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June 03, 2014 1:23 PM The Politics of Coal—and Other Mythic Government-Sensitive Industries

By Ed Kilgore

At TNR, Alec MacGillis has a useful analysis of the declining power of the coal industry in what we are used to calling Coal Country, in states ranging from Virginia to Illinois (and extending to very different coal-producing states out west), but centered in West Virginia and Kentucky, where we are led to believe the Obama administration’s new utility regulations are going to be political death for Democrats. The simple facts are that not that many people work in or are dependent on coal mines anymore:

Take Kentucky, the focus of much of the punditry, given the close race between Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Coal-mining employment in the Bluegrass State has plunged by more than half in the past three decades, from 38,000 in 1983 to under 17,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (Nationally, there are 78,000 people employed in coal mining—well less than half as many as are employed in oil and gas extraction, and not much more than the number of people employed in logging.) To put that in perspective: the auto manufacturing industry in Kentucky employs three times as many people as the coal industry does today. When is the last time you heard pundits making grand predictions about how new auto-industry regulations would affect Kentucky “Car Country”?

MacGillis points out that the overestimation of the Power of Coal was one of the strategic mistakes made by the 2012 Romney campaign, which thought hyperventilation over the “War on Coal” might tip Virginia and Ohio into its column (and to be fair, the Obama campaign spent a lot of time promoting the largely illusory future of “clean coal”).

But Alec also acknowledges that the mythic significance of coal outstrips its actual importance to the economies of Coal Country:

[T]here’s no question coal’s grip on politics in Kentucky extends beyond actual employment figures—it is part of the state’s cultural identity, part of the holy trinity that also includes horses and bourbon. That explains why, as the Times notes, a Republican congressional candidate recently savaged his opponent for being anti-coal in a Kentucky district that has not a single coal-mining job in it.

I would add that expectations of politicians to support policies friendly to mythic industries tend to be very strong, though not as much as when liberal environmentalism and conservative hostility to government subsidies began to cut into purely parochial attitudes. I recall that way back in 1972, a big issue in the race that eventually lifted Sam Nunn to the Senate from Georgia was incumbent David Gambrell’s failure to trade a vote for a Boeing SST project in exchange for Washington State support for Lockheed’s C-5 airlift project, which really only directly affected a relatively small portion of Georgia but was integral to its perceived future as a military-industrial superpower. More recently, one of America’s great political rituals has been the requirement that presidential candidates who want to compete in the Iowa Caucuses pledge to support the continuation of ethanol subsidies (in the 2000 cycle, this was George W. Bush’s first action after formally announcing his candidacy), and long-standing hostility to ethanol kept John McCain from seriously contesting Iowa in both 2000 and 2008).

With coal, of course, the normal ideological proclivities of Democrats and Republicans have made support for and opposition to carbon emissions regulations largely a no-brainer. And that might well be true if Coal Country really was a big economic bloc, or if hardly any coal was being mined or burned at all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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