This is not, I readily confess, the development that will dominate the headlines on November 5, but I couldn’t help but notice recently that there is a sporting chance that, after this election, my old home state might no longer be represented by a single Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. So what, you say—it’s just West Virginia. Okay, maybe. But trust me: This idea would have been beyond inconceivable only a decade or so ago, and there’s an interesting and much broader story behind the change that has to do with deep cultural and economic anxieties, and I can’t help but wonder whether the Democrats can tap into them and attempt to ameliorate their effects.
First the facts. West Virginia has three congressional districts. The first, which contains the northern panhandle and my home town of Morgantown, is represented by Republican David McKinley, who first won in 2010 (by less than 1 percent) and was the first Republican to represent most of those areas since I was playing Little League. He is strongly favored to be reelected. The second district is an open seat, vacated by Republican Shelley Moore Capito to run for Senate. Tea Party Republican Alex Mooney is facing Democrat Nick Casey. They are basically tied (Casey’s in the hunt in part because Mooney is actually from Maryland; it’s complicated), but Mooney is getting lots of national money. In the third district, longtime Democratic incumbent Nick Joe Rahall, one of the few Lebanese-Americans roaming the halls of Congress, is facing a stiff challenge from a state senator named Evan Jenkins, who switched from D to R last year and can boast two important endorsements, from the Coal Association and the state’s right-to-life group, that don’t usually land in a non-incumbent’s lap.
Now, two of those races are close, and if the Democrats win them, the party would actually pick up a seat, so there goes my alarmism. But still, it could well be a GOP sweep, which is especially jarring when you throw in Capito, the Republican who’ll be taking over Jay Rockefeller’s seat (the state hasn’t had a Republican senator since 1958). That would leave Joe Manchin as the state’s only Democrat in Washington, and of course, on the coasts, lots of Democrats don’t think he’s much of a Democrat.
It’s really a stunning transformation. People don’t pay much attention to the state, but if they did, they’d know that West Virginia is the only—yes, only—state in the union that has gone in this century from deep blue to rock-ribbed red.
So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.
And so it’s a place of profound anxieties, cultural and economic. Being from Morgantown doesn’t give me much of a window on them. Morgantown is one of the nicest small cities in America (no, really) and has a diverse economy and diverse (by West Virginia standards) population.
The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.
I, you’ll be un-shocked to hear, do not think the Republican Party has any real answers for these people. The GOP will fight for coal, but at the same time its broader policies are all harmful to the state (aren’t many 2 percenters in West Virginia). What the state really needs is to figure out how to elbow its way into the tech economy. That requires investments, in schools and in infrastructure of both the physical and telecom varieties. And it means, yep, taxes.
I suppose there’s a chance that Hillary Clinton could win West Virginia, if Bill spends a lot of time there. But why would they bother? She won’t need its five measly electoral votes. I think it would be a grand thing if President Clinton, among her first acts, proposed something big and meaningful for precisely the people who didn’t vote for her (a Republican president should do the same). But that just isn’t likely, the way things are today. Politics is too expensive, and a new president has people to pay back.
No, we’re not sure it’s going to be President Clinton, but we are sure that the GOP is up against both the electoral college and demographic walls in a big way, and it may not win a presidential election for some time. Poor West Virginia: It stayed true to Democratic losers like Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis but is completing its insistent makeover to red just as the Republicans are in danger of being a quasi-permanent out party.
There’s a great scene in the lovely film October Sky where the residents of Coalwood gather to watch Sputnik race by in the sky. One person speculates about the Russians dropping a bomb on the town. Another retorts: “I own’t know why anybody’d drop a bomb on ’is place. Be a waste of a perfectly good bomb.” It captured a worldview and fate that I hope the people from the poorer parts of the state can one day escape.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 10, 2014
I’m not sure what’s come over me and I suppose it’ll pass, but at just this moment I’m feeling a little bit sorry for evangelical conservatives. They were apparently pretty droopy, these proceedings over the weekend at the Values Voter Summit, as my colleague Ben Jacobs described things. Oh, yes, Ted Cruz fired them up, and some of the old stalwarts put in respectable appearances, but they have to know deep down that they’re like the horse-and-buggy lobby after Henry Ford has hit town. It’s only a matter of time.
I refer here chiefly to same-sex marriage, the big issue on which the cultural right now represents a quickly shrinking minority. You know the storm clouds are gathering when even Michele Bachmann is throwing in the towel—she declared same-sex marriage “not an issue” and even “boring” at the meeting.
But it’s not just same-sex marriage. The country has liberalized culturally in a range of ways in the past six or eight years, and it’s not only not going back, it’s charging relentlessly forward. The religious right also has no leaders anymore of the remotest interest. Back in the ’80s, Jerry Falwell was a figure to contend with; to loathe, certainly, but also to fear. Today? Pat Robertson has lost his marbles, seemingly, and after him, who? Tony Perkins? No one even knows his name, or if they do, they inevitably think of the guy who played filmdom’s most famous matricidal cross-dresser and aren’t entirely sure that this Tony Perkins might not be that Tony Perkins, which is not quite the type of association they’re looking for.
It’s a group that is losing power, and I think the leaders and even the rank-and-filers know it. Their vehicle, the Republican Party, is going libertarian on them. Rand Paul, whether he wins the 2016 nomination or not, is clearly enough of a force within the party that he is pushing it away from the culture wars. He is joined in this pursuit by the conservative intellectual class, which knows the culture wars are a dead-bang loser for the GOP and which finds the culture warriors more than a little embarrassing, and by the establishment figures, the Karl Rove types, who stroked them back in 2004 but who now see them as a liability, at least at the presidential level. There are still, of course, many states where these voters come in quite handy in that they elect many Republican representatives and senators.
If you think of the famous three legs of the Republican stool (the money conservatives, the foreign-policy conservatives, and the cultural conservatives) and think about which of those legs have had the biggest policy impact during periods of Republican governance in recent history, you have to conclude that the money and foreign-policy conservatives have made out like bandits (in some cases all too literally). The money crowd got all the deregulation it could realistically hope for. The neocons got two wars. The social conservatives haven’t done nearly as well. They’ve gotten some judicial appointments, but Roe v. Wade is still law, and that turncoat Kennedy is probably going to let the gays marry.
Now we’re getting to why on one level I feel a pang of sympathy for them. The disasters the Republican Party has brought us in the last decade—the economic meltdown and the wars—were the fault of the other two legs of the stool. Yet we know that these two groups are going to have permanent power in GOP. The money people own the party, and the neocons still dominate in Washington and—Rand Paul notwithstanding—will always have a considerable degree of influence in the party. The social conservatives are the only faction within the triad that hasn’t heaped wreckage upon the nation (not for lack of trying), and yet they have far less power in the upper echelons of the party than the other two groups. And when they complain, as they occasionally do, that they’ve largely been paid back for all their work in the vineyards with lip service and symbolic little executive order-type things, they have a point. It’s a little like labor in the Democratic Party.
And now, 2016 is going to be a pivotal election for them. Many of them want Ted Cruz, who won the Values Voter straw poll. But of course this is ridiculous. Cruz isn’t going to be the nominee. In fact Cruz’s win, and the fact that Jeb Bush and Chris Christie weren’t even invited to the meeting, is a sign of their retreat from serious politics toward something entirely gestural. Bush, from these people’s perspective, is too squishy on immigration, and Christie last October decided to stop fighting the tide of history on same-sex marriage when a decision by the state’s Supreme Court led Christie to withdraw an appeal his administration had lodged against a pro-same-sex marriage lawsuit.
That’s a childish way to do politics. If somehow they were to get their way with Cruz, then Hillary Clinton will easily be elected president, and she’ll almost certainly have the time and opportunity to flip the Supreme Court back to a liberal majority, and they’ll be finished for the good, the cultural right, and they will have contributed mightily to their own well-deserved demise.
OK. Whew. I’m over it.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, September 29, 2014
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been quite candid on most of the hot-button social issues of the day, and despite national ambitions, the Florida Republican has positioned himself well to the right of the American mainstream on issues like contraception, reproductive rights, and marriage equality.
But the senator nevertheless believes he has a strong case to make when it comes to the culture war, and yesterday he delivered a big speech his staff billed as an address on “the breakdown of the American family and the erosion of fundamental values that has followed.” The remarks, which can be read in their entirety here or watched online here, covered a fair amount of ground, though as Benjy Sarlin explained, there was a special emphasis on gay rights.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged Wednesday that American history was “marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians.” But in a speech at Catholic University in Washington, Rubio drew the line sharply at marriage equality and accused supporters of same sex unions of “intolerance.”
“I promise you even before this speech is over I’ll be attacked as a hater or a bigot or someone who is anti-gay,” Rubio said. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy. Support for the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is not anti-gay, it is pro-traditional marriage.”
Rhetoric like this is familiar – the right has long believed it’s unfair for the left to be intolerant of intolerance. Despite its repetition, though, the argument always seems to come up short.
Consider the underlying point Rubio is trying to make. On the one hand, he and his allies intend to keep fighting, hoping to use the power of the state to deny equal rights and basic human dignity to Americans based on sexual orientation. On the other hand, Rubio and his allies would appreciate it if no one said mean things about them while they push these policies.
I’m afraid the public discourse doesn’t quite work this way. No one is suggesting Rubio must abandon his opposition to civil rights for LGBT Americans, but if he wants to avoid criticism while pushing public policies that create second-class citizens, he appears to have chosen the wrong line of work.
That said, let’s not overlook the part of the speech in which Rubio also tried to position himself as a critic of anti-gay discrimination.
“We should acknowledge that our history is marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians. There was once a time when the federal government not only banned the hiring of gay employees, it required private contractors to identify and fire them. Some laws prohibited gays from being served in bars and restaurants. And many cities carried out law enforcement efforts targeting gay Americans.
“Fortunately, we have come a long way since then.”
Yes, that is fortunate. But under existing federal law, American employers, right now, can legally fire gay employees – or even employees they think might be gay – regardless of their on-the-job performance.
Our history is, in fact, “marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians,” but that discrimination can still happen under existing law – and though he didn’t mention it yesterday, as far as Marco Rubio is concerned, federal anti-discrimination laws should not be changed. Indeed, when the Senate rather easily passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last fall, only 30 senators voted against it, and Rubio was one of them.
The far-right senator, in other words, is trying but failing to thread a culture-war needle. Rubio wants to block consenting adults who fall in love from getting married, but he doesn’t want to be accused of intolerance. The Republican senator wants to decry employment discrimination against LGBT Americans, but he doesn’t want to take action to prevent the discrimination he claims not to like.
As culture-war visions go, this one needs some work.
By: Steven Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 24, 2014