Early in the last century West Virginia was a dark and isolated region dominated by coal mines and company towns that were brutish and barren. They were places where adults and children alike labored in danger and poverty. These conditions and the mine wars they spawned provoked voyeuristic interest among astonished newspaper readers in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. So extreme was the situation that when the union organizer, Mother Jones, made her famous declaration, “When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!” no one had to ask what she could say that would shock God. They already knew.
That’s why it was jarring when then-Republican Senate candidate and coal fortune heir John Raese told radio host Laura Ingraham that he wished for a return of capitalism like it was at that time – “capitalism the way it should be,” he called it.
John Raese isn’t alone in his benighted yearning for an imaginary past. Whether because of ideology, ignorance or opportunism many West Virginia legislators would take the state in directions opposite those of the rest of America and back into social, cultural and economic isolation.
Doing so risks making West Virginia once again an unfortunate outlier in an America that increasingly values the well being of people and communities. On multiple issues — taxation, guns, healthcare, the environment, equal rights, education and matters of personal safety — West Virginia is diverging from the national consensus to a degree that sometimes amounts to a retreat from modernity.
Four decades after the passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved and the prevalence and severity of diseases have been reduced with little measurable cost to jobs and economic growth. Consequently, America is embracing further measures to lessen the presence of toxins such as mercury and selenium in the environment.
But, in West Virginia legislators generally oppose these measures and are actually moving to allow more selenium in the water supply.
Nationally, higher education is recognized as being imperative for economic prosperity. Measures are advancing to rein in tuitions, reduce student debt and promote access to college for middle- and lower-income students. But, in West Virginia, the state with the lowest average level of educational attainment in the country, we are cutting state support for higher education and raising tuitions and fees at state colleges.
In health care, more states, including many with conservative governors, are embracing Obamacare and expanding Medicaid to assure universal access to medical insurance. They look forward to their economies and hospitals benefitting from generous federal subsidies. But, in West Virginia, a state whose poorest citizens and whose economy would benefit more than those of nearly any other, we dither apparently contemplating whether we’d rather become an example of social backwardness.
In the area of taxation, America has emphatically embraced the need for businesses and the wealthy to pay their fair share. But in West Virginia, despite ongoing economic stagnation, we cling to the illusion that cutting taxes on businesses and the wealthy and liberally handing out incentives are useful policies. We believe doing so should even take precedence over investing in education despite the fact that an increasing share of the tax burden is being shifted to citizens.
On the subject of guns, at a time when majorities of Americans support policies such as universal background checks for gun purchases and assault weapon bans and when the gun industry and the NRA find themselves in defensive postures, political momentum in West Virginia is going in the other direction. Legislators are aggressively promoting the proliferation of guns despite the fact that rates of violent crime are increasing in West Virginia even as they drop precipitously in the rest of America.
As more states recognize the inhumanity, not to mention the appalling error rate, of the death penalty and are choosing to ban the practice, in West Virginia, which has long had a ban, we are contemplating reinstating capital punishment at considerable cost to the state, without any evidence that doing so would deter crime and with virtual certainty that innocent people would be executed – a likelihood evidenced by over 140 people who were sentenced to death only to be exonerated later.
At a time when majorities of Americans support same-sex marriage, a bill in West Virginia’s House of Delegates that would have merely prohibited discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgendered people in housing and employment had to be withdrawn because of insufficient support.
Even on an issue as simple as making the failure to wear seat belts a primary offense, passage of a bill in the House almost didn’t happen because some legislators, ignoring statistics showing the seat belt use reduces traffic accident death and injuries by at least half and reduces everyone’s insurance rates, called wearing seat belts a matter of personal freedom and in one bizarre case argued that whether one dies in a traffic accident is the will of God.
If these kinds of positions, for which there is currently considerable support, carry the day, West Virginia risks becoming more isolated from the rest of America than we have been in a century — separated by a culture, environment and quality of life so rare and unpleasant that outsiders will have little desire to move families and businesses to a place that they will correctly perceive as prejudiced, polluted and impoverished.
— Sean O’Leary can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column with links to the sources can be found at Sean O’Leary’s blog, the-state-of-my-state.com