America’s new redneck rebellion
Written by Edward Luce in Charleston, West Virginia
Photograph by Matt Eich
West Virginians are embracing an anti-corporate populism
that can veer left as well as right.
When West Virginia’s schoolteachers went on strike last year, the state’s history flared back to life.
The teachers donned red bandanas in honour of the early 20th-century miners who wore the garments in their infamous pitched battles with coal operators. The strikers of the so-called mine wars thus acquired the name “rednecks”. The label meant something very different then than it does today — the red of workers’ blood, rather than poor white prejudice.
These days West Virginia is better known for its “deplorables”, an epithet Hillary Clinton ill-advisedly used to describe half of Donald Trump’s supporters in the 2016 campaign. Though Clinton meant the term more generally, West Virginia took it personally, giving Trump his second-largest margin of victory after Wyoming.
There was a time, however, when West Virginia was the most radical state in the union. “We went ‘red’ because we wanted to hearken back to what West Virginia once was,” says Jay O’Neal, a teacher based in the state capital of Charleston, who organised the strike with fellow teacher Emily Comer over chronically low pay and the declining quality of health insurance.
The historical origin of the term redneck is often traced to poor white cotton farmers sunburned from working the fields — “po whites”, in the words of black slaves. Nowadays, a redneck is generally taken to be racist. There are still plenty of those. West Virginia’s miner rednecks, though, were a multiracial group.
African-American and Italian immigrant “scabs”, who had been moved in by the coal owners to replace the striking Appalachian miners, were invited to join the illegal United Mine Workers union. They accepted. According to local activists, as the 10,000-strong integrated army marched towards a showdown with the coal owners’ private army, the strikers desegregated whites-only public spaces at gunpoint.
Barring the US civil war, the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed insurrection in American history. Dozens of lives were lost, with private planes even hired to drop bombs on American citizens. It was also a milestone in desegregated labour history. Unlike West Virginia’s teachers, who took nine days to win last year’s strike, West Virginia’s miners lost their battle. They had to wait for the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 12 years later for the right to organise.
A century on, that redneck spirit is stirring again. In 2018, there were more strikes in America than in any year since Ronald Reagan was president — and more than 10 times as many days were lost to strikes or lockouts than in the year Trump was elected. Last month Uber and Lyft drivers even stopped work for a day. Contrary to its image among some metropolitan liberals as a hotbed of Trumpian know-nothings, West Virginia has led the picket lines.
With a per capita income of under $25,000 — less than half the US average — West Virginia is ground zero for American populist discontent. Trump caught that frustration in 2016: he scooped up 68 per cent of West Virginia’s vote against Clinton’s 26 per cent.
Many Democrats, particularly those who rarely visit West Virginia, have since written it off as “Trump country”. Yet, some polling has suggested that Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s socialist challenger, who is running second behind Joe Biden in this cycle’s Democratic primaries, would have defeated Trump in the state by 48 to 46 per cent.
“Moving to West Virginia radicalised me,” says O’Neal, who came from Texas. He and Comer were chosen for Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people last year. West Virginia’s schools strike triggered similar walkouts in Los Angeles, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and elsewhere. “This state is run by the ‘good ol’ boy’ network,” says O’Neal. “It is government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation.”
I drive five hours across some of America’s most breathtaking scenery to meet Mike Weaver. “Almost heaven, West Virginia” opens John Denver’s classic song “Country Roads”. Almost Heaven is also the name of the Washington-based yacht of Joe Manchin, the state’s Democratic senator, who berths in the capital when Congress is in session.
You can inhale the song’s lyrics as you spin through the deep gorges, wide meadows and craggy mountain byways. The state is utterly bountiful. Few landscapes could be so misleading as to the condition of its people.
“Eat your rice Han Ling, don’t you know there are children in West Virginia who are starving,” said a Chinese mother to her child in a New Yorker cartoon a few years ago. That was obviously comic exaggeration. Nevertheless, a child in West Virginia has a greater chance of dying from opioids than of becoming a doctor.
Many kids enter the school gates as “drug babies” — either having become addicted in the womb or as victims of parental overdoses. One small town, Williamson, with a population of just 3,000, shipped in more than 20 million opioid pills, mostly oxycodone and hydrocodone, in a seven-year period. West Virginia’s rate of resource extraction — timber, coal, gas and agribusiness, which are its principal industries — seems to be matched only by the inflow of prescription drugs.
The steep decline of the coal industry is partly to blame. But other businesses are flourishing. The state’s mountains are criss-crossed with pipelines from the big fracking companies. Farms have been bisected, and their water tables polluted, by the often poorly compensated land seizures. A number of locals told me that the state’s fastest-growing suicide rate is among its farmers.
“Someone down the road killed himself just the other day,” says Weaver, a chicken farmer who recently shuttered his two hulking poultry houses for lack of profit. He shrugs as though talking about a weather event. “Suicides are pretty regular round here.” Pendleton County is several hours’ drive from the nearest coal mine. Yet the problems here are the same.
As I approach Weaver’s farm, I spot a large-antlered deer surveying the vista. Bears occasionally trample across his 200-acre property. He gives me a honeycomb from one of his beehives. In some respects, Weaver would seem to live in Arcadia. Yet his sparsely populated county is experiencing almost every decline you can name — income, population, lifespan and morale.
You catch the stench of Weaver’s poultry houses long before you see them. This is four months after he dispatched his last flock. Each house is 624 feet long and could hold 45,000 chickens. The companies that dominate poultry farming give their growers eight weeks per flock: six weeks to rear the chicks; two weeks to clean out the houses for the next batch.
America’s poultry farmers are the rural equivalent of Uber drivers. Nominally independent, they rely exclusively for their inputs and outputs on one of the handful of huge agribusinesses that between them control the vast majority of the US poultry market. Americans, like most people, tend to romanticise rural life. In reality, almost every farming sector is dominated by a few giant corporations.
Though he had 90,000 chickens, Weaver could afford only one part-time employee. The company that he dealt with, Pilgrim’s Pride, bought the chickens from him at an average rate of 21 cents each. In 15 years he never had a raise. “They control everything you do, without taking any responsibility for it,” says Weaver.
From the science of the LED lighting to the regularity of the water drips, everything is minutely designed to produce the fattest possible chicken in the shortest period of time. The largest profit Weaver cleared in one year after paying off the debts he incurred to build the operation was $7,000. He relies on his pension as a former US wildlife services and forestry officer and his wife’s teacher’s salary to make ends meet.
Weaver, who used to head the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, recently joined a class-action lawsuit against the big poultry companies for alleged price-fixing. The companies also face lawsuits from animal-rights activists. (The companies deny the allegations and are contesting the cases.)
Weaver finally abandoned his poultry business in January. “I miss chickens like an aching tooth,” he says. His next venture is to grow hemp to produce cannabinoid oil for the alternative health market — an industry which he says has not yet been sewn up by big corporations.
“Chickens taught me to steer clear of big agriculture,” he says. “These companies are greedy bastards. They control West Virginia and Washington.” Like O’Neal, Weaver describes the nexus between local politics and corporations as “the good ol’ boy network”.
The southern term “good ol’ boy” originally meant folk from round here — much like the characters in The Dukes of Hazzard, the 1980s TV show. Nowadays the best translation would be “local plutocracy”, which can be found in any part of modern America.
But West Virginia’s elites are seen as unusually plunderous. The Appalachian state’s economy is based almost purely on the extraction industries. Ultimately, however, its biggest extraction pipeline is wealth; very little of it stays in the state. None of the state’s big employers has its headquarters there.
Both Republicans and Democrats in state politics are intimate with big business. Many of them join the payroll when they take a breather from politics. The parties are often hard to distinguish. Joe Manchin, who is a former governor of West Virginia as well as the current senior senator, sponsored Jim Justice as the Democratic party’s gubernatorial candidate four years ago. Justice, a coal-mine operator with a net worth of $1.5bn, won. He promptly switched his allegiance to the Republicans.
Manchin, meanwhile, votes with Trump about two-thirds of the time. He confirmed both of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees and has opposed virtually any measure that would limit US carbon emissions. In Manchin’s view, the only way for Democrats to win in West Virginia is to act as though they are Republicans. You could say that Manchin is a “Dino” — Democrat In Name Only.
He is now facing an unlikely insurgent, Stephen Smith, who is fighting to be the Democratic nominee for governor. Smith, 39, is not the type West Virginia normally elects; he speaks with an undrawly East-Coast diction and peppers his sentences with “Holy Cow!” He was born in Charleston, but moved to Texas as a child and spent much of his adult life in Chicago. Pete Buttigieg, the popular young Democratic presidential candidate, was at college with him.
Unlike most Ivy League liberals, though, Smith has faith in Appalachia’s people. He resents how the US media depicts them. In Smith’s view, most West Virginians are as ripe for leftwing economic populism as they are prone to its more virulent rightwing counterpart. “Racism in West Virginia is a mile wide but an inch deep,” Smith says. “When you talk to West Virginians you realise race is not what is motivating people.”
Their real anger, he says, is about rigged capitalism. Much like the late 19th century’s robber barons, today’s resource barons essentially control the state. Bill Marland, the last governor who tried to tax the extractive industries, was drummed out of office in the late 1950s. He took to alcohol and ended up as a cab driver in Chicago.
His successors took note. When he was governor in the early 2000s, Manchin slashed corporate taxes. Partly as a result, West Virginia now comes last out of 50 states on surveys of quality of infrastructure. It comes close to the bottom on almost every other indicator, including lifespan and rates of college education.
Meanwhile, Manchin has become a wealthy man, partly through investments in coal. His net worth of $7.9m puts him 21st among US senators. His daughter, Heather Bresch, is chief executive of Mylan, the pharmaceutical company which attained notoriety in 2016 for having raised the price of EpiPen, the adrenaline auto-injector used to treat anaphylactic shock, almost fivefold to $600 for a pack of two. She was paid $38.9m over the preceding two years, according to Forbes. In 2018, Bresch laid off 400 people from Mylan’s West Virginia plant. Her company has donated $211,000 to her father’s campaign fund over the past decade.
Manchin is a skilled retail politician. People say he has Bill Clinton’s personal touch — the type who remembers your mother’s birthday and always returns calls. To no one’s surprise, he was re-elected as senator in last year’s midterm elections. Yet his fortunes and those of West Virginia have sharply diverged since he became its dominant political figure.
Smith is campaigning against both parties’ establishments. He says there is only one party in West Virginia — “the good ol’ boys”. Judging from how people react, he is striking a chord. In this year’s first quarter, more than 18 months from the election, he raised $150,000 in small donations. He has a campaign chair in each of the state’s 55 counties. “Joe Manchin has been the most powerful person in West Virginia for the last 20 years,” Smith tells town hall gatherings across the state. “Joe’s life has got better. Has yours?”
Most answer with a resounding no. Like most of his neighbours, Mike Weaver voted for Donald Trump. He is likely to do so again next year. “Trump isn’t afraid to put pressure on big companies,” he says. “He’s already made his billions.”
Yet Weaver has also signed up to support Stephen Smith — Trump’s opposite in almost every way. Oddly enough, Weaver cites the same motivation for both his likely votes. Trump stands up for America, he says. Smith, meanwhile, will be a thorn in the side of big, out-of-state businesses. Smith vows to tax West Virginia’s corporations at normal rates and invest the money in new industries. He would target the state’s almost completely untaxed forested land, much of which is owned by national rail companies — a legacy of the robber-baron era.
Smith also forswears donations from lobby groups. In Weaver’s mind, crony capitalism is just another name for corrupt government. “Anybody who is running against the good ol’ boys will get my attention,” he says.
One of West Virginia’s most attractive qualities is its hospitality. When I visit Terry and Wilma Steele, a retired miner and teacher, they invite me to stay the night, though they have never met me. “You don’t get out of our clutches that easy,” says Wilma. After I gratefully decline their offer, they show me where they hide the keys — if my family happens to be in the vicinity, we know where to look.
I had spent some time finding the Steeles. Their address defeated Google Maps’ best efforts. Terry worked underground for more than a quarter of a century. Wilma runs the Mine Wars museum in Matewan, which is where a storied battle took place between the miners and the hired guns of the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency, whom the coal operators had retained as their private army.
Most of the early coal settlements were company towns. Their denizens had no democracy. They were paid in company scrip, which could only be spent in company stores. If they joined a union, they were evicted overnight. They were like caged animals. “I owe my soul to the company store,” goes the classic song “Sixteen Tons”. “If you see me comin’, better step aside/A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died/One fist of iron, the other of steel/If the right one don’t a-get you, then the left one will.”
After miners won the right to unionise, life steadily improved. By the 1950s, West Virginia’s miners had middle-class security. Many of them kept a picture of FDR on their living-room walls. Their redneck spirit continued. Wilma grew up in desegregated Matewan. The last mayor of the town, Johnny Fullen, was African-American. “Johnny taught me history in high school,” says Wilma. “He was a good man.”
Things changed dramatically in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan won his battle with the unions and membership began to decline. As more mines de-unionised, coal turned into an emblem of West Virginia’s identity. It is now almost an ideology.
As the unions faded, racial antagonism resurfaced. The trade-off between class and race is stark in the US — nowhere more so than in West Virginia. “Even today, if a black person came to someone’s door, they would invite him to dinner,” says Wilma. “But they would say: ‘I fixed that n****r something to eat.’”
Wilma was at school with a man called Don Blankenship, who went on to become chief executive of Massey Energy, a coal operator. In 2010, when Blankenship was chief executive, an underground blast killed 29 miners. It was the worst accident in a generation. He was jailed for a year for having violated safety rules.
Blankenship quickly became a cause célèbre of anti-Obama forces. He published a booklet calling himself an “American political prisoner”. Supporters dismissed climate change as a liberal conspiracy. “We are nothing without coal,” goes the refrain.
As local historians, the Steeles see today’s frustrations from a long perspective. Each of their families can be traced back to the 1730s, when West Virginia was settled. Both are also descended from branches of the Hatfields, who were on one side in the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud in the 19th century.
Plays are still put on about the Hatfields and the McCoys — dead brothers, corrupt sheriffs, Yankee land grabbers and a score-settling that seemed to stretch to infinity. Folklore says the feud started over a dead pig. In reality, it was triggered by the loss of land to the big railway companies. “Outsiders depict us as inbred idiots who are always killing each other,” says Wilma. “That’s because a Yankee writer got to write the history.”
Just outside Wilma’s museum in Matewan, which is close to Williamson, the town drowning in opioid pills, you can still see plenty of bullet holes in the walls. In those days, rednecks drank the company moonshine. Today is the age of oxycodone. A freight train loaded with coal takes about 10 minutes to trundle past.
They say Americans pay little heed to history. West Virginians arguably remember too much. “The devil lives in these hills,” goes the saying. Some have a story about big East-Coast capitalists raping their land for what lies underneath. The latest example is mountaintop mining — blasting hilltops for the little coal that remains. Much of the groundwater is now unusable. Others say the opposite: that East-Coast liberals are trying to close down West Virginia’s livelihood by spinning tall stories about global warming. In each case, outsiders are to blame.
West Virginia has just 14,000 people working underground — barely a 10th of its mid-20th-century peak. That headcount has risen marginally since Trump was elected. But not even he can arrest the march of natural gas, which is the main cause of coal’s decline (as opposed to Obama’s regulations, which are seen as the chief culprit by many West Virginians).
“People keep telling us there’s a hundred years of coal in the ground,” says Wilma. “That’s a myth. At best we have 10 years.” The Steeles show me government survey maps that leave little doubt that the bulk of the remaining coal seams are uneconomic. “The good ol’ boys don’t talk about that,” Wilma says.
It took me weeks to secure an interview with Joe Manchin. Even then it was only 15 minutes over the phone. I wanted to ask him about economic populism. To my mind that included asking him about Smith’s campaign, which paints Manchin and Justice — Democrat and Republican — as members of the same oligarchy. Manchin told me he may quit the US Senate to enter the West Virginia governor’s race. Then again, he may not.
Manchin’s grip over the state Democratic party is tight. He prevaricated in much the same way in the lead-up to the 2016 governor’s election, which many saw as his way of deterring grassroots hopefuls from throwing their hats into the ring. Then he handpicked Justice to fill the slot. Justice’s now-Republican governorship has not gone well.
I asked Manchin whether he really means to enter this time. “I have to wait and see and look at my responsibilities,” he replied. As for the good ol’ boy label, he rejects it as “name-calling”. “I was never part of any clique,” he said. “Stephen Smith,” however, “seems like a nice young man,” he added.
Our conversation sputtered evasively for a few more minutes. Manchin’s tone made it clear he would rather be mucking out a poultry house. Afterwards his aide called and said that Manchin would never give me an interview again. “You said you wanted to talk about economic populism,” said the aide. “Then you asked about politics. It was a bait and switch.” I tried to explain that economic populism and politics were the same thing. It was an odd exchange. Either way, Smith is clearly rattling Manchin’s nerves.
At his town halls, Smith plays a game of musical chairs. He picks six volunteers and arranges five chairs on the stage. Two of the volunteers are given two chairs each, which they lounge over. That leaves one chair for the four other people. They tend to squabble over who takes the remaining chair rather than try to evict the first two from their perches.
That is how politics works, says Smith. People with nothing tend to fight each other over the little that remains. People with everything know how to make the rest scramble.
It is a simple yet strangely effective game. Next, Smith asks the audience what is the first thing a campaign does. The answer is that it seeks large donors to fund itself. “Who then gets to shape the campaign?” asks Smith. “The donors!” comes the answer. Smith then explains that he is restricting his fundraising to small donors. Who controls our campaign? he asks. “We do!” comes the reply. Yes, he says. This is your campaign.
I watched Smith interact with several different groups. He makes up in earnestness what he lacks in charisma. Some voters, such as Mike Weaver, are fans of Smith but are also supporters of Trump. Others, such as the Steeles, detest Trump and are strong backers of Smith.
The Steeles have even held small fundraisers in their backyard, where they give out red bandanas. “I’ve done more for Smith than any candidate in my life,” says Terry. Interestingly, both Weaver and the Steeles speak warmly about Manchin. “He always responds when you ask for his help,” says Weaver.
Most West Virginians, however, do not bother to vote. The only category that beat Trump in West Virginia was those who did not go to the polling booths — 43 per cent of the adult population. Even in 2016, it seems, apathy was a larger force than anger. That is how Smith’s musical-chair winners seem to like it.
Smith’s bet is that there is an older redneck surviving beneath today’s West Virginian. The original miners took control of their destiny and embraced solidarity. Many of their descendants have fallen sway to the politics of identity.
What is most gripping about West Virginia today is that the two are in competition. Politics here, as in so much of America, is as wide open as anyone can recall. “I don’t know for sure whether our movement will succeed,” says Smith. “But I know for sure that we can.”