Tazewell County is a beautiful place with some ugly problems.
Over the past decade, it’s lost 8.3% of its population, the fourth-fastest decline of any locality in the state. That’s mostly happened because 2,180 people have moved out of the county. Only five other localities in Virginia have seen more people leave.
These are not new problems. Tazewell has generally been losing population since 1980, a consequence of the decline of coal mining jobs and other economic dislocations that have hit rural areas the hardest. None of this is likely to change, either. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projects that Tazewell’s population will keep shrinking for decades to come unless some kind of unexpected economic event intervenes.
Meanwhile, here is Tazewell’s situation: It has a median household income of $40,978 — about one-third below the national figure of $60,293. Tazewell is also ill-equipped to adapt to the demands of the new economy. Nine out of 10 new jobs being created require a college degree, according to the website MarketWatch, which crunched data from the U.S. Department of Labor. However, only 15.2% of Tazewell’s workforce over age 25 has a college degree.
Last week, a passionate crowd of people turned up at the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors to vent their disapproval of recent events and advocate for their preferred solutions. Given all these unfortunate trends cited above, we’d like to think they were demanding a new economic development strategy. Instead, some of them were there to make the case that Tazewell County leave Virginia and join West Virginia — the so-called “Vexit” recently advocated by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
We cite all the unhappy statistics above not to beat up on Tazewell County — it’s in the same economic and demographic position that most of rural America is — but to highlight the utter absurdity of the Vexit fad. The whole economy is changing around you and some people think the solution is to become part of West Virginia? Of course, their concern isn’t economic, it’s cultural. They’re concerned about guns; we’re concerned about geo-spatial economic disparities, although we’re mystified why they’re not concerned about both.
In any case, there were some things said at the Tazewell supervisors meeting that cry out for clarification, since there didn’t seem to be anyone there to do so.
First of all, let’s just be clear: Nobody is going to redraw state lines. To paraphrase the great philosopher Taylor Swift, this is never ever going to happen. The U.S. Constitution — the same one that contains the Second Amendment — seems quite clear: State lines can’t be changed unless both states consent. That provision, by the way, was in the Constitution before that whole thing about the right to bear arms.
Yes, through history there have been disgruntled parts of states that have wanted to join another. We’ve counted at least 32 out of 50 states that have had such “movements.” Precisely zero have succeeded. The unhappy Tazewellians have company: Most of these secessionist movements have come from rural areas that have felt disenfranchised by more urban parts of their state.
We won’t regale you with all 32 but here are a few of the more recent ones:
• In 2011 and 2019 downstate Republicans in the Illinois state legislature wanted to make Chicago a separate state to rid the state legislature of its unwholesome (and Democratic) influences.
• In 2015, 2017 and 2019 there were bills introduced in the Washington state legislature to turn the rural, eastern counties into the State of Liberty.
• In 2013, voters in 11 Colorado counties were asked whether they wanted to secede to form the State of North Colorado; five of them said yes.
• The most active secession movement is in northern California. The proposed State of Jefferson even has its own flag. Governing boards in four counties have endorsed the idea; there were actual referenda held in two others in 2014 — with one county voting in favor, one against. There have been other proposals for referenda on whether to split California into three or even six states; none have ever actually gotten on a statewide ballot. The California Supreme Court blocked the last one in 2018.
None of those succeeded in redrawing state lines; this one won’t, either.
So, let’s be serious, shall we? The only way Tazewell County is going anywhere would be if Virginia agreed to sell it to West Virginia — and that simply isn’t happening. We understand why many rural voters are unhappy. They’re conservative in nature and suddenly there’s a liberal government in power in Richmond. They are now feeling the same frustration and disenfranchisement that Northern Virginia felt all those years when conservatives ran state government. The only cure for that is an election. That brings us to the other absurd thing that was said in Tazewell.
We quote now from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph: “Northwestern District Supervisor Travis Hackworth suggested using the frustration driving Vexit to bring out voters during the next election. ‘We have to vote to take back the House, take back the Senate,’ Hackworth said.”
He’s right about that. The way to change the policies that the speakers in Tazewell object to would be for Republicans to win back the General Assembly (and the governorship, too). Here’s the thing, though: Bringing out more voters in rural areas isn’t going to accomplish that. Rural Virginia is already electing Republicans. By wide margins. Tazewell didn’t even have a Democrat on the ballot in either General Assembly race last year. Increasing turnout is a good thing — we wish everybody voted — but higher turnout in rural Virginia won’t make a difference with the legislature. What will make a difference is winning back the seats Republicans lost — which are entirely in the suburbs of the urban crescent. Vexit isn’t going to be a winning issue there. And here’s the problem for Republicans: Second Amendment sanctuaries likely won’t be, either.
Tazewell and other rural localities are going to have to reconcile themselves to certain political realities — they have few seats in the legislature and will have even fewer after the next census. They don’t, however, have to reconcile themselves to their economic realities. Why aren’t we seeing the same levels of civic passion expended on trying to change those?