Why We Are 50th

Why West Virginia Went From Democrat to Republican


  1. Unions and their usefulness had largely faded, the memories of coal operators paying in scrip or brutally fighting unionization were gone.
  2. The two parties had realigned primarily along urban/rural lines which put WV squarely in R territory.
  3. WV had historically and still faced decline under democratic leadership. The social programs delivered by the democrats in the 1960s could now be seen as perpetuating the suffering.
  4. Democrats started to prioritize climate change around 2000 with putting Al Gore on the ticket. A major priority in addressing climate change is the elimination of coal.
  5. The republican party along with the coal lobby’s influence are waning. One term Bush Sr, the narrow 2000 race after 8 years of Democratic rule, the failure to produce a standard candidate in 2016, and the electoral college saving the 2000 and 2016 races are all indicators. This fear of irrelevance has elevated both willingness to use propaganda and its effectiveness.

Things I read to develop this summary:

History of political party strength in WV:

These links provide some idea of unionization efforts in the mining industry in the early 1900s and systemic difficulties faced:

The UMWA and miners struggled to get organized through the 10s and 20s mainly because they were quashed by hired guards of mine owners, local law enforcement, and the national guard. FDR secured their support by measures in the New Deal that allowed unionization in 1933. With that and the inherent tie between unions and the democratic party it’s fair to say you’re going to get a heavy lean.

US Coal mining employment peaked in the 1920s and as far as I can tell WV matched that trend. By the 50s and 60s the difficulties of shrinking employment in the area and a sole reliance on coal were apparent. This is evident in JFKs speech when visiting the area around 1960:

JFK promised aid and won the state primarily through the southern coalfields. Some of this promised aid came to fruition and further embedded the democratic party.

As far as I know, after 1960 WV was no longer courted in Presidential races which presumably led to being neglected on the national stage.

There was a national realignment and shoring up of the political parties taking place. WV had all the indicators of being a republican with the new realignment “identity”: rural, anti-abortion, and religious.
Info in this article:

Articles detailing the overall change:


All the points laid out in summary are on point and well referenced. So, I’m just going to anecdotally add some color to some of those points based on intimate family knowledge and direct involvement with some of the points mentioned and personal experiences around some of the other points.

  1. Usefulness of Unions - Faded History of Tarnished Appalachia Coal Mining History.

    It’s actually fairly impossible to separate coal/steel industry from the party line discussion in West Virginia. However, not in the way many would like to think. On the surface, yes, democratic all-in party affiliation with the (necessary) green/alternative energy movement is a silver bullet straight to the heart of the issue. It isn’t all THAT simple though. Once upon a time coal industry, while an opportunity for first, second, and even beyond third generation immigrant families, was a complete blessing in one hand and a curse in the other. While it was a quick route to a dollar earned for families with not much else to depend on for steady work, it was also certainly indentured servitude to a blatantly obvious and extreme level.

In search of this blessing, my great-great-grandfather walked the railroads due north from the Carolinas (I’m told) as a young man in search of work and a slice of the American Dream. He paused in the Paint Creek area, took up a job with the booming coal operator in the dusty town, and started a family. All is good, but he basically sold his soul to the mining company that “employed” him. He made scrip that was only redeemable in the coal camp general store and other outlets. He was “given” a small camp house and lived out his life and raised a family within the confines of that camp and small town most of his life.

His son, some years later as a very young man lived under those same conditions and house rules. Only, by that time unions had begun to form in support of the miners that literally gave their lives up for the coal companies in one way or another. His name is actually recorded in a WV history text about the mining wars that ensued in the Paint Creek area. When I say war, it really was. People died, private property was demolished. Bad stuff. My family understood it all too well. So much so that by the time my grandfather took to the mines, he became a staunch union man and years later into his career he was high ranking within his local union group. He marched for miner’s rights in some of the nation’s notable coal union protests and pressed his employers on bettering the conditions of the mine that he became foreman of eventually.

While my grandfather spoke of coal mining with a sense of pride, he told my father and his remaining children to stay away from it. He spent his life doing it and paid for it dearly. Twice broke his back in accidents, black lung, and two replaced knees. While he spoke with pride there was enough pain and struggle behind it to warn off others.

I took the time to paint the story above to strike a point that I think was touched on and referenced well in the original post. The story that I told isn’t a unique one. Most long-lineage coal families can trace these stories. When told accurately there is a fair dose of pain and pride. But, from what I’ve seen and heard in the hills of WV in the last 20 years, from younger relatives that still live and work in coal country and those in stereotypical coal communities, the stories are told with all of the same pride, but none of the heartache. The heartache is the factor that allowed the unions to spring up. Democrats of the time always backed the honest hard working blue collar man. So, the coal union groups were an easy horse to ride for Dems. With a strong working class that is well protected and productive in a nation that is rich in minerals needed to stoke steel production into making the US a world leader in industry and manufacturing, it was an easy thing to do.

As time has gone on things have changed in economy and industry. Unfortunately, the Dems and unions were so successful at backing the laborers of many industrial sectors in the US that they priced labor out of a world market. Why pay US laborers a living wage, or even a minimum wage, when Chinese laborers will do it for next to nothing (relatively and at the time)? This lead to job loss. With job loss came the downturn of the once strong, blue collar middle class. Without a strong horse to back, the Dems needed something new and unaccounted for - the minority populations.

  1. Social Movements of the 1960’s.
    Now that industry was dwindling due to a cheaper competing world market and workers rights in the US pricing US labor far and above countries with trite labor laws, Dems saw the writing on the wall. It was time to back another group of underserved citizens for the greater good. The Dems, I believe, would have done this anyway. But, I’m of the mindset that large political movements are well vetted and strategized by party leaders prior to acting. Minority groups in the US, at the time primarily African Americans, became life and generational Democrats the moment LBJ stroked his pen. It’s actually rumored that LBJ was a bit of a connoisseur with the “N” word and said aloud that he would have the black vote for generations after the civil rights acts passed under his administration. For all intensive purposes, while putridly possessive and manipulative in his statement, he was right about Dems receiving the African American vote to an astonishing level for years to come. With a demographic population vote nearly all accounted for, why fight for the working class laborers of Appalachia or elsewhere when they know where US blue collar industry is headed? The only issue is, where does the financial backing come from now that unions are falling apart? It’s time to back a new, burgeoning industry. The green movement.

  2. Climate Change Means Green in More than One Way
    This one, I think, is simple and sweet. With the GOP garnering big dollars from large, global market corporations, where were the Dems going to pick up lucrative benefactors? Certainly supporting social welfare is great for locking down the votes of those benefited from those policies, but there isn’t much money there to run winning political campaigns. One growing industry and train of thought peaking its head out from the hole in the Ozone Layer was the climate change and green energy folks. For those of us that don’t believe the Earth is flat, that Corona Virus is a hoax, and that Elvis is alive, climate change is real. But, good luck telling a bunch of folks that depend on carbon fuels as a way of life that they should just stop doing what puts food on the table now and build wind turbines. Oh yeah, and it’s super scary so we need to do this like, now. Clearly the Dems had long written off those voters years ago, so the choice was made in a calculated fashion.

In Conclusion
WV didn’t stop being blue. Democrats stopped being supportive of West Virginians - and other similar rural demographic profiles. So much so that Hillary Clinton, being as out of touch as she is, called lower income white rural Americans “deplorable.”

So I say, why be a Democrat in WV? Well, there are many good reasons. Locally, WV could use a lot of liberal mindset awakenings to right the ship. Nevertheless, the big politics Democrat Party aren’t selling what WV residents, in majority, are buying or needing. It just takes a guy like President Trump to say he’s going to bring back jobs. It takes a man that will put on a trucker hat and talk about the times of old when a family could take care of itself with (or without) a high school diploma and a decent work ethic and character. Those jobs aren’t available - at least not in the way many West Virginians find them accessible.

I am going to close with a piece of how I started. The coal mining industry and its workers carry a lot of pride. So much pride that many of those workers don’t see any other line of work as honorable. They’d rather be unemployed and collect a check from the social institutions, built by a party that once supported their prideful labor, than learn a new trade that is completely foreign to them. Not only that, nobody is offering to teach them those skills. Both parties, blue and red, have forgotten struggling lower middle class and poor white rural America. All it takes is a little attention around election year…

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Re closing statement: I think the overall message is that we know what is going to happen and have watched that play out in slow motion since 1920.

Looking at how people came here is a story of motivation and hardship that no longer exists and there is no where else to go anyway. Eg there won’t be a potato famine to starve people into action and there won’t be a new coal industry starting up that needs unskilled workers provide a clear attraction unless we want to remove the safety net so that 3rd world countries become appealing (objectively idiotic). The administration of Social programs has a huge influence on how this plays out and that’s probably best left to it’s own topic but we need to start finding ways where our safety nets better encourage work and individual seeking of opportunity.

Link to contribute to point 1. In the weeds but this is an acknowledged phenomenon.

My opinion is that the paradox is very real and it’s something that roles out in most areas exploited for their natural resources. Large natural resource companies and other large industries do very little to lift up and educate small towns. At one time, it was probably seen as best to keep the blue collar labor force right on the bubble rather than experiencing upward mobility: why send a lineage of workers on to college following their parents? That can be debated separately, but my point is the exploitation comes with little reinvestment of the capital earned into the public systems of the areas impacted. Thus, upward mobility of the working population stays stagnant. Both basic and quality education is lacking in places like the coal fields of WV and the rust belt towns of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, etc. With jobs gone, families don’t know the first step of getting into another line of work. Or can’t fathom the ability to do so. This is the paradox.

I was looking for a Time Magazine or New York Times article from around 2016 that I recall reading that did a good job in explaining the condition in which mining industries left WV. It was more focused on how families have fared during this time and it explained how, despite those jobs being gone in a very real and mostly permanent way, continue to believe that WV is a mining state and that everything else isn’t worth their time and effort. I haven’t recalled that article from Google yet, but I did find this one, which hits the point briefly regarding the nostalgia mindset of coal in WV being a hindrance to accepting reality and voting for ones actual interests.

NY Times Article Regarding Coal Mining Legacy Ideology Living on Despite Reality

Also not the article I am looking for, but close. NY Times focused heavily on WV as they caught on to Trump’s campaign strategy. So there is a slew of coverage in the topic of WV and shifting party affiliation in 2015/2016:

NY Times WV, Trump, Coal