A Completely Predictable Disaster: Virginia and the Need for Courage
The Democratic Party has a problem and it's the same problem that's plagued them for decades. But now, the stakes are too dire to continue on this same path.
Everyone felt pretty certain what Tuesday would bring. The pundit and political class were trading messages and texts fretting over prospects in Virginia. Glenn Youngkin had momentum, thanks to a potpourri of Trump-adjacent factors and weaponized conspiracy theories, but also because Terry McAuliffe’s campaign was, in the words of a Democratic strategist in my DMs, “the lowest energy, sad sack of shit campaign that I think I’ve ever seen this side of Jeb Bush.”
McAuliffe was a problematic candidate. More or less the walking, talking mascot of establishment party politics, his name on the ballot gestured backwards in a moment where the electorate is reaching desperately for a future that looks something, anything, please dear god please, different. By the time votes were being counted and McAuliffe came out to give a concession/not-concession speech, there was nothing for him to cite as the driving force of his campaign other than Getting Terry McAuliffe elected. No agenda. No push. No ideology. Just a man in a suit looking for an office.
Youngkin made the election about something. Never mind that that something was completely “Critical Race Theory,” a completely made-up, weaponized conspiracy theory that sets off fire and fury in white supremacy paranoid sectors of the Right’s brains. When his voters got in line at the polls, they were voting against something, for something, even that thing didn’t actually exist.
There is a ton of hand-wringing and blaming going around this morning, and much of it is, predictably, in bad faith. The Democratic Party is a shambling mess of a political body that stretches from the center-left all the way over to where the Lincoln Project and Right Wing stalwarts like Bill Kristol used to reside. The moderates and center-right/right are already blaming this loss on people of color, LGBTQ+ Americans, and other oppressed peoples, more or less telling them to stop agitating for better, safer lives so that nothing politicians like Terry McAuliffe can get elected. This always happens and, unfortunately, it sticks with a few of the right people.
The truth, however, is that in this current moment of crisis, with the Republican Party coalescing as an authoritarian, neo-fascistic, neo-Confederate movement, democracy in flux, and every pillar of our society struggling under the weight of vast inequality and gathering apocalyptic scenarios, it’s far past time to start reckoning with what really ails the Democrats and our political environment.
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First, we must establish something. The “Critical Race Theory Outrage” is not about Critical Race Theory. It is a weaponized conspiracy theory with the intent of concealing real history that details real, undeniable oppression by the white, wealthy, and powerful. As these issues are revealed and taught, all of them very real and identifiable, it troubles the GOP’s power and the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations, shedding light on how they have exploited people for centuries and offering, in turn, alternatives that might lead to better lives. Attacking “CRT” is about alarming white, terrified voters, and uses the exact same principles of “Cultural Marxism/Bolshevism,” a conspiracy theory wielded by fascists in the 20th century and the American Right after their fall.
In Virginia, we have glimpsed in part what happens when the Democratic Party simply turns away from the developing “issue” and pretends it isn’t happening. Democrats have a long and troubling history of ceding the rhetorical and ideological landscape to Republicans, allowing them to accuse them of being traitors and involved in satanic conspiracies, all while Democratic candidates continue to give the same warmed-over speeches about American Exceptionalism and allowing the market to determine our lives.
Not only is this a losing strategy, it’s irredeemably dangerous. Democrats are allowing Republicans to define the reality on the ground and their inability and unwillingness to either defend themselves or strike back against this paranoid, authoritarian framing is putting us all in incredible danger.
Partly, this reluctance is out of abject fear. The only thing worse for a standard Democrat than losing an election is being called an extremist or, shudder, a socialist. This terror has paralyzed the party for decades now, leaving candidates and elected officials completely incapable of expressing anything they actually believe or, even more disastrously, gun-shy of touting the things they have accomplished. By capitulating to the bullies across the aisle, all the while talking about “compromise” and “Republicans of conscience coming to their senses,” they have continually hurt their own chances of electoral success and surrendered the discourse.
The “CRT panic” is a perfect embodiment of this and could not be more well-designed to take advantage of the Democratic insecurities. To stand up for CRT and admit America has a foundation built on aristocratic white supremacy undermines the Democratic rhetoric of neoliberalism and the sanctity of the American Dream. It is, after all, a critical examination of the soaring rhetoric that promises “there’s nothing wrong with America that what’s right with America can’t fix.” It’s reality. Truth. And it runs completely counter to propaganda that we can all see through.
And, not to mention, the Right’s usage of “CRT outrage” runs a direct line to the racially paranoid mind of the suburban voter, which has been molded for generations to hold the line for its own interests while enjoying plausible deniability of racism or conservative views. They’re more than happy to say the right things as long as that doesn’t trouble the status quo that serves them so well. “CRT,” for the American suburbanite, really is an apocalyptic scenario that sets loose all of their insecurities and paranoias.
So. What can the Democratic Party do?
AMERICAN RULE: HOW A NATION CONQUERED THE WORLD BUT FAILED ITS PEOPLE is a troubling of the myth of American Exceptionalism and an honest, nuanced look at American history. Detailing the forces that shaped up and undermined representative government and progress, AMERICAN RULE is a guide to how we’ve reached this current, problematic moment rife with authoritarianism and anti-democratic movements, and how we might escape.
There are reasons why so many Americans don’t like the Democratic Party. Among those reasons is the fact that Democrats have a really hard time defining who they are and what they want. The previously mentioned fear is part of it, but it also involves a decades’-long push to tune the party to the wishes of an imaginary voting class, a project relentlessly pursued by a class of political strategists with their own problematic agenda.
As addressed previously here, the takeover of the Democratic Party in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s by the forces of neoliberalism unleashed by Ronald Reagan and the myriad of think tanks and donors pulling his strings has had disastrous consequences. Based on an avalanche of data from the 1980 and 1984 elections, Democrats were convinced by the Democratic Leadership Council and an array of strategists that the only means of political survival would be embracing Reaganism but doing it with “kindness” and “compassion.” Soon, the party jumped in with both feet, moving away from its base of labor, people of color, and the working poor, and allying itself with corporations and the professional managerial class.
Since then, strategists and the wealthy have determined much of the party’s strategies, ensuring that reform is almost always off the table should it actually trouble the state of play. To this end, Democrats have engaged in trench warfare with the GOP, both sides claiming nearly half of the electorate based on demographics and warring over the heralded “independent voter” who might swing either way in a given election. As always, the DLC has prized white voters, primarily those who are, according to internal research, espoused liberals but a little uncomfortable with discussions about race and inequality.
What emerged was a party obsessed with polls and focus groups and strategists who move from one losing campaign to another with all the gusto of champion musical chairs contestants. They run up massive fundraising hauls using targeted emails that play off a frightened voter base and then spend their time and energy engineering the type of policy that is “safe” and “non-threatening.” This leads to means testing, rebate programs that give a person migraines, schemes that move numbers around without ever actually doing anything.
Jesse Jackson, who was targeted by the DLC and seen as dangerous for wielding a voting coalition of people of color and the poor, likened the Democratic Party’s ramshackle, please-everyone agenda to “warm spit.” And today, sifting through the results in Virginia, it’s hard to deny there’s more than enough warm spit to go around.
We all know what looms in 2022 and 2024. If the Democratic Party is incapable of getting it together, of passing the stripped-down agenda that has been dissected and destroyed by Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, who represent the same monied interests that have controlled and destroyed the party for years now, of actually calling the Republican Party the existential, fascistic threat that is, and cannot muster the energy or nerve or fortitude to offer something bold and big and life changing, then Tuesday’s results will simply be a small precursor. If Republicans are allowed to control the linguistic and rhetorical landscape, particularly using “CRT” and the number of white supremacist/fascist conspiracy theories at their disposal, not only will the Democrats lose, but a GOP fueled by some of the most dangerous elements in the modern world will takeover.
If ever there was a time to get it together, it’s now. But for the Democratic Party, long afraid of its own shadow, it’s going to take an awakening of courage and principle long, long, long absent.