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Joe Manchin Betrays West Virginia

The senator says he’s a “no” on Biden’s Build Back Better Act, ensuring that the struggling people of his state fall further behind.

Manchin walks to a meeting with coal miners
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Manchin walks to a meeting with coal miners in Matewan, West Virginia, in 2017.

Joe Manchin’s net worth, according to the money-in-politics website Open Secrets, was $7.6 million in 2018, when he last sought reelection. Median household income this year in the state of West Virginia, according to the St. Louis Fed, is $51,615. That’s nearly $30,000 below the national average.

And this, in a nutshell, is American politics generally and the United States Senate particularly: a multimillionaire old white guy telling poor people that they just need to get off their asses and work and the government shouldn’t be helping them.

Although there’s still a chance Manchin may support some version of the Build Back Better Act, his announcement Sunday morning—on Fox News, natch—that he couldn’t vote for the existing version of the bill is politically devastating for his party and the president he presumably supported and voted for. That will be the focus of most of the punditry. But it’s even more devastating for the people of West Virginia, who are falling further behind the rest of the country with each passing decade and who have been sold a fantasy about the source of their problems and how they will be fixed.

The fantasy is that coal’s demise is all the fault of the coastal liberal elites who thumb their noses at good hard-working Christian people like the ones who live in West Virginia’s small towns and mine and haul its coal.

Now it is true of course that many liberals want the U.S. to ditch fossil fuels. I’m among them, although I also want to be sure that Washington devotes trillions—yes, trillions—to investing in West Virginia over the coming decades, partly as a thank-you for powering America’s rise to world dominance and our defeat of fascism, but mostly to give the people of the state a new and more secure future.

And it’s also true that, yes, some, maybe many, urban liberals do sneer at West Virginia people, which they shouldn’t do. (Of course, West Virginia people have no business talking smack on New Yorkers or San Franciscans, either.)

So those things are true, but they do not mean that coal’s decline is liberalism’s fault. You know when the numbers of coal mining jobs started shrinking in this country? In the 1980s. While Ronald Reagan was president. In 1985, there were 178,300 coal miners in the U.S. In 1990, there were 137,600. In 1995, the number went under 100,000. This was all technology and automation. In other words: the free market, doing its thing.

Then things stabilized for a bit, and the number started sinking again in this past decade to the current 42,000. Yes, a lot of this happened while Barack Obama was president. But the number dropped sharply under Donald Trump, from 50,900 to 42,400. Was it Obama’s fault, or Trump’s? No. It was natural gas’s fault. It’s cleaner and cheaper. In other words: the free market, doing its thing.

And this is what has ravaged the coal towns of West Virginia: the free market introducing changes that made the state’s main industry less remunerative and necessary. Throw in the opioid crisis, which still rages on in West Virginia. That is another free-market problem, and another fantasy, one created out of whole cloth by actors in the pharmaceutical industry. Government should have done more than it did to intervene and said no to this fantasy, that powerful opioids shouldn’t be handed out like Life Savers to anybody who pulled a back muscle.

But it was the private sector that unleashed this curse on America, preying on particularly vulnerable people and places like West Virginia, where a lot of people do physical labor for a living and lack—or lacked, until evil big government and Barack Obama came along—the health coverage that ensures they can go see a real doctor instead of just hopping into an urgent care clinic where they get a fentanyl script and are shoved out the door. More than half a million West Virginians have enrolled in the Obamacare exchanges—that’s nearly one-third of the state.

But the accepted story line is that government and liberalism are destroying the state. It’s the precise opposite of the truth. What has ravaged the state is the free market: automation, technology, a cheaper and cleaner coal alternative, and heavy prescription drugs.

Joe Biden sought to step into this morass and say to people in West Virginia and across the country that they deserve the things that citizens of all other developed nations, and many developing ones, already have.

But now Joe Manchin, given extraordinary power by the structure of a body that shouldn’t even exist, overrules the president of the United States and says to the people ravaged by these things that, no, the government can’t help them. Sorry, single mom who works at the Dollar General in Grantsville and would like to go to community college to better her lot: We can’t make community college free, and we can’t possibly subsidize daycare centers where you can safely plant your toddler while you take those bookkeeping courses at night at Glenville State. All that free stuff might make you a ward of the state.

And no, we can’t tax rich people to pay for it. We need rich people to get richer, so they can pass the benefits of their wealth down the economic food chain. Does Joe Manchin think this way? He did say that thing in late September: “Means testing, work requirements are all very, very important in these things. Some can pay, some can pay a little, some can’t pay at all, that is means testing. I cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving toward an entitlement mentality.”

No, we can’t have that. Before you know it, we’ll turn into Scandinavia. Or Mongolia or Uruguay or Uzbekistan or any other of the hundred or so countries around the world that offer new parents paid parental leave.

So that’s where the United States of America is now, behind Mongolia and all those other countries, all because of one man—and the power that is given to him by the structure of our national legislature. West Virginia will keep falling behind. And Joe Manchin can watch it all unfold through the windows of his Maserati.