Elizabeth Catte has provided a powerful corrective to conventional wisdom about rural America. Too many urban progressives view rural America as outside their “bubble.” This is not only condescending but wrong. Like other Americans, rural Americans have always known their own interests, and rural progressives have a strong track record of organizing to protect them. Catte reminds us that the struggles against coal companies in Harlan, Kentucky, in the 1930s, and the struggles of teachers in West Virginia more recently, are all part of a powerful collective action narrative.
Her remembrances and her hopes of a rebirth of activism against “the plundering coal bosses,” however, come up against a economic reality to which no one—from the center left to the far left—has any good answers: We know how to organize against the bosses, but what do you do when there are no more bosses?
If only rural America still had “plundering bosses.” The twenty-first-century economic reality is much more difficult. We now face two United States: one with bosses and jobs, one with neither. A graph from a recent Brookings Institution paper on “left-behind places” illustrates the problem. In 2008, at the start of the great recession, employment rates did not vary by the size of the community. During the recession, of course, employment rates everywhere went down. But starting in 2013, when the recovery picked up enough to start creating jobs, something new and different happened: “Big, techy metros like San Francisco, Boston and New York with populations over 1 million have flourished, accounting for 72 percent of the nation’s employment growth since the financial crisis.”
This lopsided economic growth came as a surprise to many. Economists have always clung to the belief that a rising tide would lift all boats. One means of uplift, historically, has been that people were willing and able to move from places where there were no jobs to places where there were jobs. One of the most famous migrations, of course, happened more than a hundred years ago when southern blacks left the violence and poverty of the South to seek work in the new factories of the Northeast and Midwest. Economic migration today, by contrast, seems to have stalled. Low levels of digital skills in smaller communities, combined with skyrocketing housing prices in larger communities, stifle mobility. Moreover, many of the “left-behind” places lack the access to capital, transportation infrastructure, and broadband that could create homegrown economic opportunities.
West Virginia, one of the focuses of Catte’s essay, has been especially hard hit by changes in the economy that have little to do with the bosses. With one industry dying and no other rising to fill the void, there is nothing tangible or immediate to organize around or fight against. Donald Trump’s success was in rallying this helpless feeling into anger against outsiders and the financial or knowledge-economy elites. There are surely more productive ways to rally—demanding high-quality, free technical training at community colleges or money for small business startups, for example—but the crucial point remains that the bosses in today’s economy are far removed from West Virginia; traditional forms of organizing are unlikely to even register on their radar. Consider the fact that even if the country or the world were to reverse course and start demanding more coal, thereby reviving West Virginia’s main industry, it would not create more jobs. Computerworld reported that “in the next decade, the mining industry may lose more than half of its jobs to automation.” Robots do not get black lung disease nor can they be organized.
Which is why, at the end of the day, Catte’s nostalgia leaves us with no clear path. Neither Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom Catte admires) nor Joe Manchin (whom she does not) have the answers to the dilemmas posed by the twenty-first-century economy. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, for example, is a wonderful initiative, but hardly new or paradigm-shifting. The federal government has been incentivizing green jobs since the early 1990s when it passed tax credits for renewable energy. Today federal tax credits for renewable energy account for 59 percent of all energy tax credits, more than double the credits for fossil fuels (25 percent). These credits have been invaluable in moving these industries—especially solar and wind—along, and they can always be increased or combined with an infrastructure program (which is the real virtue of the Green New Deal), but saving places that have been left behind will require a lot more than solar jobs.
Catte is at her most instructive not in the exhortation to organize against bosses and capital, but rather in her analysis of the activism and victory seen in the West Virginia teachers’ strike. That victory did more than help to improve economic equality and dignity for teachers (a worthy cause). It also increased the chances for an economic future in West Virginia. An educated workforce is increasingly critical; without it, the economic future of West Virginia and other left-behind areas is bleak.
Politicians, then, not corporate bosses, are the most important powers to organize around today. And while it is fair to hope for a revolutionary who could rethink the system and save these communities in a single presidential term, it is also crucial to realize that there are no easy or short-term fixes for economic dislocation. Transfer payments—such as social security, disability insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare—have gone disproportionately to those areas that have been left behind, and they are the only efforts that consistently soften the blow and afford people a modicum of dignity.
Democrats, even conservative ones such as Manchin, have been on the front lines protecting a wide array of transfer payments. Manchin has been a staunch supporter of Medicaid and of Obamacare, voting repeatedly against Republican efforts to undo it. Democrats in the House and Senate have also held the line against the Paul Ryan austerity budgets, and they will continue to hold the line against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desire to see the budget balanced through cuts to entitlement programs. So, yes, I understand why Catte wants West Virginia to do better than Manchin. But I sure hope she still voted for him.