When pundits talk about West Virginia, I find myself burdened with memories. A lot of clever political analysts talk about Joe Manchin, without this burden, and tell us that he’s the most progressive politician West Virginia could hope for, that West Virginia is such a deep-red state that only a Democrat as conservative as he is could ever be elected. For such people, it is enough to glance briefly at West Virginia, cite the last election results, and then conclude that—as Associated Press did the other day—that “There simply aren’t enough Democrats in the state to re-elect Manchin.” West Virginia is “Trump country” and the reddest of red states, we hear; it’s so conservative that having even a single Democratic representative is a lucky break. As Senator Chris Murphy told Politico “If you want to have a Democratic Party in places like West Virginia, you have to be happy about somebody like Joe Manchin, right?”
I am certainly not happy about Joe Manchin, but it’s the phrase “places like West Virginia” that makes my eyes glaze over and my brain hurt. It’s because I am burdened with a handful of facts about West Virginia—and a memory that goes back more than two years—that this kind of analysis stands out as the garbage that it is. I remember, for instance, when Manchin first ran for governor. It was 1996, a year when West Virginia was a one-party state, when Democrats controlled every level of the state’s government, held every congressional seat, and overwhelmingly supported a presidential candidate named Clinton. I remember it because it wasn’t that long ago, and because a lot can change in a short period of time. The fact that West Virginia was very “red” in the last election does not mean that it will always be so; if anything, it shows precisely the opposite.
But let’s stay with 1996, the year that Charlotte Pritt solidly beat Joe Manchin in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. I was seventeen at the time, and I assumed—naively—that in a state where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans two-to-one that this would have been enough to make her the governor of West Virginia. It should have been; there simply aren’t enough Republicans in the state, I would have thought, to elect Cecil Underwood, her GOP opponent. And at a time when even the left side of the country was moving to the right—when Bill Clinton and the DLC were running as fast as they could from the word “liberal” or “labor,” remaking the Democratic party into a corporatist, conservative shell of what it might otherwise have been—it would have been a hell of a thing for this daughter-of-a-coal-miner, former teacher, and avowed progressive to have been elected governor of the great state of West “by God” Virginia.
Then again, if you’re not from West Virginia, this kind of counterfactual might not mean much to you. Charlotte Pritt didn’t win, as it happened; she lost in the general election to Cecil Underwood, a genial grandfather who, having once been the youngest governor in West Virginia history, would go on to be the oldest. If you’re not from West Virginia, it might be hard for this fact to eat at you, as it has eaten at me for decades; if you watch Charlotte Pritt’s DNC speech from 1996, you might find yourself thinking, well, she sounds pretty much like a Democratic politician, doesn’t she? And West Virginia has elected Democratic governors since then, nothing but Democrats, in fact. Since Underwood, West Virginia has elected four to the governor’s mansion. Would one more have changed anything?
But this is the point: if you’re not from West Virginia, it’s easy not to expect anything progressive from the state. You might be mildly surprised to learn how Democratic the state has been until incredibly recently; it might puzzle you to learn that “Trump Country” has only elected two Republicans as governor since the New Deal, that the Democrats held unbroken control of both state legislative bodies from 1933 until 2014, and that there are still significantly more registered Democrats in the state than registered Republicans.
But if you’re not from West Virginia, you’ve probably been reading Hillbilly Elegy or one of the various “Trump Country” parachute profiles that were written after Trump won the state by gigantic margins. If you’ve been getting Appalachia wrong, as Elizabeth Catte might say, then for you, nothing will seem strange about the fact that West Virginia didn’t elect a Democratic woman as governor in 1996. A state that went 67% to 29% for Trump in 2016, solid red, every county—a state that Trump visits periodically to bolster his spirits—will of course not elect Charlotte Pritt. Perhaps she lost because she was too progressive, too “beholden” to labor, as her opponents claimed at the time; perhaps because she was a woman, and a woman who was a bleeding-heart liberal that advocated sex-ed curriculum in the bible belt (only a few years after Clinton had fired his surgeon general for a similar infraction). Perhaps because she was an old-fashioned liberal, at a moment when Democrats were winning by moving to the center, you might presume that West Virginia is the sort of conservative state whose Democratic party should have nominated Joe Manchin for governor in 1996 instead.
I remember 1996 keenly, because if you’re from somewhere, you never really leave. Time moves on, but if you moved on—as I did—you will feel the passage of time differently than people who never left; when you return to the place, a stranger, you will remember the place you left with a sharpness and immediacy that the new present cannot match. Your classmates who never left will have buried the past beneath layers of new memories and stories, but you will cling to the place that it was, before, and remember the reality of it in ways that others cannot and will not. Yours is a partial truth, of course. But so is theirs.
And so, I remember 1996. I had a Charlotte Pritt bumper sticker, and I still had high hopes for what electoral democracy could accomplish. I grew up during Reagan and Bush I, and one of my earliest memories is going to an Iran-Contra protest with a sign I had made myself, a sign indicating—with an extremely convoluted map I’d drawn in crayon—that guns should not be sent to Nicaragua. “No Guns” was the level of my political consciousness at age six, but I stand by it; that Ronald Reagan is bad may not be a sophisticated political analysis, but I’ll stand by that too. The politics I learned from my parents, who brought me to that protest, have remained the rough outline of my worldview.
What 1996 added to that understanding was that a lot of Democrats were also bad. My mother was an environmental activist—for most of my conscious existence—and somewhere in my teens it dawned on me that the West Virginia Democratic party worshipped coal as much as the GOP did. In 1996, Charlotte Pritt was dangerous because she didn’t: the daughter of a coal miner, like so many in the state, she imagined and dreamed a future for West Virginia, after coal. And so, in 1996, Joe Manchin supported Charlotte Pritt’s Republican opponent in the general election, actively campaigning against her.
Joe Manchin’s betrayal was unique. Not all of the state’s Democratic politicians were enthusiastic about Pritt; Senator Byrd and the outgoing Democratic governor, Gaston Caperton, both declared that they supported “the Democratic ticket” while not naming her. Their lack of enthusiasm was pronounced. But Joe Manchin was up to something altogether different: he continued his campaign even after he had lost it, notoriously writing hundreds of letters and burning up the phones supporting the “Democrats for Underwood” groups that (coincidentally) sprang up.
Manchin swayed the election for the GOP. There’s no question. Pritt only lost the election by a little and having to run a campaign against her own party as well as against her opponent is why she lost by that little. In a state where the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans two-to-one, as Cecil Underwood observed at the time, “I have to appeal to 100,000 Democrats and independents to be elected.” Far from sweeping into the governor’s mansion on presidential coattails, “’The unpopularity of Dole and the GOP-controlled Congress,” he said, is “the biggest obstacle I have to overcome.” (There simply weren’t enough Republicans in the state to elect Cecil Underwood, you see.)
Electing Cecil Underwood was good for Joe Manchin’s career, however bad it was for the Democratic party. But Manchin has thrived as West Virginia turned to the right: after being out of office for four years (returning home to Marion county and coal brokering), he became WV’s Secretary of State in 2000, and then successfully ran for governor in 2004 when then-governor Bob Wise (D) left office; in 2010, during his second term, he ran for the US Senate seat vacated by the late Robert Byrd, winning handily, and from his seat in the US Senate, he spent most of the Obama administration attacking Obama’s “war on coal,” transforming a Fox News talking point into Democratic party orthodox in the state.
No one who knows him could be surprised to see him rail against the EPA of a sitting Democratic president, or to defend coal with the kind of passion we now associate with Donald Trump. Joe Manchin has always been a staunch “friend of coal,” but those who know him would say that this is less because of some abstract loyalty to West Virginia than a very direct connection to his own personal interest: Joe Manchin personally profits from the coal industry to the tune of many millions of dollars. He is basically corrupt; the Epi-pen scandal was emblematic of the lines between Manchin family business and Manchin politics, though it’s small potatoes compared to his deep investments in coal: as the New York Times observed in 2011, Manchin is one of a “small group of lawmakers who play a central policy-making role in sectors that help their bottom line,” and despite the ruse of his “blind trust,” he would have to be an idiot not to understand where his investments are. He is not an idiot, and so he attacks the EPA from his seat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He gladly interviewed for the chance to be Trump’s Energy Secretary when asked (“I’ve had more personal time with Trump in two months,” he told Politico after a visit to Trump tower, “than I had with Obama in eight years”), and if you think his careful cultivation of Donald Trump isn’t about keeping his options open, I’ve got a blind trust to sell you. Elizabeth Warren’s recent anti-corruption work immediately runs up against the problem that is Joe Manchin; Republicans have been wildly hypocritical about corruption, but they are not wrong about his.
I’ve been trying, as someone who left, to remember this story of West Virginia. I’ve already told you that In 1996, Charlotte Pritt lost the election because her opponent, Cecil Underwood, was a former coal executive, and a friend of coal. I’ve told you that Charlotte Pritt was a vocal opponent of Mountaintop Removal Mining, then a relatively new practice, so much so that the coal industry spent heavily on both of her opponents, more on campaign contributions in that election than any other interest group; after supporting Friend of Coal #1, the industry supported Friend of Coal #2. Manchin, Underwood, it didn’t matter.
To remember what I needed to tell you, I had to look up that statistic in an article on JSTOR. When I found it—since I lack library access, I had to have someone send it to me—I discovered that the citation was to the West Virginia People’s Election Reform Coalition, a group that documented campaign spending in 1998. WV-PERC collected the official campaign contribution filings from the Secretary of State’s office, “fingerprinted” them by interest group, and then tabulated the data to discover who was giving money to West Virginia politicians.
As it happens, that was me, in 1998: I worked for WV-PERC in my first summer home from college. I called Secretary of State Ken Hechler’s office—in my memory, he answered the phone himself—and I went to the Capitol building to get the files; I photocopied them; and then, once each contribution had been flagged with a number for the interest group it was affiliated with, I entered the data into whatever form of data processing software the late-90’s used to process this kind of data. I was hired to work for WV-PERC by my mom’s organization; I don’t remember if that was the summer I worked for free as an intern or if that was the summer I was paid. I think I was paid; certainly it was a learning experience.
I learned how small West Virginia is, doing that work; I learned how embarrassingly little it costs to buy a West Virginia politician: $713,654.
I also learned about how information is made. West Virginia’s Secretary of State was delighted to help us document campaign contributions because no one else was doing it, because Ken Hechler was a mensch, and because it desperately needed doing. But if we hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have gotten done; if someone doesn’t document how dominated the state is by coal, it won’t be any less true, it just won’t be a fact. It won’t become something you can cite, just something you feel to be true in your bones. Everyone in West Virginia knows what “King Coal” means in West Virginia, because they feel it; statistics and data are irrelevant.
When clever political analysts talk about Joe Manchin, today, they are often mystified by two facts: that he is a Democrat and that West Virginia is “Red.” On the basis of the first fact, they assume that when the magical time comes—when The Democrats Take Back the Senate!—Joe Manchin could cast the deciding vote, that he would cast the deciding vote if that vote was given to him to decide. And on the basis of the second fact, Trump’s 67-29 margin of victory in West Virginia, they conclude that West Virginians are (basically) Republicans, in so many words; what the party needs, the best it can hope for, is a Democrat who is (basically) a Republican.
Neither of these “facts” are facts. It is possible that Manchin would be the 51st vote for a Democratic Senate, but if he did, it would be because he doesn’t have to, and because that gives him power; what he would call his “bipartisanship”—what I might call his basic disloyalty to progressive causes—might get him the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, or a cabinet seat, or a national commitment to double down on coal or any number of things that Joe Manchin personally wants. Who knows. But it would get him something, and whatever that is, he will get it. If he is a “Democrat,” it is only because it serves his interests to be one, right now; he entered politics at a time when West Virginia’s Democrats had a lock on every level of state government, but he’s taken every opportunity for self-advancement that came at the cost of his party (and progressive causes), and always will.
By the same token, the “fact” that West Virginia is Republican is the same kind of freshly-minted data point as the idea of the “red state” itself, something everyone has forgotten didn’t used to be the case. West Virginia wasa “red state” in 1996 because it voted for Bill Clinton, and in 1996, Democratic victories were marked in red. However natural and permanent it seems now, the entire red-and-blue-states cliché wasn’t yet a thing in 1996; only after the 2000 election—or, rather, after the supreme court gave the election to the loser in the popular vote—did it become the kind of platonic opposition it has become for clever political analysts. Before that, these were just colors on maps, and marking Democrats as red made as much sense as blue, perhaps more. “Red” has often stood for labor, and in West Virginia, red bandanas still carry that meaning.
Perhaps I remember these things more clearly because, having left after 1996, I still remember 1996.
If you ask when West Virginia became “red,” there are many answers. Most of them are data-driven, appealing to census data, demographic data, and the story of a state that loves coal and always have. Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the state will not factor into observations of the state’s basic conservative character, nor will the recent teachers strike factor into common sense truisms about King Coal. No one ever seems to ask whether West Virginia’s old white people are more conservative than old white people nation-wide, or if it’s just that West Virginia has a lot more of them. For clever out-of-state political analysts, the truth of West Virginia is surface-deep, available at a glance; to know how West Virginia will vote, you don’t need stories or narratives or a deep-dive into decades and centuries of complex politics; you just need a number or two; lately, it’s always 67-29. No one ever talks about how most West Virginians don’t vote, or why they might not.
From 2018, it would make common sense to assume that West Virginians voted against Charlotte Pritt for the same reasons they voted against Hillary Clinton; maybe they fondly remembered the first time Cecil Underwood had been governor, in the 1950s, when coal jobs were at their peak; perhaps in 1996, when coal jobs in the state were at a nadir, the state hoped he would make West Virginia great again. But in 1996, West Virginia voted for Hillary Clinton by voting for her husband (and the promise that with him, you were getting two for the price of one); at the national level, West Virginians voted for the pot-smoking draft dodging liberal, over the pro-business conservative. A state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans voted, unsurprisingly, for the Democratic presidential candidate (and for almost every other candidate for every other election).
The reason West Virginians didn’t elect Charlotte Pritt, in 1996, was simple and easy and available: Joe Manchin.
I’ve been away from West Virginia for a long time, so maybe the state has changed a lot; maybe a state filled with pro-union Democrats has been transformed by Fox News, despair, and resentment into a state filled with Republicans, and—in the natural workings of the democratic process—the state has voted out the Democratic party. Maybe all those people who used to be Democrats have fundamentally changed.
I don’t really think so. I think it was the Democratic party that changed. A party that used to have a labor wing and an ownership wing—whose apparent political dominance of the state masked a deep and hard-fought division between Democrats like Charlotte Pritt, whose family worked in the mines, and Democrats like Joe Manchin, who owned the mines—gave way to a Democratic party that simply and directly served the interest of capital, that parrots Fox News talking points. Maybe the voters didn’t stop voting for Democrats which produced a clean-red slate of GOP politicians; maybe the “voters” is a scapegoat for a party that stopped trying to be different than the Republicans. Maybe West Virginians stopped voting for Democrats because there no longer were any to vote for.
There are big reasons for why all of that happened—and why the same thing was happening at the national level—but Big Data isn’t the only way to understand those reasons, nor is it the best one. Indeed, it might the worst, might find you spouting tautologies: West Virginia has become red, you might say, because it’s so red. But this is what happens when you start erasing stories with facts, when the fact of a party affiliation—the (D) at the end of Joe Manchin’s name—outweighs and erases all the stories we might tell of a political career built on back-stabbing his own party.
Data will tell you that he would be, could be, and should be vote number fifty-one for a Democratic majority in the Senate; a memory will tell you that breaking from his party when it suits him is exactly the sort of thing to expect him to keep doing.
Being from a small state like West Virginia has its advantages; it means the data set is small enough that you sometimes don’t need clever political analysts to tell you what it means. It’s right there, in the open; you get to see the very small reasons and people who, in moments of true crisis, have the power to push things in a different direction, and by their choices, make a difference. Joe Manchin is a small person, but in 1996, he made a big difference.
West Virginia is red, now. But red can mean other things. And the thing about leaving before that happened is that you can still imagine what that other thing might be; if you look deeper than a number and a color and fact, you will remember that West Virginia is filled with people who have long memories of their own, and you won’t be quite so surprised when the West Virginia capitol is filled with workers in red bandanas, and when the ceaseless grift of the government grinds to a halt. And you’ll dream about the day when there simply won’t be enough Joe Manchins in the state to stop them.