"We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business..." so said Hillary Clinton at a town hall meeting in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday night, 13 March -- creating an uproar amongst conservative Republicans, adding fuel to the raging fire Donald Trump was already fanning. And despite pledging to generate clean energy jobs to replace them, and reaffirming her plan to invest $30 billion in protecting coal miners' benefits and pensions, one could argue she put her presidential aspirations on the line with this kind of realistic honesty.
Abraham Lincoln took the same risk, nay, an even greater risk, in his historic Cooper Union speech in New York City in February, 1860, when he was a low-odds candidate for the Republican presidential nomination against Stephen Douglas who, three months earlier, had already soundly defeated Lincoln in their run for the Illinois senate. He took a controversial stand against the "immorality of slavery," and posed a direct challenge to the 40 percent of US voters who resided in the 15 slave-owning states, along with many others who favored expanding it to the territories: "... you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours, to take slaves into the federal territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution."
These are the kind of courageous, honest stands that make America what it is today, rare as they are. Lincoln was putting a divided nation at risk, and risking his opportunity to become president, with his position. But he prevailed, although at a dear cost: a mere five weeks after he took office the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumpter, igniting the Civil War, which led 650,000 Americans to their death before the north prevailed, and Lincoln was able to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
But he was right, wasn't he? Yes, he was. At the end of the Civil War nearly four million fellow humans held in bondage, were eligible for freedom.
But it was even more complicated than that -- and even more like the scenario Clinton has immersed herself in.
Lincoln's candidacy was embroiled in similar kinds of economic issues facing our country today -- rooted in essentially the same politically ignited geography. The South was victim to an industrial revolution largely centered in the North, where early on paved roads, and then railroads, the telegraph, the high-speed printing press, Fulton's invention of the steam boat, et al, had a dramatic impact on the cost of moving goods and services -- and information -- making "possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets," wrote James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. So by 1850, factories were making many types of craftsmen obsolete, department stores were driving local shops to close, and people found themselves losing jobs to someone far away."
To the North, that is. Meanwhile, the South was anchored in an agricultural economy -- which depended on slave labor.
Much like today, eg., Silicon Valley, and markets like Seattle, NY, Boston and D.C., where high tech proliferates, money and jobs flow to more progressive markets -- the new economy, if you will -- and away from the old economy, the South, making it possible, again, for manufacturers to serve a much broader market more efficiently. Before the industrial revolution virtually all business in America was local, and much of it centered on agriculture. Like today, money flowed to the new economy, and away from the old. Northern capitalists who owned the production got richer, and laborers, and the people who owned them, lost power, and jobs.
Like today, the gap between the rich and poor widened.
As Kevin Maney writes in "Trumps Rebel Yell: How the Tech Revolution is Setting up Another Civil War" (Tech and Science, 3/12/16), " ... our software-eats-the-world whirlwind drives everything that's cleaving the country and throwing its politics into chaos."
In general terms, it's the red states that are feeling today's economic squeeze the most, and fulminating the revolution. A squeeze made more complicated by the influx of lower paid immigrants and migrant workers. Today's revolution is cracking the Republican Party wide open, and stands to obliterate the GOP as we once knew it, just like the 1860 election split the Whigs, and ultimately brought it to an end.
Coal companies and their laborers are suffering the same economic threat as the Southern slave owners did -- all of which has poured gasoline on the fires of Trump's followers, and their angry protests. It's no coincidence that the geographical roots of these objectionists to clean energy alternatives - the coal companies -- are generally consistent with the US economy's growth, and lack thereof. And while we can empathize with the job losers -- the pointed insistence on long-term coal mining is, in all candor, short sighted.
The coal mining business is already at an historic low. The number of US coal workers -- 57,000 -- is at a record low. Coal employment declined every month last year, and is now dramatically lower than it was in the mid '80's, when there were 175,000 coal jobs. By contrast, the solar energy workforce -- one of the several alternative clean energy segments available -- has doubled in five years to 209,000, and is already four times the size of the coal mining industry.
In fact, as Patrick Gillespie writes for CNN Money (March 14, 2016; ibid), " ... the war might already be over. Clinton won't have much coal to put out of business; the industry is already gutted."
More to the point: the coal mining industry is wreaking havoc on our environment, contributing dramatically to climate change, a change that ultimately will be the end of the earth as we know it unless something dramatic is done to address it. And Hillary knows this, just like Lincoln knew that slavery, and its threatened expansion into US territories, would mark the end of the United States of America described in the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
And just like Lincoln's position on slavery, Hillary's stand on energy needs to be taken in the full context of what she said, and the real world we live in: " I'm the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country." Clinton went on to make it clear that, " ...we have to take proactive steps to make sure coal workers, their families and their communities get not just the benefits they've earned, but also the future they deserve (ibid)."
She's facing reality, with compassion. The truth. She's confronting the inevitable, and she's determined to do something about it. It may take a generation, or more, for clean energy to fully transition, along with the jobs it will create, and replace fossil fuel producers and the jobs they represent. But, like it or not, it will come to being, sooner or later. It must. And the US, and the world, will be better off for it.
Conservative Republicans obstructionists are demonstrating an incredibly shortsighted point of view, at an inevitably great cost for future generations. Clinton's stance is well nigh revolutionary in today's politics, especially in conservative corners. Just as it was in Lincoln's day, and here's what he had to say about that : "But you say you are conservative--eminently conservative--while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"
What is this stubborn, myopic adherence to the coal industry, in today's world, and lack of support for an aggressive investment in alternative energy -- and our future livelihood -- if not adherence to the old and tried, and against the new (and the untried alternatives sure to come)?
Lincoln, with unabashed sarcasm, predicted the same argument he faced that Trump represents today: that they would lean on their "gur-reat (think huge ...) pur-rinciple" that "if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,"
Most historians argue that Lincoln's Cooper Union speech against slavery was responsible for his victory - against all odds - in the presidential election later that year.
The odds are against any substantial positive effect Hillary's remarks will have, at least to that degree. The uninformed rage Trump has ignited, and the ability for it to spread well, like wildfire, across high tech social media, is going to make that difficult, if not impossible. (The equally innovative telegraph, on the other hand, and the high speed printing press, helped spread Lincoln's courageous position just as fast, relatively speaking).
But she's right, just like Lincoln was, and he knew the power of being right when he concluded his historic Cooper Union speech: "So, Republicans, (who are today's Democrats), I say: Do not give in! Do not compromise! Do not seek some middle ground between right and wrong. "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Like Maney writes: "The parallels to the dynamics of the 1850's are a little scary. After all, the Whigs self-destruction was a prelude to the Civil War."
Some would say today's destruction of the Republican party is damned near as scary: it's going to make it possible for people to cast a vote for Donald Trump for president. The 1860 election still ranks as the second highest in American history for voter turnout (81.2%). This one begs to top it - for all the right reasons.
Right makes right. At least it used to. One can only hope it does today.