William Allen White, at the height of the Populist revolt of the 1890s, completely exasperated, asked, "What's the matter with Kansas?" So flummoxed with what he saw as a foolish political uprising by farmers, the Emporia Gazette editor could not allow any empathy to enter his opinion concerning the agrarian revolt.
Much the same can be said of some Democrats in West Virginia in 2012. After voting regularly for the Democratic party the voters of the Mountain State suddenly changed as if by magic to Republicans, and not the moderate type but the "severe" version. Beginning in 2000, the GOP began to dominate the presidential elections. The state that voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton twice suddenly had joined the forces of darkness, or so the story went.
The explanation for 2000 was stunningly simple, or at least for West Virginia Democrats: guns. The fact that Al Gore's views did not defer markedly from Clinton's was ignored. Perhaps the citizens of the state were somehow being led astray by the National Rifle Association. It was an easy explanation that could not possibly explain the margin that Gore lost by. John Kerry and Barack Obama's losses were fobbed off by adding not only firearms but swift boats and race to the mix.
In a book in 2004, Thomas Franks looked at right-wing success in Kansas and concluded that people voted against their own interest. In my opinion that view was and is colossally mistaken and not just a little arrogant. But many progressives agreed and made it a model for explaining why West Virginians no longer swooned when Democrats spoke.
Perhaps West Virginians saw their interests differently. For many years, the Democratic Party protected the health and safety of coal miners. However, the coal industry steadily lost jobs, first to automation and then to competition. As the jobs shrank the Democrats lost their credibility. Safety means little if you do not have employment. Add environmental demands, mountaintop removal for example, and the remaining jobs, admittedly fewer in numbers, are threatened. Well-paying jobs are hard to come by and simply cannot be replaced by touristy towns with cute boutiques. No, it was more than guns.
Playing with other people's money and aspirations is a tricky business, and if it's your ox being gored understandably you resent having to pay for those not directly impacted. Great Society liberalism, braced as it was on a view that "the impossible takes a little longer," was a bit too optimistic. Consensus works well as the pie grows. In the 1960s, with its impressive jumps in Gross National Product, it looked as if America could have it all. As the industrial sector shrank slowly beginning in the 1970s it became increasingly a set of choices.
Add on to that the sense that the Democratic Party has become more civil rights oriented rather than committed to economic equity, is it surprising that West Virginian workers might have shopped around? In 1965, Lyndon Johnson made little effort to repeal Taft- Hartley.
Environmentalism and anti-poverty also joined the priorities of the administration, as issues linked to protecting jobs in the coal fields and steelworks diminished.
Too often, working people are written off as a highly manipulated voter. This too is a specious argument that has been disproven. In 1968, George Wallace ran badly in West Virginia thanks to the United Mine Workers. No less than the populists, the voters of the Mountain State searched for an alternative to protect home and hearth from the rough winds of change.
Certainly Democrats would be smart to understand the reason behind that phenomenon rather than deride the voters themselves.