Driving into the Walmart parking lot in Benton, Illinois, I park next to a Ford F-150 with a “Like Father, Like Son” coal miner decal on the back window. Just a few cars down, an older red Pontiac Grand Am has a “Coal Miner’s Wife” decal, with the same silhouette of a coal miner. These decals are not uncommon in Franklin County and represent the importance of the coal industry in throughout southern Illinois.
Over the last ten years, I have lived throughout the world. I have live in Salt Lake City, Montreal, and of course, Orlando, where I consider home. In a few months from now, I will be living in Georgia (the country) for two years while serving in the Peace Corps. However, during those ten years, the place I have lived the longest is in Franklin County, Illinois, in the heart of what is called the “Coal Belt”.
If there was any place where the Democrats took a pounding, it was in the Coal Belt. While the Republican trend has been going on for a few elections now, the final nail in the coffin for the Democrats was this election cycle, when both candidates abandoned coal workers and sided with alternative energy. To illustrate this point, Franklin Country went from John McCain winning 50.4% of the vote in 2008 to Donald Trump winning 70.7% in 2016.
Many in Democratic Party circles are not surprised this happened. Again, data supported the theory that the trend would eventually make the Democratic Party obsolete in the Coal Belt. However, many Democrats still don’t understand ‘why’ those in the Coal Belt voted for Republican. Remember, the Coal Belt is highly unionized. Also, the unemployment rate in the region was also high (with Franklin County having the 5th highest unemployment rate in the State of Illinois). Still, to understand the region, you need to understand what is going on in these communities. Yes, I am a political science first and foremost and look at numbers to try to explain everything, but some things just cannot be quantified, and the Coal Belt vote is one of them.
The crux of the problem when it comes to Democrats and the coal vote is that they approach the issue of coal as a “working class issue”. Yes, these people are workers, and many of them belong to the United Mine Workers of America. And yes, Democrats lament with the workers as far as working conditions and worker safety. When it comes to these issues there is common ground with Democrats. And if this was the reason why coal miners voted the way they do, then the Coal Belt would still be Democratic
But it isn’t a “working class issue”, but instead an issue of culture.
Let’s go back to that parking lot in Benton. People pride themselves on the fact that they are a coal miner in southern Illinois. Almost everyone in southern Illinois is related to someone in the coal industry, and coal mining is considered one of the most honorable professions in the region. And yes, you do hear the “my daddy was a coal miner, my grand daddy was a coal miner…” all of the time. Therefore, coal mining as deep cultural roots.
But culture is not just tied to families, but also to the communities and the history of southern Illinois. Just five miles down the road from Benton is a little town called Orient, site of one of the worst coal mining disasters in American history. Just before Christmas in 1951, 119 coal miners died in an explosion that still impacts the community to this day.
However, coal mining accidents are just part of the coal mining history. If we look further, what really defined the coal mining culture are the labor disputes that raged in the 1920s and 1930s. The most documented labor dispute would be the 1922 Herrin Massacre, which pitted non-union and union coal miners against one another, and left 22 people dead. Additionally, other coal mining unions formed in protest against the UMWA consolidation of power at the national level. This also led to violent attacks, such as the clashes in Mulkeytown and Zeigler, which left at a number of coal miners dead. Referred to as the “Coal Civil War”, those who were murdered were not simply seen as victims, but are revered as martyrs.
Now, let us return to 2016. The Democrats want to make coal a thing of the past. Their solution to help those coal workers who would lose their jobs is by employing them in the alternative energy sector. Progressives argue that these workers would get paid more in the alternative energy field. They also argue that alternative energy would eliminate some health risks, such as black lung (which is extremely common in these coal mining towns). Overall, progressives and many Democrats argue that a vibrant alternative energy sector will be more beneficial in every way. And guess what, their arguments are factually correct.
But that misses it point.
When Democrats ask coal miners about making a shift, they are asking them to give up their culture, not their job. They are asking them to cast aside the history of the region. They are asking them to reject their family tradition. Basically, they are asking them to strip their identity.
This is the reason why Democrats cannot win the Coal Belt again…they see coal as a worker’s issue, and not an issue of culture.
Unfortunately, the Democrats are doomed to lose the Coal Belt even if they understood the cultural aspect. In order to win back the Coal Belt, Democrats would have to drastically do a 180 on environmental issues. And with the environment becoming more salient with each passing election, reaching out to the Coal Belt could be political suicide. That is why the Coal Belt will never be won by Democrats again. Unfortunately, many Democrats just don’t know it yet.