COMMENTARY

Can the real lessons of Virginia rescue the Democrats in 2022? It's definitely worth trying

As usual, Democrats are at risk of pointless panic — instead of standing up for what most Americans believe

By Paul Rosenberg

Published November 21, 2021 12:51PM (EST)

Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The day after Terry McAuliffe's defeat in the Virginia governor's race, the lead segments on two MSNBC shows should have put Democratic panic to rest. If MSNBC really were "the Fox News of the left," maybe that would have happened. But there is no such symmetry in American politics, and the lack of message discipline and infrastructure among the left-liberal coalition is always a factor.

There's certainly good reason for Democrats to be concerned: Midterm losses are historically almost guaranteed, even without aggressive partisan gerrymandering. But Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell's initial segments should have gotten Democrats out of circular-firing-squad mode and refocused them on "OK, here's what we need to do now." 

President Biden himself downplayed the momentarily popular idea that simply passing his infrastructure bill would have saved McAuliffe — the disconnect between his broadly popular agenda and support for Democrats was visible at least a month beforehand. The question isn't what to do about Biden's agenda, but what to do about the disconnect. There are answers.

Maddow started off by pointing out that losing the Virginia governor's race a year after electing a new president was predictable: It nearly always happens. In fact, the party in power usually loses the New Jersey governorship as well, so Democrat Phil Murphy's narrow re-election in the Garden State was actually promising news. 

RELATED: Are Democrats the "real racists"? Well, they used to be: Here's the history

O'Donnell followed up with communication guru Anat Shenker-Osorio, host of the "Words to Win By" podcast, who deftly explained how major flubs by both McAuliffe and Murphy in New Jersey could easily have been avoided, simply by articulating common-sense shared values. McAuliffe was facing bad-faith attacks on "critical race theory," and Shenker-Osorio said there was a clear response:

What you say is simply, most of us, no matter where we come from, what our zip code, and what our color, want our kids to be told the honest truth of our history, to reckon with the mistakes of our past, to understand the present to build a better future. But today a handful of politicians and my opponent here, Youngkin, they want to divide us. They want to spin lies about what our teachers are teaching, while they endanger our kids by refusing masks and spreading stories about vaccines.

They hope we'll look the other way while they vote to defund the schools that every single one of our kids need. By standing together and demanding that our kids deserve the truth of our history so that they can acknowledge where we've been and all they can become, we can make this a place where every single kid has the freedom to learn.

As Shenker-Osorio told Salon in an interview, McAuliffe "needed to first and foremost call people up to their 'better angels,' and not speak not so much to what he believed, but what Americans believe, what parents believe." 

That wouldn't solve all the Democrats' problems, and it certainly is no remedy for GOP gerrymandering. But it does show that a crucial and supposedly difficult problem has a solution that isn't just theoretical.

"We've tested language like that a few times now and it's not really that controversial," Shenker-Osorio said. "That is in fact what huge portions of parents want." (One recent poll found that 84% favored teaching "American history that includes both our best achievements and our worst mistakes.") It's also important to "parry the dog whistle," she added. "You talk about what the other side is doing, but you ascribe motivation. You explain why they're doing it." She continued:

Democrats should be prepared for this. None of this is shocking, none of this is new. It's been going on over and over again and Democrats need to establish themselves on firm footing that what the majority of people actually want is an equitable cross-racial democracy. And then say that the other side is engaging in this strategy to distract from their failures, so they can get us to look the other way while they continue to endanger our children's lives by lying about vaccines and opposing masks. 

And really, that's the connection to make, between "Hey, look — this is what they're doing," and "This is the reason why." They've never given a damn about public education and they've done everything under their power to weaken it and harm our kids in every possible dimension, right down to their actual physical health. So because they cannot run on their record, and they cannot run on having actually helped improve our schools and helped our families, they need to sow this distraction. That's the way to deal with this.

This approach draws on Shenker-Osorio's work on "race-class narratives," developed in partnership with Ian Haney López, which I've written about previously. It's a way of responding to dog-whistle politics, the subject of López's book by the same name. "Dog-whistling at its core is about undermining the notion of the collective, i.e., the principle of government," Shenker Osorio said.

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

Democrats have struggled with this for decades, López added, realizing it was a problem as early as the 1970s, but failing to come up with a viable solution. "They even, to their discredit, emulated dog whistling as a tactic to get elected," he said. "I have in mind here Bill Clinton." 

So perhaps it's no surprise that Clinton's infamous campaign guru, James Carville, echoed old-school dog-whistle attacks on the left in a post-Virginia discussion on "PBS NewsHour":

This defund the police lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln's name off of schools, that — people see that.  And it's just — really have a suppressive effect all across the country to Democrats. Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something. They're expressing language that people just don't use. And there's a backlash and a frustration at that.

Backward thinking, backward analysis

As usual, Carville has everything exactly backwards. No Democrats anywhere were running on the caricature of "wokeness" he unhelpfully echoed. In fact, the voters who didn't show were exactly younger people and people of color, who feel  neglected if not outright attacked by the "mainstream" politics Carville represents and its failure to address their needs and desires, from police reform to gun safety, student debt relief, climate action and so on. Young voters declined as a percentage of the electorate in Virginia, and would likely decline even more if Democrats listened to Carville's advice.

In short, wokeness isn't the problem. James Carville and the backward-looking political establishment is, with its tired, misguided takes that accept the right-wing framing of the issue landscape, rather than challenging it and proactively advancing both broadly popular issues and a holistic social and political vision, as the race-class narrative does. But you don't even have to embrace a "progressive" viewpoint, as the race-class narrative clearly does, to advocate a broad and proactive approach. which comes from a progressive perspective.

Political analyst Rachel Bitecofer, founder of STRIKE PAC, a self-described centrist close to the former Republicans of the Lincoln Project, suggests that the 2022 midterm campaign "should be devised, as a centralized strategy, as a referendum on this question and this question only: Is it safe for you to give Republicans power?": 

And you can define that broadly — safe for you economically, safe for you physically, safe for you mentally, safe for democracy. Whatever it might be, but, like, micro-targeted. You have to convince this electorate —our side, the 50% that can caucus with us — that if they do not vote in '22 and vote for Democrats, their world is going to end. Because the message the other side is getting is exactly that.

That's clearly different from the race-class narrative, but both are proactive efforts to reframe the issues, and both offer Democrats choices on how to get out of their defensive crouch. Next year's elections will be "a referendum on us, if we let the GOP bait us into engaging on their issue spaces," Bitecofer warned.

"We may be right about race, and we may have all the merits on our side — of morals, ethics, facts — but if we take time to point that out, we have already lost the election," she said. "We have to go after them on issues they do not want to engage in, because the politics are bad for them, and ultimately we will bring racial equality through amassing political power."  

RELATED: Election guru Rachel Bitecofer: Democrats face "10-alarm fire" after Virginia debacle

There are other promising ideas that are not being embraced, especially those about identifying and tackling local problems that grassroots movements and organizers have been developing for years. More on that below — but first, let's understand what actually happened in Virginia. Gaby Goldstein's post-election analysis at the Sister District Project blog added another layer about the race's lack of obvious significance: Heading into three out of the last four midterms, Virginia had been an important bellwether, but in those elections the victory margins had been more than five points; the exception was McAuliffe's victory in 2013, when the margin was just 2.6 points. 

Goldstein's main focus is on legislative races, and she notes that "Democrats lost the majority [in the Virginia House of Delegates] by less than 800 collective votes," a razor-thin margin, much smaller than McAuliffe's margin of defeat. Two key factors she cites fall under the headings "Finding the Right Messages for the Right Voters" and "Support Year-Round Organizing."

She notes that Republicans in Virginia "used a very tight, disciplined set of messages…. After extensive early research, they chose three messages over the summer and stuck to them, across all targeted districts, for the entirety of the cycle," while McAuliffe "focused on tying Youngkin to Trump." Citing Shenker-Osorio, Goldstein observes that "we have to be FOR something desirable, not just against deplorable things." 

On that same topic, Shenker-Osorio shared her perception that "People didn't want something that was tied to the old," such as incessant attacks on Trump. "If I had to summarize the mood of voters, and of our coalition," she continued, "they're fatigued, they're exhausted, they're disengaged, they're feeling disempowered, disenchanted and lots of other 'dis' words. They're basically just sick and tired of being sick and tired."  

On the need for year-round organizing, Goldstein stressed "the often unheralded and unsexy work of connecting the dots between issues people care about and building political power." When that's done right, the next time "a campaign comes by to ask someone to vote, the voter already feels connected to civic life and understands that they have a role in building political power, so that it can be wielded in ways that benefit their lives." 

That kind of ground-level analysis differs markedly from Beltway conventional wisdom, but resonates strongly the view from many state parties, as expressed by Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb in her book "Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America," (Salon interviews here and here) and again in our recent exchanges. 

"Just like with young people, just like with Black and Latino voters, you have to have peer-to-peer messaging and constant organizing, year-round organizing," she told me. While a D.C.-centric view sees tensions between different elements of the Democratic coalition, organizers on the ground are more likely to see commonalities, which messaging experts and outsider analysts like Ian Haney López see as well. 

Dog-whistle politics, in perspective

Given how central dog-whistling has long been to Republicans, it warrants a deeper look, including the question how it worked in Virginia, which was quite different from how it worked for Donald Trump. In his 2019 book "Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America" (Salon interview here), López described the evolution of dog-whistling over time, up through Trump, who still uses coded language but with much hotter code-words like "shithole countries'"or "send them back," while stopping short of racial epithets, insisting, "I don't have a racist bone in my body" and accusing those who call him out of being the "real racists" by falsely accusing him and  his supporters of bigotry.

Since then, López told me, dog-whistling has evolved in two directions: propaganda content and delivery. On the delivery side, it's bifurcated. "Precisely because there's so much synergy between the Republican Party and right-wing media, Fox News but also Facebook and Instagram," he said, Republican Glenn Youngkin could present a "public face of moderation yet still directly communicate extreme vestiges of racial antagonism to the most amped-up Republican base."

For example, Youngkin could express support for "parental rights," without quite explaining that. "It's quite bland. It's hard to know what that means. It's certainly hard to object to," López said. "At the same time, he and his surrogates are on Fox News saying that critical race theory is teaching that white children are monsters."

On the content side, there's a bigger change. There are two traditional stories told through dog-whistling, López said: "Stories of welfare and scarcity on the one hand, like we're all in competition for the scarce resources, and they're being wasted on undeserving people" and on the other, "the story of physical threats from supposedly psychotic and violent people of color," conceived as thugs, gang-bangers, rapacious immigrants, drug dealers, and so on. Now there's a new story: "Those people agitating for racial justice are in fact motivated by racial revenge. So critical race theory, the 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter — they may say they care about racial justice, but in fact they hate white people and want racial revenge." 

This new dog-whistle "is much more racially explicit because it's talking about racial justice folks who are centering race," López said. "It's not drugs or welfare queens, who rhetorically are distant from race. This is a flat-out conversation about race. But what they're saying is, 'We on the right are the people genuinely committed to racial justice and to bringing people together by race, whereas the left divides us by race and is motivated by race hatred. They are the real racists.' 

"This is a classic reactionary strategy of accusing the other side of your your own rhetorical strategy," López continued. "So if the left wants to say, as we do, that the right is intentionally dividing us by race, the right immediately seizes on that and says the left is dividing us by race. It helps muddy the water, and in that muddy water, people tend to retreat to whatever identity they most identify with."  

All of this, López said, "ties into a cultural fear among white people that goes back to the era of slavery, which is that demands for the end of slavery, demands for the end of racial oppression, will not create equality between groups but rather will flip the hierarchy….  What they're really demanding is the right to do to whites what's been done to them, the right to force white men into labor or to kill them, the right to rape white women," which remains a powerful driver of racist fear to this day, although it's a vanishingly rare occurrence in reality, compared to the ugly history of sexual violence under slavery. 

Shenker-Osorio told me she sometimes observes, "with a significant amount of irony, that the way I know the race-class narrative works is that Republicans have started trying to adopt it. Because, of course, being untruthful is not a problem for them. They're perfectly comfortable talking about things that have nothing to do with their actual aim as long as they can gain power."

We can see this reflected on the world stage, where the Guardian reports that people in "particularly polarized countries" are "divided more deeply by identity than by issues," according to a YouGov-Cambridge Globalism survey of more than 27,000 people in 27 countries. People on the right overwhelmingly reject the "feminist" label, for example, but don't have especially negative attitudes toward a woman being a politician in most countries. Drawing on specific evidence from the U.S. and U.K., the Guardian reported that clear majorities of Biden supporters and British Labour Party supporters viewed Black Lives Matter favorably, while only 5% of Trump supporters and 17% of British Conservative Party supporters shared that opinion. 

But when asked how important "combating racisms of all kinds" should be for their country, clear majorities of Conservative (80%), Labour (94%) and Biden (92%) voters said it should be a high or medium priority, along with 47% of Trump voters.

That split is striking. There's an almost even divide, among Republicans, between outright white nationalists and their allies and those with more pluralistic and tolerant values. Calling out the former group as "deplorables," as Hillary Clinton did, is counterproductive because dog-whistle politics bridges that divide, as López describes, by putting Democrats and progressives on the defensive. The race-class narrative he favors shows how to draw at least some of that 47% into a genuine conversation, one in which they can still have their say, contrary to what Fox News keeps telling them.

Education in Virginia: Two Things at Once 

The education issue was extremely complicated in Virginia, as political scientist Angie Maxwell told Salon. Her book co-authored with Todd G. Shields, "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here) explained the "Southern strategy" as an evolving long-term phenomenon that involved gender and religion as well as race and revolved around shaping defensive identities defined by threat. 

In Virginia, Maxwell said, there were "two things happening simultaneously." On one hand, there were legitimate concerns about educational disruption during the pandemic, while on the other side was the "racially motivated anti-CRT effort," underway for at least 18 months, which is "nationally-driven, not grassroots," and seeks "to activate particularly moms and women who don't always tune in elections by getting them where they are active, which is at schools."

This campaign goes well beyond the so-called issue of "critical race theory," she noted. "It is very conflated with anti-masking, anti-vaccination and anti-CRT." When people speak at school board meetings, Maxwell said, "It's usually not one or the other, it's usually a combined speech about both," a fact reflected in exit polls showing a landslide vote for Youngkin among unvaccinated. "Now, the reason that makes sense is that if you do not believe COVID is even a threat, or you believe the threat is overblown, then you're going to have even more animosity toward schools being closed. It's going to seem absolutely ridiculous, and you're going to be irate."

All of this was complicated by teachers' legitimate concerns for their health, and the fact that they'd only recently been unionized, still a rarity in Southern states. "When teachers really pushed back about the safety of in-person teaching and demanded to be on the vaccine priority list, after health care workers, that was met with a little bit of 'Who do these people think they are?'" Maxwell said. "Because usually the public does not see what's happening in negotiations between teachers' unions and state government." In addition, some of the anti-teacher animus "is loaded with modern sexism. A majority of teachers are women. They haven't been always empowered to push back, to protect their own safety in a way that affects everyday households pretty significantly."

So you had one set of outside manufactured issues (mask mandates, vaccines and CRT), another set of issues arising from real-world concerns and "some overlap" between the two, she said. Amid all that, McAuliffe's muddled messaging about parents and education "really rubbed those folks the wrong way," while Youngkin "was able to separate himself a bit from Trump" and could "afford to be polite, to use the bigger umbrella term about 'parents' involvement in education' and hold onto those anti-CRT folks while also pulling some of the voters who ... are frustrated with the lack of in-person education, frustrated with teachers, worried about learning loss."

Maxwell sees "the anti-CRT stuff being promoted everywhere" in the 2022 midterm campaigns, while legitimate educational concerns will be more varied. Parents have new concerns about education that need to be taken seriously. "It's an opportunity for feedback and parent engagement," she said, which Democrats should welcome.

"In terms of the anti-CRT stuff. I feel like the best strategy with that is to go very, very local," she said. "When I've watched the anti-CRT speakers, it's never something specific. It's never, 'I'm very concerned about this lesson plan, this specifically was worded this way, and I had this conversation with my child.' It isn't that. It is very generic, it is very top-down." So the answer to that is "focusing on the local," she said. "Every Democratic candidate should be knowledgeable about the school systems within their district, what they teach, what the standards are and how they have changed, what do we not teach — just to try to keep the conversation local, local, local."

Local, local, local

That coincides perfectly with Nebraska Democratic chair Jane Kleeb's perspective. "This whole model of 'National folks know best' needs to be flipped on its head," she said. "We need to start saying that actually state and county people know best, because they're closest to the ground."

National Democrats have good intentions, she adds. "There are people who are trying to reach rural voters, including  the president, who's including a major rural initiative" in the Build Back Better plan, Kleeb said. But the reality is, "For folks on the ground in these rural communities — whether you're a grassroots organizer outside the party working on issues, or you're a county party person or state party person — we don't have money to do the organizing we know we need to do. 

"You have to have peer-to-peer messaging and constant organizing, year-round organizing. That means rural folks talking to rural folks, not parachuting in somebody from a different state, who's 20 years old and it's their first job, which has been the DNC model in presidential campaigns. 

"It starts with the DNC recognizing that we do have a rural problem.Second, it's absolutely about funding state parties so we can do the organizing we know we need to do, and we know how to do. Third, and this is a big problem the constant bickering between DNC people, who I love and respect, and state party and grassroots organizers has to end." 

Kleeb said she wasn't referring to current DNC chair Jaime Harrison — himself a proclaimed "dirt-road" Democrat from rural South Carolina. "But senior staff leadership at the DNC totally disrespects state parties on so many levels," she said. "They treat us like we're babysitters for local candidates and local county parties. They pat us on the head, saying, 'Good job. But the big stuff, leave it to us. We got that. The Senate races, the presidential races, the congressional races, you don't really know what you're doing, so we're going to run campaigns from outside, because we know how to win elections.'" 

Kleeb draws an analogy to the climate issue a decade ago, when Democrats avoided talking about it because they feared they didn't understand the issues and it might turn politically toxic, leaving all discussion to scientists. "So the way to solve that is, sure, listening to us more. It's about getting a rural leader who lives in a rural community inside the room at the DCCC, the DSCC and the DNC when they are making funding, messaging and strategic decisions. But that's not happening right now, and I know from personal experience that unless that voice is in the room, that voice is not being heard and it's totally being misrepresented."

There are two contrasting but important lessons in the aftermath of Virginia: Democrats need a proactive, agenda-setting narrative in order to counter the GOP's ongoing and highly effective dog-whistle, and they need to empower, listen to and take direction from ground-level activists and organizers. Both are necessary, and both require loosening the stranglehold of conventional powerholders and conventional wisdom, which was never all that wise in the first place. 

Nobody should claim this approaches will solve all the Democrats' immediate problems. Without filibuster reform and new national voting-rights legislation, House Democrats are nearly certain to lose their majority in 2022, thanks to gerrymandering alone, along with the cyclical nature of midterm voting. But the underlying theme — Democrats and liberals need to think outside the box, and to speak up boldly and clearly for what most Americans believe — surely applies there as well. 


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Class Commentary Democrats Elections Ian Haney Lopez Rachel Bitecofer Racism Republicans Virginia