One of the quickest and least remarked-on heel-turns in contemporary American political history came about in late November 2020, when American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten issued "A blueprint to safely open schools."
Yes, this was the same Weingarten who four months earlier threatened "safety strikes," who in September 2020 backed the Chicago Teachers Union in keeping schools closed, and who, as late as February 2021, would still be backing nonsensical 24-hour school closures and sanitation-theater wipe-downs after a single positive COVID-19 test. So why the rhetorical change of heart, at least when speaking generally, in November 2020?
Because unions had lost their Trump card in the blue and purple states where their power is strongest, and where the public schools were the most closed in the Western world. No longer could teachers get away with being against school reopening just because former President Donald Trump and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were for it. ("Our teachers were ready to go back as long as it was safe," Weingarten said to ProPublica in September 2020. "Then Trump and DeVos played their political bullshit.") Nice liberal parents in shuttered, affluent districts like Montclair, New Jersey, were no longer terrified of being "painted as Trumpers."
There was an important financial calculus, too; unions were in the midst of leveraging one huge final payout from an administration and Democratic congressional majority they had just helped elect. But the immediate problem was political: Like the independents with whom they overlap, many frustrated parents were happy to see Trump go, but still had plenty of pent-up electoral anger over COVID-related school policies that they hadn't yet expressed in the voting booth.
"Glenn Youngkin's victory in Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election was about schools," asserted Northern Virginia native Zachary D. Carter in The Atlantic late last night. "It wasn't about Donald Trump, or inflation, or defunding the police, or Medicare for All, or President Joe Biden's infrastructure agenda. It wasn't really about critical race theory or transgender rights—though those issues shaded the situation a bit by highlighting anxieties surrounding the education system. Fundamentally, the contest was about schools—specifically, how many parents remain frustrated by the way public schools have handled the coronavirus pandemic."
While it's true that monocausal electoral analysis is almost always overly simplified, tempting though it may be for those of us pissed-off blue-state parents who've been warning for years about the potential electoral potency of the pissed-off-blue-state-parent vote, the school policy factor in the Virginia race did leave noticeable footprints.
The Washington Post-Schar poll covering Oct. 20-26 found that education had gone from being a third-place issue for Virginia voters the previous month, at 15 percent, to narrowly the number-one issue at 24 percent. (It should be noted that there is considerable topical bleed between "education" and the two other top-tier issues: "the economy," and "the coronavirus.") Certainly, parental input on school policy was the issue Youngkin rode the final five-plus weeks of the election, as he came from behind and caught Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia's public schools were the seventh-most closed in the country from 2020-21. The teachers union in the shuttered Fairfax School District in October 2020—a point at which most private schools in the country, most public schools in red-state America, and most schools of all kinds in the rest of the world were all safely open—tried to guarantee closure until the then-non-existent vaccine was widely available. The attitude on display about these issues from union chiefs, Democratic politicians, public health officials, and sympathetic journalists was—and often still is—condescending, smug, imperious. In these enlightened polities, don'tcha know, we follow the science. (Except when they don't, which is damnably often.)
It's not hard to see why Terry McAuliffe was so desperate to pin Trump on Glenn Youngkin. Not only was there a legitimate critique about Youngkin's Trump-voter-courting Election Integrity Task Force proposal, but running against the former president worked like a charm for California Gov. Gavin Newsom in his recall election. Voters in deeper blue states are more likely to be on the alert for anything smacking of the Orange Man, and also more likely to approve of the kind of heavy-handed COVID restrictions Democratic governors prefer.
Given the pattern-following pendulum swing against the party that re-takes the White House, and the ongoing weirdness of the economy, it's possible we have seen the pinnacle of the Pissed-off-Parent factor in mainstream politics (though local school board politics is another category entirely). But there's another way of looking at post-2021 election politics that has possible implications far beyond education policy, and smack dab into President Joe Biden's entire domestic agenda.
Independents, after being one of the most decisive blocs in delivering the presidency to Biden, have abandoned him in droves, and sprinted straight into the arms of Glenn Youngkin (and many of the other Republicans who turned heads last night). While there will be much MSNBC sputtering about how these are just racist white women or whatnot, and perhaps more sophisticated skepticism about self-described independents having no coherent ideological identity, I would argue that both are looking at the question wrong.
There is a swing of voters in the country who may not believe the same thing consistently, yet nonetheless consistently act as a brake on the system of government when it seems to be going off the rails. Having weak loyalty, they are less apt to be trapped in the dead end of supporting some ancient party hack like Terry McAuliffe, or even new blood like Donald Trump once he starts acting too weird. When pols of any stripe confuse their own narrow margins of victory as mandates for sweeping, head-snapping change, this amorphous blob stands at the ready to put them back in their place.
Trump being back in his place turns out to be a pretty good thing for Republicans, so no doubt they will work to screw that advantage up by inviting the old trickster back (or launch an equally off-putting multi-front culture war to punish the libs, rather than seizing the Virginia moment to push for increasingly popular educational choice). Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to out-convince one another that the real lesson from last night is to pass Biden's Build Back Better, faster.
In a long populist moment, it's too much to expect politicians and their enablers to choose humility over the usual rhetorical violence. But for one day at least, it's nice to see humility imposed on the Imperious Class by voters weary of being sneered at.