Wake Up, Democrats

Youngkin’s victory in Virginia shows that Democrats will pay a heavy price for their toxic posturing on cultural issues.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at an election night rally on November 02, 2021 in McLean, Virginia. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Republican Glenn Youngkin has defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the election for the governorship of Virginia. No doubt Democrats nationwide are waking up asking what went wrong in a state that should have been safe territory for them. Until this year, no Republican had won a statewide election in Virginia for 12 years. In last year’s hard-fought presidential election, Joe Biden won the state by 10 percentage points. McAuliffe’s defeat is a sign that something is going very wrong for the Democratic Party.

It’s true that off-year elections are usually bad for the party that holds the White House. And with politics increasingly nationalized, and Biden’s popularity in the tank, a good deal of McAuliffe’s poor performance can be attributed to external forces. But on their own, these factors don’t explain how Youngkin flipped a state as blue as Virginia. Rather, as social and cultural issues took a front seat in this election, McAuliffe embraced an unpopular progressive posture that made him toxic to voters.

The midterms are still a year away, and one election in Virginia is not a perfect indicator of the national mood. But Democrats should take yesterday’s results as a wake-up call and contend with the fact that, in the eyes of the voters they need to keep control of Congress in 2022 and defeat Donald Trump (or another candidate) in 2024, they have become the party of identity politics—a brand that is energizing Republicans and pushing away moderates.

In Virginia, nothing illustrates McAuliffe’s mistakes on cultural issues better than education. What to teach in public schools and how to teach it had already become political battlefields earlier this year with the nationwide fights over critical race theory and how to respond to Covid. Virginia itself was at the center of quite a few battles over public schooling that involved the most contentious of issues, including mask mandates, a sexual assault case, school curricula and critical race theory, and admission standards

So by the time Youngkin raised the issue of parents objecting to sexually explicit books in public school libraries during a September debate, education was already poised to become a central theme. But it skyrocketed in importance after McAuliffe responded with the biggest blunder of the campaign, saying that “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Education is typically a Democratic strength. According to polls, the same was true in Virginia as recently as August: at the time, 36% of voters trusted McAuliffe more on education and schools than Youngkin; 31% trusted Youngkin more. But by mid-October, Youngkin had come to lead McAuliffe on that same question by 39% to 38%. The shift was even starker among voters who ranked education as their number one priority. They favored McAuliffe by a staggering 33 points in September; by late October, they leaned towards Youngkin by 9 points.

The controversy over education was about more than a single debate slip-up. It spoke to the larger frustration that parents have felt in recent months. After nearly a year of on-and-off school closures, continued frustration over how topics of race and sex are taught, and a devastating drop in academic achievement, parents were already under the impression that social justice and identity politics had taken priority over the needs of their children. And so parents were understandably irritated when they heard McAuliffe effectively telling them to butt out of what happens in public schools. Democrats had convinced themselves that parent anger was a mirage created by Fox News, and they were unprepared when McAuliffe’s careless debate comment acted as a spark for which there was plenty of gasoline.

Though education was particularly salient, other social and cultural issues also came into play. Youngkin put out several ads hitting McAuliffe as weak on crime and (unfairly) tying him to the unpopular call to “defund the police.” At a time when homicides in Virginia are at a two-decade high, the attacks seem to have worked: one poll from last week asked Virginians which candidate they trusted more on various issues, and crime was Youngkin’s strongest, leading McAuliffe by 12 points.

McAuliffe’s outright embrace of identity politics was most apparent on his campaign website’s issues page. Progressive buzzwords relating to “equity” (as opposed to equality) were embedded throughout the many policy plans, and racial and gender identity were worked into a great number of his policy proposals. Even in something as seemingly identity-neutral as his plan to “Rebuild our Thriving Network of Small Businesses,” the very first bullet point was “Lift up Black and Brown-owned businesses.” This stands in stark contrast to the way McAuliffe presented himself to voters back in 2013, when he first won the governorship by focusing on a “jobs first” agenda.

All this made it easy for Youngkin to paint McAuliffe as out of touch in the final months of the campaign. One pollster asked voters if the candidates were “in line or out of step with most Virginians” in August and again in October. Between the two months, McAuliffe’s net approval on this question dropped from +8% to -2%; meanwhile, Youngkin’s jumped from -1% to +4%.

The blame for what happened in Virginia does not fall at McAuliffe’s feet alone. Youngkin was only successful in painting him as out-of-touch and overly obsessed with identity politics because that’s how voters already see the Democratic Party. And yet, Democrats seem likely to brush this off as a made-up problem. In a pre-election rally for McAuliffe, Barack Obama told supporters, “We don't have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings.” 

What Obama misses is that it’s not only Republicans who are ginning up phony culture wars. Democrats risk doing the same thing under the guise of social justice and identity politics. Of course, Democrats shouldn’t stop fighting for justice or cultural progress, but the way they are fighting those battles now is both politically unpopular and substantively counterproductive.

If Democrats want to win elections and actually make progress on issues of social justice, they will need to stop distracting themselves with a superficial culture war and focus more squarely on improving the lives of everyday Americans.

Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.