Who's Afraid of What Happened in Virginia?

You should be.

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Very bad news for Democrats last night: Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which should have been a Dem win. In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, what should have been a Democratic trouncing turned into a squeaker of an election, with the Democratic incumbent just barely getting by. In Pennsylvania, every state race went for the GOP. In Buffalo, New York, India Walton lost her high-profile race for mayor to a write-in candidate. And on and on.

In the next few days, you’re going to read a lot of post-mortems and analyses about What Democrats Did Wrong. You can already see which narratives are building, and from where. As always, watch out for anything that is a little too neat — there are rarely single reasons why elections are lost, and there is an all-around temptation to fit events into one’s own priors and preferences and theories. What’s clear is that Democrats are in trouble. What’s also clear is that the trouble comes from multiple directions, that this was predictable, that there is no singular narrative of yesterday’s races, and that that there is no silver-bullet solution for the 2022 midterms.

One obvious truth is that Democratic candidates across the political spectrum lost last night (and a few won). McAuliffe was a moderate running on a moderate platform. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is reasonably progressive and he just barely won what should have bene an easy race. India Walton in Buffalo is a socialist, she lost to a more moderate opponent — the incumbent mayor, who managed an upset via a write-in campaign (not an easy way to win, even with all of his money). In Boston, the further-left candidate, Michelle Wu, won the race for mayor. There is simply no coherent conclusion to draw when it comes to ideology and these electoral results.

And yet somehow that has not stopped the narrative from being “racial justice movements and progressives made Democrats lose.” So what actually happened?

A Bad Economy & Dem Denial

Prices are skyrocketing, supply chains are stalled, and “skimpflation” is on the rise — as Helaine Olen describes it, skimpflation is the model of “pay the same or more, but receive less,” from airlines that cancel flights without offering accommodations to restaurants that continue to use QR codes instead of menus to companies that don’t have enough customer service agents working the phones (in the past two weeks, I have spent a minimum of two hours on hold, each, with my bank, Expedia, and two different airlines). Goods are more expensive, and people are pessimistic about where the economy is headed.

Voters are understandably frustrated. And they are not getting the message that Democrats understand what they’re facing and are working to fix it. Instead, their concerns about inflation and costs are largely dismissed.

Democratic Disarray

“Democrats in Disarray” is an extremely tired media cliché, but also, national Democrats are in disarray. That isn’t the fault of the entire party, but it is the specific fault of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Those two conservative Democrats have not only prevented Biden from passing his ambitious package of social, economic, and infrastructure investments, but have shaped a broad narrative that Democrats can’t get it together and get anything done even when they’re in power. I’m not sure that drove voters to the GOP so much as it depressed Democratic turnout and enthusiasm — why show up and vote for a Democrat if they aren’t going to do anything?

An Unpopular President

Joe Biden inherited a real shit sandwich from Donald Trump: An out-of-control pandemic, a broken-brain Republican Party, a hyper-polarized America, tax cuts that kneecapped necessary investments, and a beleaguered and distrustful nation. But he is the president now, and despite some incredible successes — the national Covid vaccination campaign, for one — he is now presiding over a worsening economy and a party that can’t get it together to deliver on his campaign promises. His approvals are low, and 71 percent of Americans say that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Of course Democrats — any Democrats — are going to feel that pain on election day.

The Normal Order of Things

The extremely boring truth is that the party in control of the White House, the House and the Senate usually loses seats in the midterms, and this often holds true for elections held in non-presidential years. In Virginia, the party that holds the White House almost always loses the governor’s mansion. Voters whose party has recently won the White House are less motivated to turn out and vote; voters whose party has recently lost have a reason to be angry and motivated. In other words, prepare for an absolute bloodbath in 2022.


The Virginia election has been billed as being about “education,” but several smart folks have made the convincing point that it’s less about education broadly than it is about the waning trust parents have in their school systems, thanks to Covid-related school shutdowns. Zach Carter wrote about this in the Atlantic, and I find his argument convincing: School closures and the move to remote learning was devastating for families, and for mothers in particular, and regardless of whether you agree on the school-closure policy or not, “the governor was largely absent on school policy at a time when a lot of parents were really angry.” That helped to set the stage for the right-wing fear-mongering over critical race theory in schools: “A lot of suburban parents lost faith in Virginia’s public schools over the past year, and as a result, they’re more open to conservative narratives about problems in public schools,” Zach writes.

Everything is easier to see in hindsight. But what’s clear is that Covid-19 policies became as much about politics as public health on the right and the left. The right was far, far worse, and with far more disastrous consequences — refusing to wear or mandate masks and even refusing to allow private companies or schools to mandate vaccines or mask-wearing is over-the-top reactionary insanity, the kind of thing it’s genuinely difficult to comprehend. So this isn’t a “both sides did it equally argument,” because they didn’t. But liberals, who pride ourselves on “following the science,” also didn’t always follow the science. After the right-wing reaction was so extreme, we had our own reaction to them, doubling down on masking and shutdowns without always weighing the real risks, and without weighing the risks of getting seriously ill or dying of Covid against a whole plethora of other interests (like, for example, kids getting a decent education and mothers being able to stay employed). The calculus became “one Covid death is too many,” which sounds very sensible, but is not a calculus we use for literally anything else, from the flu to driving in cars. Some number of people, and especially some number of parents, began to justifiably doubt whether Democrats were fully comprehending the impossible position they were in, and whether Democrats were making decisions based on the consensus of public health experts or based on ideology. Schools were the locus of that frustration, and it may have fostered a nagging distrust in the public school system.

Racist Backlash

Glenn Youngkin ran a racist campaign in Virginia. He banked on stoking racial animus and motivating a racist base, and he won. “Critical race theory” was one of the top issues in this election, which is entirely absurd because critical race theory is not actually being taught in schools, but that doesn’t matter because “critical race theory” has become a catch-all for conversations about racism and sexism generally, and to many voters it feels true that their kids are being indoctrinated in the classroom. It genuinely doesn’t help that some of what is being taught in schools across the country and in diversity trainings is genuinely ridiculous, but in a sane universe, a stupid thing one mid-level school official in San Francisco or a rando diversity trainer at Yale said would not be given more billing than, say, government-funded and state-mandated abstinence-only education was. But there is a well-oiled conservative propaganda machine that is incredibly skilled at finding a tiny number of genuinely egregious left-wing over-steps and then exaggerating them and making them into national stories onto which a whole universe of lies can be heaped.

That’s what happened in Virginia, and progressives have not figured out how to effectively counter it. I don’t know the answer either. Sure, it would be great if random progressive individuals who are not elected officials wouldn’t sometimes say or do stupid things that stoke right-wing outrage, but that’s an impossible demand. It would be great if simply fact-checking conservatives and countering their lies with the truth actually convinced voters or — even better — created any real cost at all to lying conservatives and shamed them into changing their ways, but that doesn’t work, either.

What’s clear is that racism is a winning strategy for the right.

Exit polls are notoriously flawed, so take this with a big grain of salt, but from what they are showing us, it was only white voters who moved in significant numbers away from how they voted in the 2020 presidential race to how they voted in this 2021 race for governor. Black voters voted more or less the same from 2020 to 2021. Latino and Asian voters were more likely to vote Democratic this year than they were last year. White voters, though, moved right — and while you’re going to be hearing a lot of hot takes about how white women were the primary culprits here, the truth is that, at least according to the polling we have so far, white women and white men moved right in identical proportions (both groups voted Republican in 2020, with white men more likely than white women to vote Republican; according to the Washington Post exit polls, both groups were 8 points more likely to vote Republican in 2021 than they had been in 2020). Among white women, there is a huge educational gap, with college-educated white women voting for McAuliffe in large numbers, and being more likely to vote for McAuliffe than they were for Biden, and white women without college degrees being much, much more likely to vote for Youngkin than they were to vote for Trump. A larger proportion of white men, too, voted for Youngkin than voted for Trump, and the jump was larger (and from a higher baseline) among white men without college degrees than it was for college-educated white men.

If this wasn’t about race at all, I would think we would see similar shifts across demographic groups. But we don’t. We only see white people moving right. And if this wasn’t about education at all, we wouldn’t see education listed as a top issue for voters. But we do — and it was disproportionately a top issue for conservative voters. The only issue more Virginia voters said was more important to them was jobs / the economy.

A lot of people who want Democrats to win take the wrong message from this. I mean, this is why Terry McAuliffe was the candidate in Virginia, and why he beat out a younger, more dynamic, progressive Black woman: the McAuliffe argument was that he was simply more electable in a purple state. Maybe Jennifer Carroll Foy would have lost by even larger margins, or maybe her presence would have made the racist dynamics of this race more apparent, and maybe that would have fueled Democratic turnout and turned some more moderate voters off of Youngkin. I truly don’t know! What we do know is that the safe-bet moderate white man just lost in an election that was at least partly about white racial backlash, so I’m not sure the lesson should be “we should run more safe-bet moderate white men.”

And yet that’s already the building narrative. And listen, there are some conservative but moving more moderate places in the US where it absolutely makes sense to run safe-bet moderate white men. The problem comes in blaming racial justice movements for this backlash, and in extrapolating out a simplistic (and here, failed) solution to the whole of the country.

Our Post-Truth Nation

The reality is that every elected and running-for-office Democrat in the country could publicly reject Critical Race Theory and come out in opposition to the defund the police movement and wear an All Lives Matter t-shirt on the campaign trail and it wouldn’t matter if the right-wing media machine says that Democrats are shaming preschoolers for being white, inviting men in skirts into the girls’ locker room, and shutting down police forces. This is the huge, intractable problem that Democrats face: We have no effective counter to a conservative propaganda apparatus. Reputable and mainstream media outlets aren’t trusted on the right, and they’re also routinely caught flat-footed here — right-wing propagandists turn lies and exaggerations into salient political issues which mainstream publications then have to cover (if you were covering the Virginia race, it’s not an option to just ignore the Critical Race Theory brouhaha). This has been made worse with social media. It is only trending in the wrong direction. And as far as I can tell, no one out there has a great idea for how to solve it.

So what’s the lesson? The answer is that there isn’t just one. A bunch of different factors, most of them predictable and at least some of them really difficult to counter, conspired to tank or seriously ding Democrats.

Some of these factors, though, are manageable ones, if Democrats want to manage them. The two Democratic pathological narcissists in the Senate can get their acts together and actually get things done for the American people. Democrats can address economic hardship head-on. Democratic politicians can stand for something instead of constantly reacting to right-wing attacks (this is admittedly more challenging to do when Democrats currently hold all of the power in Washington and are still not doing what they claimed they stood for).

The media outlets that don’t just report on politics but shape American culture and political belief can be more honest about their role and the power they hold, and can continue to publish what is true about America (that racism and sexism exist, for example) even if it’s at times inconvenient for conservative Democrats’ electoral strategy. Democratic politicians, for their part, can realize that they have a separate role from that of progressive writers, activists, and analysts, and they can listen hard to what their constituents are saying and speak in language those constituents can understand, even if it doesn’t play well on Twitter. The moderate power-brokers of the Democratic machine can recognize that their impulse to shift rightward and to reject the progressive and activist part of the Democratic base is very far from a proven-effective strategy, and that if they’re as smart as they think they are, they need to honestly assess the complex ecosystem of Democratic voters, media-makers, activists, and representatives — and understand how different ecosystems thrive in different parts of the country.

If there was a single perfect, tried-and-true way to win, Democrats would be doing it. But there are some clear ways to lose, and chief among them is to adopt a single-issue theory of why a candidate lost, and then react to that going forward.

It’s far less satisfying and far less tweetable, but sometimes, things are complicated, and the work is to look at all the component parts, learn from them, and understand that you still don’t have all the answers.

xx Jill

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Photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash