Virginia and West Virginia, as little as five or ten years ago, were reliably supportive of their respective party’s presidential candidate. The politics of clean energy seems to have changed both states’ political tune, with Democrats picking up the 13 electoral college votes in Virginia from Republicans, and ceding the 5 electoral college votes of West Virginia to Republicans. A 2010 green jobs report by the Brookings Institution, and a recent report by NPR shed light on why the two states have reversed course politically.
West Virginia had always been a strong union state, and the mine workers concerned for their safety and mine regulations typically supported union and middle class friendly policies of the Democratic Party. In Virginia, factory farms and fundamentalist, born-again Christians dominated the landscape, and it had not voted for a Democrat since 1964 (Lyndon Johnson, a southerner himself). West Virginia first flipped to red in 2000, with George W. Bush pushing for more carbon-intensive energy, and claiming that Al Gore’s fervent environmentalism would cost states like West Virginia mining jobs. Virginia flipped decisively in 2008, supporting President Obama by 6%, after going for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 by 9%.
The story by National Public Radio on West Virginia’s coal-based economy was truly enlightening. Lifelong Democrats were interviewed and showed distaste for Obama’s policies regarding the words “clean coal”. Though no such thing actually exists, Obama’s mere mention of clean coal, by definition, infers that something is inherently wrong with regular old coal. The podcast is really worth a listen, but just to sum up a few key parts of NPR’s interviews:
“Obama, there. Hell, if he’d bend over a little backwards there to West Virginia and get that, what is that, EPA? Tell them to get on down the road, and hell with the lizard. Man needs to work,” says Vance.
Vance was referring to salamanders, which are often endangered by mining activity.
To show just how far distrust of the political left in America has come in a rural, carbon-intensive economy like West Virginia:
Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, got applause when he stood and said: “I’m gonna say something to all these miners assembled here tonight that you’re not going to hear from Barack Hussein [Obama] and that’s, ‘God bless a coal miner.’ … ‘Hussein’ in Arabic means, ‘I hate coal miners.'”
For May, the reversal of his own home state must be a particular thorn in his side. Virginia was reliably Republican for as long as I can remember (I am a proud graduate of high school and college in the Dominion state). However, in 2008, if you had watched any of the electoral college poll aggregators like this one, this one, or this one, you would have noticed that at the outset, Virginia was as red as any state, and slowly but surely poll after poll found that the state was leaning, and then firmly supportive of President Obama. And that was before the economy as a whole melted down in October 2008, which secured the landslide victory for Obama.
I honestly believe the clean economy is changing politics. If you are to look at the findings of the Brookings study and analyze by state, you’ll find a map that looks like this one:
The darker green states indicate where green job growth has been strongest. Outside of the outlier of Texas, this map vaguely resembles the electoral college map. The midwest, northeast, and east coast generally favor President Obama, and the dust bowl and the south generally favor Presumptive Republican Candidate Romney.
You’ll also note that despite vast geothermal resources, the state of West Virginia has pursued fossil fuel technologies and jobs to the detriment of its potential for a clean energy center. Virginia, on the other hand, has pushed aggressively for clean economy jobs. West Virginia ranks 43rd in clean economy jobs, and Virginia ranks 15th. The green job growth in the DC metro area alone (which ranks in the top 5 of metro areas in the country) has changed the election landscape in Virginia.
I empathize with coal miners. They work hard, and it’s not their fault that their states’ political leaders have not pushed aggressively to create jobs in the new economy. But honestly, that’s why we need to vote the Republican party out of power. More clean economy jobs means America is more competitive globally, and regressive policies that seem bent on ignoring every shred of common sense and scientific finding regarding the ultimate limitations of a carbon-based economy are just hurting America in the long haul. We can stick our heads in the sand for a while, but the ultimate truth is that clean economy jobs are going to be the only jobs at some point. Might as well start heading down that road as soon, and as quickly, as possible, and attempt to remain globally competitive.
Follow Scott Cooney on Twitter.
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.