By Ben Jealous
Election Day in Virginia was a major defeat for the Democratic Party. It could signal a much bigger disaster in 2022 if Democratic officials do not learn the right lessons and do not deliver on the promises they have made to voters.
Every election is complicated. There is no single explanation for Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory. But there are plenty of warning signs.
Going into the election, it was clear that there was an enthusiasm gap. In other words, Youngkin’s Republican supporters were more excited about voting than former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Democratic backers. One big reason was the feeling that Democrats pulled out all the stops last year to elect President Joe Biden and give Democrats majority control in Congress—but that hasn’t led to passage of a jobs and infrastructure bill or voting rights protections.
In fact, the day after the Virginia election, Republican senators used filibuster rules to block debate on a voting rights bill for the fourth time this year. At the same time, Republican state legislators are putting more voting restrictions in place and creating more corrupt partisan redistricting plans that will give them far more power than they have earned—often at the expense of Black voters.
That’s why religious and civil rights leaders have been getting arrested at the White House in growing numbers while demanding that President Biden do more to lead Senate Democrats in dismantling the Republican blockade on voting rights and democracy protection legislation.
But that hasn’t happened yet. That failure to get things done helps explain why Democratic voters in Virginia were less fired up about the election than Republicans.
There were other things at work. McAuliffe made a clumsy statement about parental involvement in education that Youngkin’s campaign and supporters exploited in dishonest ways. That was cynical, and some might say, typical, campaign politics. It probably helped Youngkin win more suburban and urban votes.
And that points to another warning sign. Youngkin was apparently able to drive a lot of independents and white women into his camp by embracing what is a national right-wing political strategy: to inflame fear and anger among parents over the supposed threat of “critical race theory.” Critical race theory is an academic field that examines the existence and impact of structural racism.
Right-wing groups and politicians have turned it into a political weapon by claiming that school boards and teachers are part of a Marxist plot to destroy America by making white kids feel guilty about American history and current inequality. Youngkin, who talked about “unity” on the campaign trail, ran with this divisive strategy, promising to ban “critical race theory” from Virginia’s schools “on day one.”
Youngkin’s success points to multiple dangers ahead.
For Virginians, his victory and Republicans’ takeover of the House of Delegates means that advances in voting rights, access to health care, and common-sense gun regulation that were made under Democratic leadership in recent years are threatened with reversal. Youngkin told activists that once he was elected he could go “on offense” against reproductive choice.
And for the rest of us, the outcome in Virginia means that Youngkin’s playbook will be used by more politicians to bring us far-right politics disguised with a cheery smile and rhetoric about protecting children—a strategy that has long been used to smear the LGBTQ community and is now being turned against honest teaching about the racism in our past and present.
If too many voters fall for that—or too many of us stay away out of frustration over the lack of progress—we will give more power to the same politicians who are devising new ways to keep Black people away from the ballot box and leave us underrepresented in the halls of power.
We can’t let the 2022 elections be dominated by bogus culture war issues drummed up by right-wing politicians. They must be about making economic opportunity, health care, and quality education available to all Americans, no matter their color or where they live. They must be about protecting our democracy and right to vote.
The Virginia campaign showed us that campaigning against the lingering threat of Donald Trump is not enough to win an election in which he’s not on the ballot. Failing to make the case that electing Democrats will make people’s lives better will leave the door open for next year’s campaigns to become about something else.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.