Last week's victory by Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race offered a likely preview of the 2022 midterms, in which the Republican Party will use the bogeyman of "critical race theory" to mobilize white voters anxious about demographic change and overly eager to protect their children (or other people's) from the truths of American history. Former governor Terry McAuliffe was unable to muster anything close to an adequate defense against these racist moral-panic attacks.
The obligatory political postmortems and "explainers" that followed McAuliffe's defeat tell a tale of dueling agendas. Predictably, Democratic "moderates" are blaming "progressives" and "liberals" for being too "woke," which supposedly translates into "suburban voters" — largely a euphemism for easily frightened white people — flocking to Youngkin and the Republican Party.
Predictably, the more liberal and progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the media class have come to the opposite conclusion, arguing that McAuliffe's inability to address questions of race and justice in any substantive way — and specifically his inability to rebut the campaign of lies and propaganda around public education and racism — demobilized Black voters in particular, a sure path to defeat.
Moreover, as many progressives have observed, the American people and the Democratic base largely support the supposedly radical policies on health care, child care, the pandemic, the economy and many other issues the "centrists" are eager to avoid. To defeat the Republicans, progressives argue, Democrats must advocate forcefully for significant policy changes that will improve the day-to-day lives of most Americans.
Other observers have cautioned against an overreaction to McAuliffe's defeat. Despite the media frenzy, this was to be expected: The party controlling the White House has typically lost ground during the following off-year elections and the subsequent midterms, as the public seeks a type of political course correction and supporters of the opposition party are especially energized.
Of course the mainstream news media is highly engaged by the Virginia race and the upcoming midterms, largely because horserace journalism, "both-sides-ism" and instantly disposable "hot takes" are an easier kind of story for legacy media to churn out than the hard and necessary work of explaining America's democracy crisis and the rising tide of neofascism.
Beyond the superficial and immediate reactions, what do polling and other data about the Virginia gubernatorial election actually reveal about the Democratic Party and its prospects for the next electoral cycle and beyond?
Why was "critical race theory" such an effective weapon against McAuliffe and the Democrats? Does the defeat in Virginia (and a near-miss in New Jersey) point to deeper problems in how the party approaches campaigns and elections? Ultimately, what do Republicans understand about power and politics that the Democrats, so far, clearly do not?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with political scientist and election forecaster Rachel Bitecofer, who is co-founder and chief strategist of Strike PAC, which is committed to improving the Democratic Party's messaging and branding and building a "war machine for the left." Bitecofer's interviews, commentary and analysis have been featured by the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and other leading news sources.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
TV news pundits and other prominent members of the commentariat all have their grand opinions about what the Democrats did wrong and how they should respond. Writing postmortems about elections appears to be quite easy, given how quickly they appear. But figuring out a winning strategy actually seems pretty hard.
Here's the thing you have to understand. I don't care if it's print or online, TV, or a major publication, almost all of the electoral analysis is wrong.
What are the errors being made?
First, understand the following about the outcome in Virginia. A year before, basically on the night of the 2020 election, when it was clear that Joe Biden had won the presidency, the enthusiasm advantage for the Republicans was predictable. Republicans were going to be out of power, which meant they were going to get enthusiastic and engaged. Democrats were going to be in power, which meant that Democratic voters were going to tune out and participate less on the margins.
Where that vote was going to disappear was always predictable. The Democratic coalition ebbs and flows in terms of turnout. Some of those voters are going to be Democrats and others are independents who tend to vote for Democratic candidates. There are certain demographics where this ends to happen in terms of turnout, such as with younger voters and minorities.
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The Democrats know where they need to focus. You build an infrastructure around the weakest parts of that coalition, not from the top down but from the bottom up. Even with all of this knowledge ahead of time the Democrats are not running elections using that information, or redesigning how they run election campaigns to build on the realities of the electorate and the impact of polarization and hyper-partisanship.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are running a fine-tuned machine right now. Watching the Democrats and McAuliffe's team was basically like watching somebody perform algebra without having multiplication as a skillset. It's not just about saying, "Hey! Youngkin is like Trump." It's about making an association: Youngkin is like Trump. Trump is the Republican Party. The Republican Party is Trump. This matters to you. Why? Because it's going to impact you negatively.
What the Republicans did with "critical race theory" was to package it through the emotion about parental control over education. They used it basically as a proxy. It's not really about critical race theory. It's a stand in for a challenge in white privilege and whether white parents want their kids to feel guilty for being white. That's what "critical race theory" as packaged by the Republicans really means.
It doesn't matter if a random Republican voter can define what critical race theory is — he knows what it means. The Republicans knew what that man would know when they used that language. "Critical race theory" means that we are going to protect you from having to feel guilty about being white, and for your kids having to feel guilty for being white. For having your white hegemonic power challenged in this more diverse America.
Are the Democrats just bad at politics? And what are the Republicans so good at?
Democrats are bad at understanding voters in general, and not just their own.
Here is the proof. In Virginia and places like Wisconsin there are more left-leaning independents and Democrats in the voting population than Republicans. But it is the Republicans and not the Democrats who are winning. The proof that Democrats are inadequate, as compared to Republicans, in the game of winning elections and politics is that we have more people and lose, while they have fewer people and win.
Republicans understand how to scare their voters enough to make sure that they show up in every election. The Republican Party's machine is geared toward that. In terms of persuadable voters, what motivates them is to assault the political brand of the other party. You're persuading by disqualification.
Consider "critical race theory" again: It's about invoking this white backlash, resentment and grievance politics. That's really the undercurrent of the last decade of Republican politics. But it's also about telling that small number of voters you can convert over to your side not to vote for the Democrats because they are going to make your kids feel horrible.
That messaging is about you, personally. You, a mom of white children, your kids — the Democrats are going to hurt your kid. It's not about some sense of collective good or the good of other people. It's not about feeling bad about brown kids on the border that aren't even Americans. It's about what they personally will lose — and this is how most people think. People are self-interested.
The only people who aren't primarily self-interested are liberals. We care about other people. And we are 15% of the ideological composition of the country. If you are going to craft an effective political message for most other people, it has to be personalized. They have to see a personal stake in their participation or in their choice. The Republican Party designs everything around low-information voters who are going to be very susceptible to negative emotions and motivated by fear and a perceived threat to themselves.
How would you assess American democracy right now? What would the prognosis be if you were the doctor?
Critical. American democracy is about to be intubated.
The fundamentals of elections are now driven largely now by negative partisanship and tribalism. We're going to see a massive turnout enthusiasm advantage for Republicans now that they're out of power, and we're going to see prior independent votes swing away from Democrats because Democrats are the party in power. Again, this is predictable. This means that the 2022 midterm elections are predictable too.
Between redistricting and what I saw in Virginia, the Republicans may be wrong about winning 70 seats in the House, But we are really on the precipice of democratic collapse. We managed to get Joe Biden sworn in, but only after a coup attempt. We know for sure, after what happened in Virginia, that if the 2022 midterms were held today the Democrats would lose control of both chambers.
What is your response to professional politics watchers who counsel that we should not overreact to the Republicans winning in Virginia, because of historical precedent and what we know about midterm elections?
There is definitely an enthusiasm problem for the Democrats. That was shown by the low enthusiasm in the Democratic Party's optimal electorate, as shown in Virginia, Colorado and other optimal swing state electorates. Democrats lost just about everything in Virginia.
This situation is a dire emergency, a 10-alarm fire, because these elections are ultimately about whether we in America will live in a democracy post-November 2022 and the midterms if the Republicans win. The answer looks to be no, because when the Republicans seize power, they are going to use it to consolidate even more power. How do we know that? The Republicans have told the American people that is what they are going to do.
What do the Republicans understand about power that the Democrats, especially the so-called "centrists," as well as many liberals and progressives, do not?
Reality is almost completely constructed. If you can construct reality, then you can control information. None of these outcomes with the Republicans and democracy are accidental. This is all the product of a long-term plan. We are sitting on the other side of a mountain that they built and climbed, and now they are coming down the other side and enjoying the fruits of their journey. It's not like they stumbled up to this point, and they're still not stumbling.
The Republicans have an articulated strategic plan, and the Democrats still have none. The Democrats' problem with strategic planning is that they do not even really recognize that the Republicans are working from a plan that they are executing against them.
I think what Republicans understand about power is that the base condition of human psychology is highly suggestible.
Humans are naturally maximized to feel emotions, especially negative emotions such as fear and threat. If you want to maximize political power, then you manipulate those emotions.
The Nazis in Germany, and Mussolini's Fascist party in Italy also understood the importance of information control. What the Republicans have is a fully self-contained lock on information control now.
What about the argument that the Democrats could follow all your advice and still lose, because of the extent that Republicans have literally rigged the system to ensure that they win?
The fact of the matter is that there is no place in 2022 that the Democrats don't have the capability to still win in these elections — and that is even allowing for the Republican Party's constraints. We have the voting power. We have everything that we need, except a strategy to effectively deploy it effectively and motivate people to go to the polls. But that may not be true after this election cycle. The best way to guarantee that the system is rigged permanently is for the Democratic Party's voters to not vote in 2022.
Would the Democrats have had more success in Virginia and elsewhere if the Biden administration and the Department of Justice had actually moved swiftly to prosecute Trump, his inner circle and other high-profile members of his regime, along with others who participated in the coup plot? I believe those actions would have rallied the Democratic Party's voters.
It's devastating for the rule of law. We are talking about an articulated, fully fleshed-out, multi-month attempt to ensure that Donald Trump maintained power regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.
There are millions of people who are sitting there thinking, "Well, there's no rule of law. I voted for the Democrats to uphold the rule of law and they don't even have the courage to do anything."
There is a political benefit to indicting and prosecuting these criminals and having it be on the nightly news every night. That is much preferable to a fight about an infrastructure bill.
The Democrats should want that in the news. They should want voters reminded: "Hey, these people are a total chaos party." The Democrats should want to make sure the electorate is scared to death of Republicans taking control again.
What would you say to the average American about what will happen to the country if Republicans win the 2022 midterms?
The first thing that the Republicans will probably do is put Donald Trump in as speaker of the House, because the speaker does not have to be a sitting member of the House of Representatives. That's always been the rule and it has never been exercised. I've always thought that Trump will ask for and receive the speaker's gavel over Kevin McCarthy, because it's one of the few access points for him to be back in the public spotlight. Trump being speaker of the House is a launch pad for the 2024 nomination and the presidency.