West Virginia governor Jim Johnson.
Photo: Chris Jackson/AP/Shutterstock
In a partnership that befits our deeply stupid time, Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia has teamed up with Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University president and Florida hotelier, to advance a new project. Both men have come out in support of Vexit, an effort to expand the state of West Virginia by convincing some parts of Virginia to secede. According to Justice, Virginians unhappy with their Democratic state government ought to join their counties to West Virginia, where the GOP still holds sway. “If you are out there, no matter where you may be, Virginia or wherever you may be, as an individual or as a business or whatever, West Virginia is waiting for you with open arms,” he said. A charming proposal!
Falwell, meanwhile, mostly seems concerned about his university’s bottom line. In his remarks, he singled out a legislative proposal that would, in his words, end public aid to “thousands of online students attending private colleges, while increasing aid for more affluent resident students.” As Religion News Service noted in a piece on the press conference, online students make up a massive portion of Liberty’s overall student body, and a reduction to their numbers would have significant financial consequences for the university, and for Falwell himself.
Obviously, there is a lot going on here, and it is all bad. As a product of southwestern Virginia, I do not regard our brothers and sisters across the border with any sort of hostility. West Virginia is a beautiful state with a proud history of militant labor action — a lot to celebrate! But Vexit itself is best understood as the symptom of a broader reactionary backlash to Virginia’s new status as a blue state. I’ll explain:
Republicans in the West Virginia legislature have introduced two separate resolutions encouraging Virginians to secede. As reported by the Richmond Times–Dispatch, one resolution resurrects a 158-year-old invitation to Frederick County in northwestern Virginia. Another, which awaits further action by the House of Delegates, encourages Virginians at large to vote to make their counties West Virginian territory.
Vexit draws on real history. Before the Civil War, the two states were actually one. After Virginia seceded, West Virginia split off in order to remain in the Union. But now West Virginia Republicans are capitalizing on pockets of regional hostility to the Virginia’s Democratic-controlled state government. In rural, predominantly white areas of Virginia, President Trump remains extremely popular, and recent proposals to tighten state gun laws have provoked outrage. In an interview with Glenn Beck recounted by the West Virginia MetroNews, Gary Howell, a West Virginia delegate who backs Vexit, described these areas as natural extensions of his state. “If you look at a lot of the people in the Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge and even the south side of Virginia, they’re very similar culturally, demographically, and a lot of the geography is the same,” Howell said. Put more directly, Vexit is a plea for Herrenvolk democracy, a territory where one ethnic group and one ethnic group alone holds power unchallenged.
Obviously some of them do, but most Vexit supporters seem to serve in the state legislature or occupy the governor’s mansion. West Virginia is not home to a mass movement calling for the expansion of its borders. The last time West Virginians organized en masse, it was to demand fair pay and better benefits for public school teachers. The priorities of the voting public thus appear to be at odds with those of Governor Justice.
At least two: Falwell, and right-wing activist Rick Boyer, described by the Times-Dispatch as an attorney and former elected official. But support hasn’t spread to the state Republican party. Emmett Hanger, a Republican state senator, asked the Richmond paper if Vexit supporters were performing “a comedy routine.”
The idea could be popular with some voters. The sense of alienation some Virginians feel in relation to state government is not new, and there is some validity to the sentiment. Communities in western Virginia — like the one I grew up in — are often markedly poorer than those in northern Virginia. The decline of the coal industry left the state’s westernmost counties, which border West Virginia and Kentucky, in particularly dire shape. But that doesn’t mean the people who live there are ready for Vexit. Though there is no polling on the matter, the lack of any mass movement again indicates that most people prefer to remain part of Virginia. A few may want separation of some kind, but they tend to have more creative suggestions. As one gentleman commented on the Facebook page of my hometown news station, “I’d make the cut off line right up to the outskirts of Roanoke County and push the rest of the state boundaries into parts of DC and parts of Maryland and there you go, a 51st state to govern as Demo-comunistic [sic] as you please! Leave Virginia and the original laws and amendments alone!”
Vexit may yet catch on in some extremist circles, especially online. We’ve seen something similar with Calexit, a proposal to make California its own independent country, and with the New California movement, which the Guardian recently described as “a far-fetched initiative to have rural conservative counties declare independence from the rest of the state.” Neither effort can boast much popular support. Virginia’s urban-rural divide is significant, and Democrats should be worried about bridging it. But there’s no reason right now to think that rural Virginians are ready for a clean break.
Absolutely not. I could get down with, say, the People’s Republic of Greater Appalachia. But that project requires some consultation with our friends in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. And it shouldn’t be a white homeland, which is what goblins like Gary Howell seemingly want. A thumbs down for Vexit. Goblins out!
Get to Know ‘Vexit,’ a Really Bad Idea