Political Discourse, Structural Inequality, and Elections in the Coalfields of Southwest Virginia

During local, state, and national elections in the coalfields of far
southwest Virginia, residents face a bombardment of political
discourse from candidates, political parties, and super-pacs that
suggest the future of coal mining is the most important issue facing
their communities. In the 2016 presidential election, coalfield
counties across the United States voted for Republican Donald Trump,
and in the aftermath of the election many voices on the liberal left
have suggested that this voting bloc was to blame for Trump’s victory,
and further, that they were voting against their own best interests.
Based on 18 months of fieldwork in Wise County, Virginia through two
earlier election cycles in 2012 and 2013, I suggest that the reasons
coalfield residents vote for candidates from both major political
parties are diverse and complicated, as political discourses used by
those in power and everyday realities shape the ways that residents
view their lives. As James C. Scott (1990) and David Harvey (1996)
argue, power holders are able to shape and define what economic
options even seem attainable. Additionally, structural inequalities,
regardless of the political party in power, continue to prevail in the
region. For example, even with the support of social programs
throughout the Obama administration, Appalachia continued to be one of
the most impoverished regions in the country. Despite
government-subsidized healthcare, social security programs such as
food stamps and Women Infants Children (WIC), the coalfields have
continued to see jobs and incomes decline and young people move away.