The Tantrum in Virginia
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 3, 2021
Now that we can examine the voter tantrum in Virginia, it probably is more important to consider the real winner than the name of the state’s next governor.
The demand to read the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia — and the close results in New Jersey — as a microcosm for national elections a year or three away should rather prompt us to learn about what we are doing to ourselves and our neighbors.
An election that made “education” a prime issue needs explanation as to why. The shift in support among White, suburban women should deliver a swift kick in the butt to Democrats.
— The clear winner of the election was politics that maximized social antagonism and fired up racism, using mantras over control of school curricula to feed White backlash — along with a whopping $19 million each spent on advertising. The biggest effect will be that we will hear this culture war message over and over again in every state race over the next year and beyond.
— Coming in a close second, rightly, or wrongly, was the perception that polling result that “the country is headed in the wrong direction” — whether that means failure of the Democrats in Congress to get substantial things done legislatively, a perception that Biden and Democrats have let the covid-laden economy drift into long-term rising prices and lagging supplies, or lasting images of a botched Afghan withdrawal. Those are not issues for which either gubernatorial candidate had any control, but the insistence on saying that government must deal with MY needs affected turnout reflected significant defections from Democrats.
— Terry McAuliffe himself was not an excellent candidate. Much like Hillary Clinton in 2016, McAuliffe made mistakes, coming off as summarily dismissive of parental self-image, and walking almost blindly into ongoing anger over covid mandates and Donald Trump-style enthusiasm for individualism over government authority.
Plus, we learned anew that Republicans already were geared up to launch a practiced election fraud campaign for the post-election contest — a campaign that presumably goes silent now that there was a Republican winner. And we set up more internecine Republican battles about whether Youngkin’s success was because of Donald Trump support or despite it.
Close is Bad
That the election margins were even close was an indictment for Democrats. Yes, the out party usually gains in off-year elections in these United States, but that doesn’t explain a turnaround in attitudes — with or without Donald Trump personally on the ballot. This is about something more fundamental — anger, White anger.
It’s also not so good for state politics.
Greg Sargent, a Washington Post columnist, noted that the closing days featured cynical Republican calls for unity “after a campaign built heavily around stoking White grievance with attacks on phantom critical race theory in schools and torquing up the base by feeding Donald Trump’s lies about our election system.”
This campaign wasn’t about “parents who want a better education for their kids,” as Republican Glenn Youngkin’s ads said. It was a race attack that “subversive leftists and liberals are in cahoots with educational bureaucrats to indoctrinate and emotionally torment your children,” as Sargent described.
Youngkin’s insistence that critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia schools or anywhere in U.S. public schools, is “an ugly falsehood” and his charge that McAuliffe got the U.S. Justice Department to silence Virginia parents is “a despicable lie,” per Sargent.
What those statements clearly were meant to do was to shove race and White grievance into the forefront. That, of course, ultimately is ironic, since the complaint against critical race theory is that it promotes a race-based imagery of U.S. history.
Education as an Issue
Interviews and polls showed that many listing “education” and “critical race theory” don’t even know what the evidence is for what is wrong. It’s smoke and fear. And apparently effective upon enough repetition.
Recent events in schools in Virginia and elsewhere also have concerned covid mask mandates, policies about transgender students, and books that offend the personal outlook of some minority of parents about sexual orientation and values — without regard to examining the how and why of what those books were being used to teach or the educational levels of students or their context.
Education Week describes critical race theory as an academic concept that examines race as a social construct, “that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies,” offering as example redlining practices starting in the 1930 when officials drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants.
This election showed that it is way too easy for the Really Ugly to be turned into slogans promoting individual liberty. It wasn’t about improving education in our public schools or the quality of teaching or even about providing better school safety. These were arguments about preserving a dominant and exclusionary view of perceptions of U.S. history.
Amidst all this, McAuliffe, who after all was governor once before, stood on his hind legs and told parents that should not be dictating which books are used in school, a statement misinterpreted as parents have little to say about the education of their children. McAuliffe may have been accurate in his description but showed a tin ear to parental emotion.
As always post-election, we look at who voted in outsized margins under liberalized voting rules. Suburban voters and independents left the Democratic column in substantial numbers, particularly among women.
Meanwhile, no Democrat in Washington wants to acknowledge that the long delays spent negotiating endlessly with two Democratic senators over the two big money bills that have yet to emerge from Congress had any palpable effect on voting patterns in Virginia or elsewhere. They’d be wrong about that. Polling and interviews underscore that those “delays” are being read as “failures,” and contributing to a wide perception that the Democrats in charge can’t get things done.
Those perceptions cut in several directions at once. Conservatives will argue that we are seeing reaction to mandates and Big Brother-ism. Progressives will see defection over the perception that voter rights legislation and bills for policing reforms have gone nowhere in the U.S. Senate.
Much as I resist those attempts to generalize from local elections, the narrative out there is building. For Democrats to have success in returning in numbers that keep Congressional majorities will require better answers than those McAuliffe was able to bring,