Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 with massive majorities in rural areas, often larger than those of any other candidates before him, yet did little to nothing to change the failing economic trajectories of those communities.
Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 with a weaker performance in rural areas than any other winning candidate, yet might wind up doing more for rural America than any president since Franklin Roosevelt with the New Deal.
This is what we call an irony — and also Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan.
Republicans have legitimate questions about just how much of this is really infrastructure in the traditional sense. Roads and bridges, sure.
What about broadband internet, which we’ve concluded now is essential to the economy?
What about workforce training and other “human infrastructure”?
What about electric car charging stations?
What about eliminating paper plates in school kitchens?
There’s obviously some room for debate. Still, we should remember that Trump campaigned in 2016 promising a $1 trillion infrastructure plan and then never delivered. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said on election night 2016. “And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Never happened. If it had, Trump might still be president today.
Now let’s look at some of the things in Biden’s plan, which would meet the traditional definition of infrastructure — and which would have a unique impact on rural America.
There’s a need for more modern schools everywhere but in Virginia, that need is concentrated in two places — central cities and rural counties, neither of which have the money to pay for them.
Biden’s proposed $100 billion for school construction wouldn’t be uniquely rural but rural communities would certainly feel the benefit more than affluent metro areas that are already building new schools just to keep up with population growth.
Here’s another irony: In Virginia, it’s been Democrats from Northern Virginia who have blocked attempts to provide more state money for school construction. Now a Democrat in Washington wants to. Rural Virginia should appreciate Biden a lot more than the Democratic leadership in the House of Delegates.
Cleaning up abandoned mines.
Biden has proposed $16 billion for mine reclamation as well as plugging orphan oil and gas wells. This would be a big deal in Appalachia, a part of the country that delivered thunderous margins for Trump but never saw any real reward.
The overriding priority for the coal-producing parts of Appalachia is to build a new economy that’s not based on coal. Trump never tried. On the contrary, he tried to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission and other economic development agencies dealing with the region.
A good chunk of this $16 billion would wind up directly in Appalachia — somebody’s got to do the work of cleaning up those old mine sites.
And when they’re done, the region would have new sites for industry — something that’s at a premium in a topographically challenged region. This sure seems a two-fer for Appalachia.
Republicans, who aren’t keen about green energy, fret about the emphasis on renewable energy in Biden’s plan; there’s $35 billion for research and development of new technologies and a focus on renewables is woven through the plan.
There’s one part they’ve missed, though. Then again, so have some Democrats. The White House says the administration wants to “accelerate responsible carbon capture deployment and ensure permanent storage.” That’s controversial because some environmentalists don’t fully trust carbon capture technology and think it will only prolong fossil fuel plants.
And that’s exactly why we’ve already had community leaders in Southwest Virginia ask us if this might be a way to preserve Dominion Energy’s Virginia City Hybrid Center plant in Wise County, which burns a mix of coal, waste coal and “biomass”?
Could we take this technology to capture the carbon and use that to seal gas wells?
Environmentalists and Dominion critics (who aren’t always the same) think Virginia City is an inefficient plant that should never have been built. However, it’s still a major employer (responsible for 550 jobs) in a region desperate for employment, and Green New Dealers don’t have an answer for what happens to those jobs when Virginia City is set to close in 2045 under the terms of the state’s Clean Economy Act.
Could Biden’s infrastructure plan help save jobs in a county where he took less than 19% of the vote?
Directing jobs to “distressed communities.”
This is one of the squishiest parts of the plan but potentially one of the most attractive if it actually means anything.
As we’ve said many times before, Green New Dealers are right that renewable energy will create lots of jobs — solar is one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the country right now — but the blind spot that they have is that jobs being created won’t necessarily be where fossil fuel jobs are being lost.
When it comes to creating a new generation of jobs in (former) coal country, Green New Dealers show the same blind faith in the free market that some conservatives do, both of which are insufficient to the task.
Biden’s plan, though, contains language about “build next generation industries in distressed communities.” That’s great, but the government can’t tell free enterprise where to invest; it can only create incentives.
Under that section, though, the White House says “the president’s plan also will establish ten pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities.”
Where will those “ten pioneer facilities” be? We don’t exactly have the kind of “large steel, cement and chemical production facilities” that might qualify but we can imagine lots of rural areas that do.
More generally, this section is one that could either be easily forgotten (we’ve all seen that happen before) or become the intellectual framework for directing more federal investment to rural areas in less heralded ways. This is where Republicans — who represent most of those rural communities, and who oppose the infrastructure plan — should hope for its success, and keep the pressure on Biden to live up to what it actually says.
Politically, all this will yield Biden precisely zero benefit in rural America. But it’s still the right thing to do and more than what his predecessor ever did.