The Red-Pilling of Loudoun County, Virginia
Notes on a "realigning" election
The drama that played out in upscale Loudoun County, Virginia over the last year or so, and cost Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe the governorship last night, is a book waiting to be written. In fact, if companies like HBO or Netflix have any sense, it will soon be a movie as well, because almost every hot-button issue in American national politics was rolled up somewhere in this sprawling, preposterous, rage-filled suburban drama.
I have a longer piece on this coming, and have to return to the area at least once to follow up, so I can’t get into it in depth yet. But as I scan the news from an Amtrak seat, on the way back north after watching last night’s shocking come-from-ahead loss by McAuliffe, a few things are already clear.
McAuliffe’s collapse, and the corresponding underdog win by private equity titan Glenn Youngkin, is already being caricatured nationally using the language of 1980s politics. We’re meant to understand that the Loudoun County story — which is too complex to summarize easily but involves furious disputes between local parents and the school board over a variety of issues, including a pair of sexual assaults — was cooked up by Republicans as a cynical dog-whistle campaign.
“The GOP ran a master class on race-based identity politics,” wrote CNN’s Bakari Sellers. “The return of the Lee Atwater playbook. Pretty grim,” is how former Harry Reid chief of staff Adam Jentleson put it. “Hats off to the depraved cynicism and villainy and race baiting. It worked in Virginia,” seethed Wajahat Ali of The Daily Beast. Van Jones last night called Youngkin the “Delta variant of Trumpism.”
Just as McAuliffe had no message apart from trying to tie Youngkin to Trump, these commentators seem helpless to do anything but fall back on a cookie-cutter formula for responding to Republican electoral victories in the Trump era. This drive-by commentary misses the weedsy, multi-layered nature of the Loudoun County mess. Some of the parents I interviewed last night, for instance, didn’t agree with Tanner Cross, the Christian gym teacher who spoke out at a school board meeting this past May, saying his religion would prevent him from complying with a proposed transgender policy requiring the use of preferred pronouns. “I’m a teacher, but I serve God first,” he said. However, some were still furious that Cross was suspended after his speech, essentially for violating a rule not yet put in place.
I met people who didn’t care about “Critical Race Theory,” if they even knew what it was, but were still offended by the existence of a closed Facebook group — the “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County” — that contains six school board members and apparently compiled a list of parents deemed insufficiently supportive of “racial equity efforts.” Still others were troubled by a controversy involving the process by which an outside consultancy called the Equity Collaborative came to be hired, at a cost of roughly $500,000, to conduct an “equity assessment” based on a report of racial insensitivity at one school.
There is a version of that latter story that is almost too comical to be believed — one reason I have to go back is to nail down those particulars — but it’s undeniable there are Loudoun County parents, many of whom are high-powered professionals working at banks or white shoe law firms, who initially smelled a rat on the finance side and only later worried about the politics.
Also complicating the “Lee Atwater” narrative is the role of Asian and South Asian parents in yesterday’s results. “A lot of immigrant families came here specifically for the school system,” is how one Indian-American parent put it to me yesterday. “When you start messing with that, and say, we don't have a say, that’s when people who’ve always voted Democratic will flip on them.” Reporting about Asian and South Asian families upset about new initiatives to deemphasize admissions criteria like test scores has often been dismissive or caricatured, and that certainly seems to have been the case in Loudoun County, where a significant portion of the people seriously being cast today as dupes answering a dogwhistle are immigrant, minority residents who’ve given Democrats their votes for decades.
One of the biggest stories in electoral politics in the Trump years has been the near-absolute conquest by the Democratic Party of places like Loudoun County, i.e. well-heeled districts with high percentages of college-educated voters. With Trump on the ballot, voting red became all but impossible for residents in these places, not just intellectually and politically, but socially. In certain suburbs, voting Republican while Trump still breathes air is an act that will put you “a notch below child molester” in the community, to use the Woody Allen phrase.
The significance of Youngkin’s win is that it signals Republican competitiveness in those districts again, something that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. These white-collar, highly educated voters, the kind of people who get their shots, don’t watch wrestling, and send their kids to Harvard and Princeton, are the Democratic Party’s base. It took something pretty weird and intense to drive them to defection, and don’t trust anyone who tries to explain it in a tweet. This one really is a long story, and a wild one at that.
More on this subject soon, TK.