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A West Virginia of the Mind

by Adam Sobsey

West Virginia is having a moment. It’s grabbing headlines in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. If you’ve turned on the nightly news or a national morning show this year, you might have seen West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, talking about his state’s unique vaccination program, or voicing surprisingly heterodox opinions on mask-wearing and relief packages. In January, one of the state’s US Senators, Democrat Joe Manchin, drew national attention when he bristled very publicly that Vice President Kamala Harris made appearances on West Virginia news stations without notifying his office in advance. He let it be known that West Virginia was his house, and even the country’s second-in-command had better knock first.

The message not only raised Manchin’s profile; it called renewed attention to the very existence of West Virginia. Manchin’s subsequent naming as Chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources—not an arbitrary appointment for a congressperson from a state long associated with fossil fuels—proves that Washington got his message. So, perhaps, did the recent designation of America’s newest national park, and West Virginia’s first, New River Gorge, likely due to Manchin’s influence on Congress’ year-end spending package. Last month, he almost singlehandedly dismissed President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. Manchin is probably our country’s linchpin lawmaker right now, according to most political authorities. The National Review recently put a fine point on it: “Welcome to the de facto presidency of Sen. Joe Manchin.”

Between Justice and Manchin, America is also getting the message that we need to adapt ourselves to the idea of West Virginia as a political force, and not just in the short term. Both politicians, who have lately engaged each other in a bit of verbal public sparring, are likely to receive serious and well-founded consideration as their respective parties’ presidential nominees in 2024, each thanks to his own kinds of centrist tendencies—in a state that does not appear, on its face, to be at all centrist.

Much of West Virginia is not what it seems, and its politics are only the beginning. Last fall, the state landed Virgin’s $500 million development project for the Hyperloop, a high-tech, sustainable-transportation innovation that could someday zip commuters from New York to Washington in half an hour. And as you may have heard Governor Justice say on television, West Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine program has been the nation’s most successful so far (yes, West Virginia’s). The message is getting through subliminally, too. During the recent Super Bowl, an eerie rendition of the chorus of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” played under recurring ads for the Silence of the Lambs reboot Clarice—the title character is from West Virginia, as you may recall.

“I know the value of this state. Somebody had to be the cheerleader, and that was me. Enthusiasm is contagious. And I’m eat up with enthusiasm.”

If you’re not only seeing West Virginia these days but seeing it in a new light, that isn’t an accident. In an interview with Adapt, Governor Justice said that changing America’s perceptions of his state was a primary reason that he ran for governor in the first place, in 2016. (He was reelected in November, in a landslide).

“West Virginia’s image for decades has been that it was the poorest, dingiest, and [most] backwards,” Justice told Adapt, in his garrulous Appalachian drawl. The state was “forever in a contest with Mississippi [over] who would be dead last in the country at everything.”

Justice has been savvy about using the media to change and complicate that image—both his state’s and his own. Justice is a Trump-aligned coal and agricultural magnate reportedly worth nearly $2 billion, but in addition to tirelessly highlighting that West Virginia had put more vaccines in arms per capita than any other state, he was recently on CNN urging Congress to “go big” and approve President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package.

Siding with Biden may seem well off his party line, but “go big” is perfectly on-brand for Justice. His official state webpage calls him “the largest farmer east of the Mississippi,” and that seems true in more than one way. He is 6-foot-7 and, as they say in Appalachia, “a long looper”: Ask him a question and his answer comes as a winding, loaded coal train, including cars full of charming apology for chugging on so long. But he isn’t shy about saying exactly what he thinks, and he’s no ideologue—”I’m not a politician,” he went so far as to declare recently on Face the Nation. Justice minces no words about the locked horns of our federal partisan politics: “What’s been going on in Washington in the last few years, and continues to get worse and worse, is despicable,” he told Adapt. “It is not in my playbook. It is not in my hemisphere.”

And he makes sure everyone knows that his hemisphere is West Virginia. “I know the value of this state,” he says. “Somebody had to be the cheerleader, and that was me. Enthusiasm is contagious. And I’m eat up with enthusiasm.”

Earlier this month, Justice proposed legislation to elevate West Virginia’s Tourism Office to a cabinet-level agency. If it’s passed, that will only increase tourism’s already strong presence among Justice’s priorities. The Tourism Commissioner appointed by Justice in 2017, Chelsea Ruby, told Adapt, “In my first interview with Governor Justice, he was talking about how we have to change the face of West Virginia both internally and externally. And that has been a goal of his administration from Day One. We’ve tripled the ad budget for the tourism office and done a lot of things to elevate the standing of tourism in West Virginia.”

Ruby, however, says that reimagining West Virginia means less binary and more creative thinking than simply overturning negative stereotypes: “I think a lot of people assume that the state’s branding problem is that people have negative perceptions about West Virginia. But, while I didn’t disagree with that, that’s not our main problem. For so many people, they just don’t have an impression of West Virginia.”

Cathy Kunkel, a 2020 candidate for one of the state’s three seats in the US Congress, running on a progressive platform, adds to Ruby’s assessment: “I think there’s this perception that West Virginia is confusing and doesn’t make any sense.”

National media tried very hard to make sense of West Virginia—and to make West Virginia make America make sense—after the 2016 elections, when the state voted so overwhelmingly for Donald Trump that it became a favorite landing spot for parachuting media eager to report on his appeal. Most of the resulting stories were “a deeply flawed way to understand the politics of West Virginians and the wide range of views they hold,” wrote Chatham University historian Lou Martin, in an email interview with Adapt. Martin, a native West Virginian and author of a study of his state, Smokestacks in the Hills, observes, “I see West Virginians going in a lot of different directions politically.”

“I think a lot of people assume that the state’s branding problem is that people have negative perceptions about West Virginia. But, while I didn’t disagree with that, that’s not our main problem. For so many people, they just don’t have an impression of West Virginia.”

Perhaps going in a lot of different directions has pulled West Virginia taut right in the center. Perhaps it has been in the center all along, only without the attention the center usually gets. Governor Justice often refers to West Virginia as a “diamond in the rough.” When people begin to see its facets, he says, they’ll say “it was right under our nose and we missed it.” He is fond of pointing out (speaking of the center) that the state is less than 600 miles from two-thirds of the US population. So why does West Virginia manage to go mostly either unperceived or misperceived?

“Appalachia is as much an idea as a place,” Martin continued. “The more I have studied Appalachia, the more I’m convinced that its story is the story of the nation as a whole. […] Representations of the region as a land of backwards hillbillies are more than 150 years old at this point, and they’re always exaggerated and distorted and tend to tell us more about what the rest of the country needs Appalachia to be rather than what it really is.”

What we need it to be versus what it is—but there’s a third, non-adversarial way of thinking about this: What does Appalachia want itself to be? And what story is West Virginia here now to tell us about itself? There is a diversity voices (a greater diversity than it may seem, in fact), but the official message attends, smartly, to what the state looks and sounds like. The Tourism Office’s current marketing campaign is entitled “Almost Heaven”; that slogan is taken from the opening line of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which has recently been elevated to the status of an official anthem of the state. The “Almost Heaven” campaign is focused on West Virginia’s natural beauty, and on “encouraging people to take road trips through the Mountain State,” Tourism Commissioner Ruby says. “Almost Heaven” connects the lyrical West Virginia we hear in our heads to a beautiful West Virginia we can see.

“The Governor knew that there was a lot of value in ‘Country Roads,’” Ruby told Adapt. And that value is literal as well as metaphorical. Under Governor Justice, the state launched a bond program (approved by voters in 2017) called “Roads to Prosperity” that has invested heavily in improving West Virginia’s auto travel infrastructure. The state has also poured money into rehabilitating its state parks, including giving residents a 40 percent discount to encourage them to get outside and to increase intrastate tourism during the pandemic. The “Almost Heaven” campaign harmonizes the state’s money and message.

“Appalachia is as much an idea as a place,”

Another West Virginia branding project focuses on where those country roads lead. BrandJRNY is a grant-funded, largely student-driven initiative based at West Virginia University’s College of Media. Its purpose is to develop and implement research-based, integrated branding plans for small West Virginia communities and creative imaging strategies that are unique to each place. Since its inception in 2015, BrandJRNY has partnered with five small towns, investing ample time in each to help retell each town’s story and revivify its image.

“The branding focus for each town is different,” according to BrandJRNY founder Rita Colistra (who is also an Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at WVU). “While the majority of our projects have focused on boosting tourism [. . .] we’ve also created campaigns that have centered on economic development and increasing community pride, the latter of which is especially important to bring the community together in order to increase social capital needed for bigger goals.”

The BrandJRNY project has a secondary benefit: it’s training West Virginia’s next generation of communicators—a critical need in a state experiencing steady population decline and accompanying brain drain. “In addition to preparing students for professional careers,” Colistra wrote in an email to Adapt, “the projects teach them the importance of civic and community engagement and expose them to the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities.”

Those secondary benefits are crucial to retooling West Virginia’s image. Tourism Commissioner Ruby alludes to the perceptual phenomenon called the “Halo Effect,” whereby messaging in one area widens our perception of the whole. “Travel and tourism marketing improves the overall image of the state,” she says. “It improves the way people think about the state as a place to do business, a place to raise a family, a place to go to college.”

Governor Justice, whose frequent media appearances widen West Virginia’s halo, echoes Ruby: “People on the outside now—I mean the rest of the country and the world—are calling and saying, ‘What’s your taxation like in West Virginia? What’s your workforce look like?’”

The latter question is more freighted than Justice likely intends. Until its recent return to the spotlight, West Virginia last made national headlines for its 2018 teachers’ strikes, which were largely organized by women. The strikers wore red bandanas in pointed homage to the Appalachian miners who participated in the historic Battle of Blair Mountain—a series of protests and violent clashes in 1920 and 1921 that left over a hundred dead and is considered the largest labor uprising in US history. Although the anniversary of such a bloody event is unlikely to be feted with parades and parties, the spirit of Blair Mountain remains an important inspiration for and symbol of West Virginia. It might serve as a powerful co-narrative to the official West Virginia story: not just a place to drive country roads but also, indeed especially, a place driven by its very proud and powerful people.

When asked to describe West Virginia’s character or image, every interviewee for this article emphasized the strength, generosity, uniqueness and diversity of West Virginians. Candidate Kunkel: “Some of the most fascinating people, with pockets of really interesting farmers and craftspeople and small communities […] trying to make change.” Historian Martin: “People who are generous, brave, smart, and funny. . . [who] picked themselves up off the mat many times and went back to work.”  Governor Justice: “Loving, appreciative people […] proud of who they are.” BrandJRNY’s Colistra: “People who are innovative thinkers and problem solvers […] who are always willing to pitch in to help others […] people who are becoming more socially active and politically engaged.”

Jessica Wilkerson, Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University and author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight, a study of women-led social justice movements in West Virginia, charges up Colistra’s last observation with historical context: in the heyday of the unions, “everyday people would ride buses to the capitals and demand a seat at the table,” Wilkerson told Adapt. The teachers’ strikes prove that, although West Virginians may have been long “beaten down into a situation where we were expected to know our place,” as Justice puts it, they nonetheless rise up and still demand their place at the table. They are “West Virginia’s greatest asset,” Colistra declares.

The microphones and media will still attend to elected representatives and the state’s official organs of branding and publicity, but it is the people who are the keepers of West Virginia’s identity and who will tell their state’s real story going forward. They’re already telling it, in real time. West Virginia is a place in highly visible transition (and visible resistance to that transition). “’The coal economy is not coming back’ is a much less controversial thing to say than it used to be,” Kunkel says. Every message West Virginia is sending, to itself and to the world, is a message of change—and especially of change in perception. It is not an idea that is hardened in place.

The microphones and media will still attend to elected representatives and the state’s official organs of branding and publicity, but it is the people who are the keepers of West Virginia’s identity and who will tell their state’s real story going forward.

That’s why “Country Roads” makes so much sense: not because the roads take us home, but because West Virginia is wheeling over those roads now, remapping itself, and it is all over our radar. And that’s why it makes so much sense that Governor Justice conducted his interview with Adapt from behind the wheel of his car. “I drive myself,” he fairly insisted. “I drive my own vehicle.” It seemed the right metaphor, in so many ways, for a state of self-sufficiency and self-direction. A state with a history rooted in fuel and energy. A state, like its governor, born to coal but so much bigger than coal. A state on its way somewhere and on the line with you right now, telling you all about itself.

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