Appalachia in the Age of Neoliberalism

Appalachian histories have written relatively little about the decades since the 1970s, but in this presentation, I argue that the time has come to write more explicitly about Appalachia in the neoliberal era, examining the rise of neoliberal policies as well as their economic, political, and social effects. According to neoliberals, free trade and deregulation result in innovation, increased trade, and higher standards of living on a global scale, and Americans should gladly shed jobs in mines and mills—historically the backbone of northern and central Appalachia—on the path to progress. But hollowed-out towns, environmental degradation, struggling families, economic insecurity and anxiety, and intensified nativism and racism are also the results of neoliberal policies.

Examining neoliberalism is particularly relevant to Appalachia because it was once viewed as a laboratory for liberal projects like the War on Poverty and because pundits, journalists, and Democratic Party leaders have used the region—or at least representations of it—to understand the 2016 election. But few of them have closely examined the last four decades of the region’s history. This presentation contributes to that discussion by examining the effects of neoliberal policies on Appalachian coal communities since the 1970s.