Over the holidays, my wife and I visited family in Huntington, West Virginia. It's a small city in obvious distress. I bring it up because, with the 2016 primary elections just around the corner, it's home to a lot of angry white voters.
Huntington, not long ago, was a thriving railroad and river hub for the coal and steel industries of Appalachia. Its decline tracked the exodus of jobs from both, but especially coal. In 1950, Huntington's population was 86,000. Today, it's below 49,000—and dropping. Handsome, solidly built brick houses that would be scooped up in Raleigh go begging there. Or, if occupied, they need repairs.
As do the city's streets. And sidewalks. And water system.
Huntington can't afford to keep itself up, in other words, and it's in a state that can't afford to either. West Virginia ranks dead last in labor-force participation, with just 52 percent of adults under the age of 65 working or looking for work.
If that sounds bad, it is. The national rate, after declining dramatically in recent years—a canary in the coal mine, if you will, showing how dismal the American economy looks to the average worker—is still above 62 percent.
In October, President Obama visited West Virginia to announce an initiative—and a pledge of money—to curb the rising incidence of heroin addiction and deaths from overdoses. The problems are national, Obama said. But West Virginia's are the worst. And in West Virginia, officials described Huntington as "ground zero."
Why? One reason is coal miners—the few still working and others who used to—who were injured, got hooked on prescription painkillers and turned to heroin.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was aboard Air Force One. According to Reuters, he said many in the state blame Obama for the heroin epidemic, because his policies promote renewable energy over coal and the jobs it used to provide.
"Any time you have a loss of jobs, loss of income, lose of purpose, loss of family, you're going to have people turning to different things," Manchin said. "And that's why you'll see people today that are very upset."
Manchin is a Democrat, but one who's pro-coal—and he's an exception to what is, increasingly, Republican rule. In the 2014 elections, after eight decades of Democratic control, West Virginia turned both houses of its legislature over to the GOP. The state's other U.S. senator, Shelley Moore Capito, is a Republican. Obama lost West Virginia in 2008 and again in 2012—by 27 points.
Now, I'm not advocating that Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, take up for coal, a dirty carbon emitter. Nor do I think that Obama is to blame for lost coal-mining jobs: The industry's giant mining machines and mountaintop-removal methods are.
Still, here's a state in dire straits, with a city that needs help on a scale the state government simply can't provide. Only Washington can. And West Virginia used to know that: Every other thing in the state is named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat who brought home the bacon in Congress from 1953–2010.
Yet today, a majority of West Virginia voters buy the Republican argument that money collected by government, whether state or national, is more likely to be wasted than spent in ways that create jobs for them. Wasted, or lavished on the rich.
And yes, they are predominantly white voters—West Virginia is 94 percent white—and yes, racism is at work. I wish it weren't. But wishing won't move votes.
In recent days, The New York Times reported that self-identified white Democrats are Donald Trump's fiercest supporters. Half the country thinks the "American dream" no longer holds true, according to a poll for NBC News and Esquire about voter anger. The angriest groups: white women, white men, Republicans and those "in the middle of the middle class."
It defies rationality, because clearly white grievances pale—that's right—compared with those of African-Americans and Native Americans.
But it's a problem nonetheless, and here's why. Let's assume that a Democrat, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, is elected president. Each leads Trump and all or most of the other GOP candidates in most polls, so that's not a stretch.
And let's further assume that President Sanders or Clinton wants to restore the American dream for working-class Americans and has a viable plan to do so, using changes in tax policy, investments in education and infrastructure and so on. A progressive program, in other words, that a majority of American voters support.
But tough rocks, because a majority of white American voters don't support it. They support tax cuts and shrinking the government.
Because of gerrymandered congressional districts and a U.S. Senate that gives equal representation to Wyoming and California, white voters will continue to control Congress regardless of who's president—with minority voters sequestered in a relatively few districts and few states.
Without Congress, there will be no progressive program.
The challenge for Democrats in 2016, therefore, is to explain to enough white voters how progressive economic change will be good for everyone who works—white, brown or black. Explain it, explain it and explain it again, until the argument breaks through and voters elect a Congress committed to getting something done.
Impossible? Try making the case in Huntington. And go from there.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The white people problem"