President of Liberty University Jerry Falwell Jr. stands in front of a portrait of Donald Trump gifted by a university donor, in his office in Lynchburg, Va. on May 4, 2017. (Photo by Julia Rendleman)
The Democratic electoral sweep last November and the deep demographic, social and economic changes underlying it have fostered a widening divide among Virginians.
The latest manifestation appears to broaden the breach.
Virginia is a state familiar with secession, having seceded from the United States to join the Confederacy in 1861 and making Richmond the capital of the doomed rebellion. Appomattox stands as an abiding reminder of the destructive futility of that action.
The idea of secession gets revived from time to time when a region of the commonwealth feels disenfranchised or disrespected. In the 1980s and ‘90s, sprawling Northern Virginia, emerging as the state’s economic engine, chafed that demographic and politics still gave the balance of legislative power to rural Virginia. Folks north of the Occoquan ruminated about forming their own state, though it never got beyond talk.
Last fall, the proliferating suburbs that run from Washington’s bedroom communities south and east through Richmond and the Peninsula to Hampton Roads exerted a progressive push that put Democrats in full control of Virginia government for the first time in a generation. That has bred a movement to entice conservative rural localities to consider their own secession.
Over the past couple of weeks, the notion of Virginia counties and independent cities decamping for West Virginia in protest of the Old Dominion’s leftward lurch has been given voice by voluble, big-name advocates anchored by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
Two weeks ago, Falwell joined with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice — a coal billionaire who bolted the Democratic Party to become a Trump Republican — to entreat GOP-voting Virginia localities to leave the commonwealth for West By God. They gave it a name — Vexit — a nod to the term for Britain’s recent final divorce from the European Union.
The legislature of West Virginia — onetime Virginia localities that refused to follow the rest of the state into the Confederacy — is considering a resolution to adopt any Virginia locality that wishes to follow suit more than a century and a half later, provided Virginia’s General Assembly also approves.
Last week, Falwell went one better, bringing Nigel Farage, who has led the UK’s Brexit movement, to Liberty’s Lynchburg campus for his first public comments since Brexit became final. Farage addressed students and faculty at Liberty’s Feb. 5 Convocation, a regular evangelical revival/conservative town hall hybrid. He endorsed Vexit with the same message that animated Brexit.
“When local people want to … change their structure of government, they should be able to do so,” Farage said.
The idea quickly caught fire among conservative activists who had embraced the so-called “Second Amendment sanctuaries” phenomenon in which officials in several rural localities pledged not to enforce new gun restrictions Virginia’s General Assembly is considering. Among them is Rick Boyer, a Campbell County lawyer and leading Vexit proponent who has started a petition to enlist support for it.
“The cool thing about this is it’s been utterly organic. Everywhere I go, people are excited about it,” Boyer said.
It’s an outgrowth of the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement in that “people are looking for a way to get their voices heard,” Boyer said. “These are people who don’t want to be governed by Northern Virginia because they don’t represent our values.” Unlike the sanctuaries proclamations which have no force in law, Boyer believes Vexit “has some teeth to it.”
A.E. Dick Howard, a leading scholar on the U.S. and Virginia constitutions and University of Virginia Law School professor, says Vexit is a way for people distressed over the Democratic takeover in Richmond to make a statement.
“But it’s hard to take this proposal seriously except as a talking point,” said Howard, who oversaw the rewrite of the current Virginia Constitution.
He said actions Congress took in the 1860s and a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Virgina v. West Virginia that affirmed the creation of West Virginia largely settle the issue.
Legal and political barriers make a Vexit the longest of long shots, he said. Any locality looking to switch states would have to obtain the approval of both the Virginia and West Virginia legislatures plus Congress, he added. And in Richmond, lawmakers from both parties panned the notion of ceding any Virginia soil to its western neighbor.
“Preposterous,” is how Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, dismissed the suggestion after the Justice/Falwell joint appearance in late January. Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta, a county a short drive from the West Virginia line, asked whether Falwell and Justice were staging “a comedy routine.” And the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat whose support for gun control legislation helped feed the nascent insurrection, gave the proposal no credence.
Boyer begs to differ with Howard, saying he believes that a Vexit is legally feasible. He argues that the U.S. Constitution is silent on whether Virginia’s consent is required for dissident cities or counties to join another state. He asserts that if West Virginia enacts a law officially inviting Virginia localities to move, those jurisdictions need only schedule a referendum in which a voting majority approves the switch.
Twenty-first century patriotism or another indictment of the broken nature of today’s increasingly balkanized politics?
“The Vexit proposal is as American as 1776,” Boyer says.
But it does call into question the ever more tenuous hold Virginia has on the commonly understood concept of “commonwealth.”
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