A week before today's election, his gubernatorial fortunes free-falling in the polls, former governor and longtime Clinton-world heavyweight Terry McAuliffe made the odd intimation that racism is an effective statewide electoral strategy in Virginia.
"In the final week of this race, Glenn Youngkin has doubled down on the same divisive culture wars that have fueled his campaign from the very beginning," McAuliffe said in a statement, after his Republican opponent had run an advertisement in which a mother complained about McAuliffe's nonresponsiveness to her objecting to the explicit sexual material of an unnamed novel (Toni Morrison's Beloved) that had been assigned to her high school senior son. "Youngkin's closing message of book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party—mainly his top endorser and surrogate, Donald Trump."
Like a magic eight-ball, there are many different ways to look at McAuliffe's statement, most of them surrealist at best. Trump is a "surrogate," even though Youngkin doesn't want to be anywhere near him? Ginning up extreme, racist, Trumpy support is a plausible strategy in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points, Hillary Clinton won by five, and Barack Obama took twice? Allowing individual parents to opt out of certain assigned books is the same as banning them and silencing their authors?
Yet there is indeed something "fueling" the rise of the relatively unknown, younger–Mitt Romneyesque Youngkin. Democrats in Democratic-run jurisdictions tend to call this factor "divisive culture war," but the more accurate term may be "people passionately (if sloppily) criticizing Democratic governance of schools." Education policy, that largest and most local of government issues, has shot to the top of voter concerns in Virginia, and the people most keyed up about it are the most likely to prefer Youngkin.
It's the kind of political phenomenon in a purple state like Virginia that should be cause for examination and perhaps even self-reflection among Democrats, educators, and left-leaning journalists. Virginia, after all, had the seventh most closed K-12 system during the coronavirus-marred 2020–21 school year, clustered on the restrictive end of the spectrum with blue states like California, Oregon, and Maryland, while the open-school states were predominantly Republican.
Instead, far too many have followed McAuliffe's lead in pinning Youngkin's unprojected rise on a latent right-wing racism that had been so unsuccessful this century until now. School closures, distance learning, masking policies, quarantine guidelines, learning loss, the shuttering of Gifted and Talented programs—all get frequently collapsed into the reductionist notion that opposition to "critical race theory" overrides all, and that there's some kind of sleeper-cell potency in agitating against Toni Morrison.
"The operative word is not critical, it's not theory, it's race," argued political science professor and go-to conventional wisdom–purveyor Larry Sabato Monday on MSNBC. "That is what matters, and that's why it sticks. There's a lot of—we can call it 'white backlash,' 'white resistance'; whatever you want to call it, it has to do with race….This is a post-factual era. It doesn't matter that it isn't taught in Virginia schools. It's this generalized attitude that whites are being put upon, and we've got to do something about it. 'We,' being white voters."
Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman maintained that what Youngkin did wasn't even a racist dog whistle, because "There are no more dog whistles in American politics." Instead, it's about "base mobilization" rather than "persuading voters in the middle." This, again, in a state that hasn't voted GOP for president in 17 years.
If I can, in a spirit of charity, encourage Democrats to tattoo one headline onto their forearms, as they attempt to recalibrate their political strategy in the wake of either Youngkin's victory or McAuliffe's near miss, it would be this, from Fox News's Juan Williams, writing Monday in The Hill: "'Parents' rights' is code for white race politics." If you tell parents that attempting to exert influence on their kids' school policies is just some kind of "Let's Go Brandon" wink-nudge for hating on the dark-skinned, those parents will rightly tell you to go fuck yourself. Such choices do not successful political strategies make.
Calling people racist can work in the short term—to shut critics up, guilt people into accepting policy changes they don't agree with, even drive out the demographically/ideologically undesirable. But for those who find themselves unfairly on the receiving end of, or even adjacent to, our political culture's remarkably breezy standards for deploying the scarlet R, the results can be radicalizing. The potency of shame wanes with its overuse, and people no longer afraid of speaking are going to say many things you do not want to hear.
Those things include batshit conspiratorial anti-Semitic rants, to be sure, and also the type of atavistic class/race anxieties that have all too often warped education policy in a way that has benefited majority populations at the expense of minorities. This is a weird and ideologically diverse country, with some still un-dismantled legacies of segregationist policies, at a time of pandemic stress, negative polarization, and low public trust. The open-mic segments of public meetings weren't exactly an intellectual or artistic triumph before any of that.
But here are the power relations that I suspect (in my far-off bubble) have more to do with Youngkin support than even the I-Hate-Toni-Morrison Club: Monday night, at one of his last preelection rallies, McAuliffe featured as a speaker American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, one of the single most villainous figures in American public life these past 19 months.
When history books are written about why U.S. K-12 schools were more closed than those of any other rich country, Weingarten will be on the cover. When two historians took to the Washington Post op-ed page to provide support for McAuliffe's infamous debate gaffe ("I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids") with a headline nearly as cringeworthy ("Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids' school curriculum. They don't"), it was Weingarten out there calling it a "Great piece."
This is the type of workaday condescension and pandemic-era power flex that has a subset of parents—especially in the blue states where teachers unions hold sway—apoplectic. In my neck of the woods, it isn't even always the contents of the "equity"-based education policies themselves that get the arteries constricted; it's the monomaniacal focus on those even in the face of much more immediate challenges related to COVID-19.
The straight-man refrain of a recent Saturday Night Live sketch satirizing lunatic school board meetings was that the officials in question just wanted to keep things focused on COVID-related policy, while the vox pop rabble ranted about various non-sequiturs (most hilariously, vaping and "anal"). But the reality over most of these past 19 months has been something closer to the inverse: Three San Francisco Unified School District board members face recall election not because they simply want to teach American racial history, warts and all, but because the district wanted to change the allegedly problematic names of 44 schools while students were still barred from the schoolhouse doors.
Public schools are one of the last allegedly neutral playing fields in American civic life, at a time when partisans do not care much for neutrality. It is inevitable that their governance will be hotly contested, with hyperbolic overreach on all sides. But if McAuliffe loses Tuesday, and Democrats retreat to a blame-racists storyline, this very institution that they overwhelmingly influence in 2021 will teeter that much closer toward collapse. There's a lesson to be learned there.