this, that, or something else.
That's the right-wing strategy. Co-opt institutions that people already feel goodwill toward. Same with the corporate "friends of coal" strategy. People love coal miners. I love coal miners. We all do. So get a slogan about "friends of coal" and put up pictures of miners and then say anyone who opposes the mine industry is an "enemy of coal" (i.e. coal miners) and...got it? Buy up all the "local" media that people trust and that they mistakenly think is an independent voice standing up to those big bad elitist liberals in the big cities and hammer home the same message day after day after day. It works.
Forget MSNBC. No one who isn't already liberal "trusts" what they see on MSNBC. We need to get local. We need to get on the ground and reach people where they are. The right is killing us at this game.
This last piece is maybe the most important, as it is the most amenable to change. Maybe not by 2012, but we have got to change it or we are going to keep on getting creamed. Or, we will win on occasion but the win won't matter all that much.
Socially conservative, high-school educated West Virginians were still voting their economic interests through 1996. West Virginians are not stupid. They might hate abortion and want to pray in school and enjoy going hunting on the weekend, but they know that all of those things pale in comparison to being able to make a living and provide for your family. Workers all across this country, deep down, probably feel the same way. But they no longer feel like Democrats are particularly interested in their economic problems.
Jimmy Carter ordered striking coal miners back to work. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and pushed for "free trade" across the board. Barack Obama helped the Republicans create a budget crisis by compromising on tax cuts for the wealthy and our Democratic Congress passed a healthcare bill, that while it made progress, mandated that individual Americans have to buy private health insurance. No universal healthcare. Not even a public option.
National Democrats have not had a consistently pro-labor, pro-union, economically populist agenda in a very long time. National Democrats have bent over backwards to please corporate interests. Democrats caved on tax cuts for the wealthy while they refused to fight for a continuance of the Making Work Pay tax credit. That means that any individual making less than $20,000 and any family making less than $40,000 actually saw a tax INCREASE at the beginning of the year.
Rachel Maddow was livid a few weeks ago about how liberal Americans are on many of these economic issues--from taxing the rich to supporting collective bargaining rights. We ARE an economically liberal country. But more and more Americans feel like there is not an economically liberal political party. In the minds of many working people, the Republicans are openly trying to fuck you over economically. But at least they're honest about it. The Democrats give you lip service and then get elected and don't do much of anything for you. Sure, that's a little better than getting fucked over, but it's nothing to get too excited about.
Working West Virginians no longer feel like national Democrats are actually going to do much of anything FOR them. So why not vote for someone who will talk about God once in awhile?
I know that there ARE significant economic accomplishments that have been made by Democrats on behalf of working people during the Clinton and Obama administrations. I would never argue that the two parties are the SAME. But the one area where Democrats have a chance to bring together large majorities of the American people in the areas of the country that are battleground states, states that we must win in order to hold Congressional majorities and to win presidential elections is on economically populist issues.
We have ceded the populist wave of anger to the Republicans. We refused to stand up and get mad and fight on behalf of working people who were screwed over by Wall Street. We never prosecuted or punished the people who collapsed the economy. We gave them billions of dollars instead. We backed down on the stimulus and settled for a bill that was mostly tax cuts for businesses and was short on the kind of national works program we needed. We backed down on health care and on the Bush tax policies. Is it any wonder that liberally minded working people were less eager to go out and vote Democratic in 2010?
I'm sorry that this has been such a long diary. Let me summarize it as best I can.
I wanted to analyze the ways in which the corporate interests and their right-wing allies have been able to divide the middle-class against itself. I focused on my own home state of West Virginia not only because I know it best but because given it's 20th-century voting history, it's so very odd to see Republican victories here. You can't do too much about demographic changes. Some parts of the country are getting older (most of the northeast and midwest) and that's generally good for Republicans. We may not be able to ultimately resolve the tension between environmental concerns and the fact that coal mining remains one of the few "good-paying" jobs in a place like West Virginia.
We can, however, make sure we are prepared to promote Democratic values and tailor our Democratic message to those realities. We LET the GOP pound home the message that "liberals" are out to "destroy coal" and against hard working coal miners.
In fact, in most of rural and small town America, we've allowed the GOP to get a stranglehold on "local" media and control the message on economic as well as social issues. We have to fight back. We need to expose the fact that people are getting their "local" news from national right-wing organizations like Ogden papers. We have to work hard to win the war of words and find the right narrative frames that will emotionally connect policies that most people support with their own individual concerns.
Finally, we need Democrats who are true economic populists. Even if we DO compromise in the end, we should at least state our own preferred position loudly and clearly at the start. We should have vigorously defended a public option. Hell, we should have started out with "universal health insurance" and then compromised TO a public option. The working people of America, the first time voters in 2008, the people who voted for hope and change need to know that Democrats are fighting FOR them. It's not enough to just not be against them. That doesn't get anyone out to the polls.
They've taken away collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio. They want to sell off whole communities in Michigan. They're cutting education in Pennsylvania. The West Virginia legislature failed to pass adequate regulations for the gas drilling of the Marcellus Shale that's already underway. Congress wants to pass "drastic cuts" to social programs that wouldn't be needed if we hadn't caved in on the tax cuts.
Class war is already upon us. It's time for some aggressive Middle-class Defense.
*Cross-posted at West Virginia Blue