Virginia, 2022, And Tilting At White Windmills
Lessons From Virginia and New Jersey On The Democratic Future
A lot of my 2022 optimism has been frequently understood to be about the Global Fucking Realignment, and my belief that Democrats will continue to do better in educated, socially liberal white areas, as every major left-wing party in the west has done in recent years. The corollary to that is that we will continue to see a rightward trend in culturally conservative areas, which is something I believe - but the assumption all of my optimistic takes relied on was that the GOP couldn’t get Trumpian turnout, or margins, with Trump off the ballot. It was why Democrats won places like New Jersey 2nd and Minnesota 7th in 2018 but lost both in 2020, and why Democrats came closer in Texas in 2018 than they did in 2020. This underlying assumption was a source of a lot of my Virginia optimism too, because to paraphrase what I said on the Scrimshaw Show, “if you think Youngkin is going to outrun Trump with non-degree whites, I want what drugs you’re on.” Turns out, it happened.
Trump won the southwest-based 9th by 42%, and the 6th, also along the West Virginia border, by 21%, last year. Last week? The GOP won those by 50% and 33%, respectively - unsurprisingly, a huge fall even in areas where there didn’t seem to be much more room to fall. That was the reason I thought Virginia was essentially unflippable - I thought the GOP had already gotten their functional ceilings in these sorts of seats. They hadn’t. And that changes the calculus for 2022.
The piece I wrote for this site that I’m the proudest of is this one, about Canadian supporters of the People’s Party, and the voters who feel the world is turning away from them. These people are cultural conservatives who distrust government, hate liberals, and at some basic level would like the world to make more sense than it does today. It’s a form of cultural nostalgia, for a time and a place that makes sense to these people. I wrote then that there’s more sympathy for these people from me than from many, because I also know what it’s like to not understand how the world works, and to have the understanding you thought you had thrown out the window.
The world today is enormously different than the one of 20 years ago, and this fact - while seemingly too obvious to be worth pointing out - often eludes Democrats and progressives. 20 years ago, DOMA was not only newly passed into law, but also would have commanded an overwhelming Congressional majority - hell, in 1998, when DOMA passed, a majority of Democrats voted in favour of it. Now, there’s no way in hell a single Congressional Democrat would ever even consider supporting such a bill. The concept of an active, activist defence of Trans people 20 years ago would have seemed absurd, and now it’s mainstream Democratic policy to defend trans rights as what they are - basic human rights.
The pace of change has been amazingly fast, and as happy as that makes me as someone who supports a better, fairer world, it’s also worth pointing out that these voters want very different things than well-off white social liberals do. It’s not a fucking shock - or, at least, it really shouldn’t be - that educated, socially liberal people want different things from government than rural cultural conservatives, and this basic fact seems to be the source of much consternation.
The way Democrats used to win elections was simple - run cultural conservatives who would avoid liberal social stances on abortion, gay rights, and guns in culturally conservative areas, run liberals in the cities, and get destroyed in wealthy, socially liberal enclaves. Why did Cobb County used to be reliably ruby red? Because it was full of white money - degree holders who work in “professional” industries (lawyers, bankers, doctors) who would vote Republican to keep taxes low. They weren’t particularly overjoyed with the social conservatism of the GOP, but again, when social conservatism was a bipartisan accomplishment - and when Roe was seen at no risk - they voted to protect their wallets.
The world has sprinted left since those days, and with it has been a global scrambling of these issues. It is now the case that white money is trending Democratic, and white cultural conservatives are running to the GOP. Last week, in New Jersey, Phil Murphy did better - not in a relative sense, in an absolute sense - in two, 50%+ college educated counties despite doing 11% worse statewide than 2017. In two south Jersey counties with low levels of education? Murphy did 25% worse. This is the realignment, and this is the reality that Democrats have to face.
There’s been one election in recent memory where the left did better in a relative sense with non-degree holders than the time before, and that was the 2016 Australian election, where Labor won Longman, Herbert, and three seats in Tasmania, all of which are comparables for Youngstown or south Jersey or whatever US places you want to add to this list. The reason the left gained these seats in 2016 was simple - the Australian right went from social conservative Tony Abbott to pro-gay marriage, pro-action on climate change Malcolm Turnbull. They went from a defender of coal power and a man who has a gay sister and still opposes gay marriage to the guy who lost the leadership in 2009 for doing a deal to pass a carbon price, and cultural conservatives who loved Abbott said, in effect, if there’s cultural consensus I’ll take the economic policy I prefer, and they voted Labor. When Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison and that cultural consensus was shattered, all but one of those seats flipped back (and the one that didn’t was affected by the right having to disavow their candidate mid-campaign).
If we want a renewed focus on the white working class, you will do so at the cost of the hard earned gains Democrats have made with educated whites. You will return Democrats to the high teens or low 20s in Forsyth and Southlake if you make too hard a pivot to get back to the mid 40s in Ross County, Ohio. Should Democrats show up in these places and try? Sure, but don’t be surprised when people don’t care what you have to say. Democrats are selling a vision of America that is wonderful for people like me, and are genuinely trying to make America a more equal country. Shockingly, you can’t do this and still command large numbers of votes from people who view equality for those people (be it Black people, women, gays, trans people, whatever) as a distraction from fixing the problems in their lives.
Yes, Democrats have the answers to these problems, but nobody is going to listen to us. If you want to do better with these working class whites - and I mean substantially better - then you’ll have to do something substantial. It’s not enough to take token shots at the dumbest people on leftwing Twitter, you need a serious, substantial offer to these cultural conservatives - and there’s no appetite for that amongst actual Democrats. You know what the actual answer to how to win these voters back would be? Run anti-Roe, anti-Obergefell candidates in red states and districts, and have the Congressional leaders and the President announce that if SCOTUS allows this Mississippi abortion ban they will not seek a federal solution.
Oh, you don’t like that price? You think that would be an unacceptable betrayal of your values? Well then, say goodbye to this coalition. It also wouldn’t even necessarily be a win for Democrats, as they would kiss all those gains in Maricopa and the DFW Quad and even Forsyth aside. Might it be more useful for the Senate? Sure, but if you’re going to make the argument that Democrats need to abandon core principles for power, be explicit about it. And hell, it still might not even work.
At the end of the day, Democrats want to believe that small changes on the edges will bring back their descendent coalition without harming their ascending one. The problem is, to actually revive white working class strength will reverse the suburban swing left, and do so at a heavy price. Try and revive your fortunes with cultural conservatives with half measures and useless symbolism, and you’ll find yourself tilting at windmills.