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Last Monday, a Democratic firm hosted focus groups with women in Virginia who voted in 2017 for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, in 2020 for Democratic President Joe Biden, and then this month for Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. It was centered on suburban women: a group that pivoted significantly to the right in the governor’s election.
Consultant Danny Barefoot said that Anvil Strategies called roughly 30,000 people in Virginia. Most didn’t answer, but several hundred of them fit the criteria he was looking for: people who voted Democrat, Democrat, Republican in the last three elections. Those people were called back and offered a $100 gift card if they’d do a lunch-hour Zoom and talk about why they voted the way they did. Ninety-six women, a fifth of whom were not white, were broken into three different sessions. Barefoot sat in on one of them and got permission from the funders to share quotes and results.
Focus groups are put together differently than surveys, which weigh the responses to reflect the population at large. While 96 respondents isn’t enough for a robust polling sample, it’s a chance to dig deeper into the views of a slice of the electorate. Virginia is about two-thirds white, and this sample was 79 percent white — so slightly whiter than the state at large but not by a ton. Eleven percent of them were Black women, 6 percent Latina, and 4 percent Asian American. They came from around the state. Barefoot said he didn’t ask about college education, because what he was interested in was people who lived in the suburbs regardless of race or educational background.
What Barefoot found is that while the women agreed with Democrats on policy, they just didn’t connect with them. When asked which party had better policy proposals, the group members overwhelmingly said Democrats. But when asked which party had cultural values closer to theirs, they cited Republicans.
The biggest disconnect came on education. Barefoot found that school closures were likely a big part of their votes for Youngkin and that frustration at school leadership over those closures bled into the controversy, pushed by Republicans, around the injection of “critical race theory” into the public school setting, along with the question of what say parents should have in schools. One Latina woman talked about how remote school foisted so much work on parents, yet later Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee and former governor, would insist that parents should have no input in their children’s education. (That’s not exactly what he said, but that’s how it played.) As she put it: “They asked us to do all this work for months and then he says it’s none of our business now.”
When asked which party had better policy proposals, the group members overwhelmingly said Democrats. When asked which party had cultural values closer to theirs, they cited Republicans.
The anger they felt at Democrats for the commonwealth’s Covid-19 school closure policy became further evidence of a cultural gap between these working people and Democratic elites, who broadly supported prolonged school closures while enjoying the opportunity to work remotely. Those with means decamped: Enrollment in Fairfax County schools dropped 5 percent, and fell by 3.9 percent and 3.4 percent in Arlington and Loudoun counties, respectively. Those who were left behind organized parent groups to pressure the schools to reopen. Though the groups tended to be nonpartisan or bipartisan at the start, Republican donors and conservative groups poured money and manpower into them, converting them into potent political weapons that blended anger at the closures with complaints about Democratic board members prioritizing trendy social justice issues — all of it aimed at the November elections.
“They keep saying ‘a strong return to school,’ but there’s no details,” said Saundra Davis on Fox News over the summer, co-founder of one large group, called the Open Fairfax Public Schools Coalition. “Their attention is on other things, like their pet projects and social justice issues, and the kids have been left to flounder and there’s still no plan for fall.”
“You’ll be surprised to know I’m a Democrat,” she said. “I’ve tried to warn them that there’s a bipartisan tidal wave coming their way. They don’t look us in the eye, they don’t write us back. If we can’t recall them one by one, there’s an election in November.” That fall, Davis cut an ad for Youngkin, citing his commitment to keep schools open as decisive.
And while the group made a Democrat angry at Democrats the face of its opposition, behind her was a coterie of Republican operatives. The bulk of the group’s financing came from N2 America, a conservative nonprofit, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder. Its co-founder was a Republican who lost a 2019 race for school board, and the rest of its officers were Republican operatives too. A slick nonprofit named Parents Defending Education was launched in 2020 to help guide the local groups. Little effort was made to conceal who was behind it: A longtime Koch network operative, Nicole Neily, was placed at the helm of the “grassroots” organization. Aside from Davis, nearly every mom and dad brought onto Fox News to complain about critical race theory held a day job as a senior Republican operative.
It was the purest expression of the way Republicans have driven the fight over schools and then capitalized on it. The fear of public schools indoctrinating our children has been a GOP theme for its base voters for decades, but in the wake of Trump’s rise, the party watched in horror as suburban voters recoiled from Republicans into the arms of Democrats. Casting about for an issue that could win some of them back — recall that this is a game of margins, not absolutes — the party landed on schools. Around the country, the conservative media apparatus, unrivaled by Democrats, gave air cover to the schooling issue — handing local activists language to use, a story to tell, and the resources and platform to tell it.
The tactic was even more potent in northern Virginia, where many professional Republican operatives and lobbyists live. In Loudoun County this November, McAuliffe outpaced Youngkin 55 percent to 44. But Biden had beaten Trump there by 62 percent to 37. Youngkin’s showing was only 11,000 votes fewer than Trump won a year earlier, while McAuliffe notched 50,000 fewer votes than Biden had. While Biden carried Fairfax by 42 points, McAuliffe only took it by 31.
That the GOP didn’t make even bigger inroads, given their heavy investment in the issue, may be the one silver lining for Democrats — who, witnessing a dishonest astroturf campaign take shape and get twisted beyond all recognition on Fox News, decided, perhaps understandably but to their later regret, to ignore the question. After McAuliffe’s debate gaffe, in which he delivered up the perfect sound bite to Youngkin — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — he took weeks to respond, initially not recognizing the danger. “Everybody clapped when I said it,” McAuliffe insisted later.
Even where Republicans spent heavily against outmatched Democrats, they made only marginal gains in school board races. But if the issue continues to go uncontested, their luck may run out. National Democrats have no coordinated response yet, leaving school board members — unstaffed, underfunded, borderline volunteers — hung out to dry, with nothing to rely on but mainstream media assertions that there’s actually nothing to see here.
In the Virginia election, two arguments that have been running parallel in Democratic circles for the past several years finally collided. One is the question of how Democrats should position themselves in the ongoing culture war, with jockeying over fraught and contested concepts like wokeness and cancel culture. Critical race theory is one example of this; Democrats can’t seem to agree on whether it’s a good thing that should be taught and defended or a Republican fabrication that’s not being taught in elementary schools at all. The other is the round-and-round debate over race and class: Are voters who flee Democrats motivated more by economic anxiety or by racial resentment and eroding white privilege?
While these debates have unfolded, Democrats have seen a steady erosion in support among working-class voters of all races, while gaining support among the most highly educated voters. That movement would point toward class divisions driving voter behavior, but the rearing up of critical race theory as a central plank of the Republican Party appeared to throw the question open again. Maybe it’s racism, after all?
Properly understanding how different voting blocs understand the terms of the debate, however, unlocks the contradiction: The culture war is not a proxy for race, it’s a proxy for class. The Democratic problem with working-class voters goes far beyond white people.
Now, for the portion of the Republican base heavily predisposed to racial prejudice, the culture war and issues like critical race theory easily work as dog whistles calling them to the polls. But for many voters, and not just white ones, critical race theory is in a basket with other cultural microaggressions directed at working people by the elites they see as running the Democratic Party. Take, for instance, one of the women in Barefoot’s focus groups. When asked if Democrats share their cultural values, she said, “They fight for the right things and I usually vote for them but they believe some crazy things. Sometimes I feel like if I don’t know the right words for things they think I am a bigot.”
For many voters, and not just white ones, critical race theory is in a basket with other cultural microaggressions directed at working people by the elites they see as running the Democratic Party.
Barefoot’s results rhymed with the conclusions of a memo put out by strategist Andrew Levison, who has long made the argument that Democratic efforts at connecting with working-class voters are fundamentally flawed. The memo, published after the Virginia election but not directly responding to it, looks at how Democrats can win support among a growing number of anti-Trump Republicans. Rather than convince the entire white working class — which is typically approximated in polls by looking for white voters without a college degree — Levison argues that Democrats should “identify a distinct, persuadable sector of the white working class” and then figure out how to get members of that specific group to vote Democratic.
Levison, citing data from multiple election cycles, notes that Democrats roughly win about a third of white working-class votes. The party loses about a third right out of the gate: hardcore right-wing people who would never consider voting for Democrats and think even a Democrat like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — known for much of his career as “Wall Street Chuck” — is a flaming socialist and a traitor. Levison calls that third “extremists,” and argues they are not gettable under any circumstances; he distinguishes them from the final third, which is made up of what he calls “cultural traditionalists.”
His category of cultural traditionalists, he acknowledges, is not meant to capture every voter who is gettable by Democrats; likewise, many cultural traditionalists have competing and conflicting views on various issues. But just as corporations work to create consumer profiles before going to market with an ad campaign, Democrats need to define who that persuadable person among the white working class is. To do so, Levison relies on years of survey data, much of it collected by Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, that does tens of thousands of in-person interviews with working-class people around the country each year looking to identify those who are persuadable.
As Levison defines them, cultural traditionalists are people who don’t follow the news closely but have an easy-going personality and an open mind — contrasted with cranky, short-tempered people who are more likely to fall into the “extremist” category. They believe in patriotism and the “American way of life” but also believe that diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are essential characteristics of that American way of life. When it comes to race, these traditionalists have something of a Michael Scott view, rooted in the cliche that they “don’t see race” or “don’t see color.” They also have religious and moral values they’d happily describe as “old fashioned” but say they have no problem with people who have different views. When these voters shifted their views on marriage equality, accepting it as something that ought to be legal even if they were skeptical of it, the dam had broken.
Cultural traditionalists, according to Levison, also think of government as often wasteful and inefficient and of politicians as corrupt and bought off — but they don’t think government is inherently evil and can be convinced that it can do good things. Meanwhile, they think Democrats are a party that “primarily represents social groups like educated liberals and racial or ethnic minorities while having little interest, understanding, or concern for ordinary white working people like themselves.”
Levison’s distinction between these cultural traditionalists and what he calls the extremists, except for that last part, can plausibly apply to many, many Black and Latino working-class people as well. And even that last part — that Democrats don’t have much interest or concern for ordinary white working people, specifically — is not really a value judgment, it’s a widespread interpretation of Democratic messaging that is not uniquely held by white voters.
They’re the sort of voter that would be gettable for Democrats without compromising on a racial justice agenda if it is sold as the United States continuously striving to close the gap between reality and its values. But, Levison adds, there are a number of cultural issues on which cultural traditionalists and extremists align, and Republicans have become adept at exploiting them. He defines them as: pride in their culture, background, and community; respect for tradition; love of freedom; belief in personal responsibility, character, and hard work; and respect for law, strict law enforcement, and the right of individual self-defense.
There are a number of cultural issues on which cultural traditionalists and extremists align, and Republicans have become adept at exploiting them.
In other words, they express the same sensibility as the women in Barefoot’s group who wanted to teach their children a positive history of the United States. One suburban Black woman in his group put it this way: “Our kids should be taught about slavery and all of that awfulness but America is also a good country and that’s what I want my kids to learn.”
Few people read the full 1619 Project put out by the New York Times in 2019, which is a rich tapestry of thoughtful essays and reporting about the role of slavery in the development of the United States. Instead, to the extent it has seeped into the public consciousness, it has done so around the notion of rejecting 1776 as the date of our birth and supplanting it with 1619 as our “true founding,” in a phrase that became so controversial it was deleted.
Times editor Jake Silverstein wrote in the introductory essay:
1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?
That section too has since been edited, blunting some of its edge, and creating another situation where supporters of the project at once say that there was nothing off-base about it, while changing it in response to the criticism. As schools around the country began teaching the project, Republicans made a national issue out of it, one that can’t be disentangled from the fight over critical race theory.
Liberals often suggest that parents who are skeptical of the New York Times’s 1619 Project reject the idea of teaching the truth about American history. More often, as with the woman in the focus group, it’s a question of framing rather than truth. Believing or conceding that we as a people are defined by the worst of the past might actually be true, but the concession is seen as cutting off any hope of a better future. As an adult, if that’s the view you’ve come to — and I flirt with it often myself — it’s a more than understandable conclusion. But we want our children to remain hopeful about the possibility of a better world, since it’s the world they’ll inherit and build after we’re all gone. The argument that slavery was essential to the development of capitalism in the United States is well-established scholarship by this point. But absent a call to overthrow capitalism, that notion, particularly when compressed into something an elementary school student could absorb, loses any meaning beyond nihilism. And so of course parents of all races reject the framing and look askance at a party of elites who seem to be blithely suggesting — though not really meaning it — the overthrow of a capitalist system that benefits them before all others. And if they’re not suggesting that, then what?
Levison, meanwhile, argues that Democrats need to lean into the kind of patriotic rhetoric that makes many progressives recoil. Democrats have the potential to split “extremists” off from “traditionalists” by couching Democratic values as truly American, and extremists as “un-American.” As an example of such possible rhetoric, he offers, is, “I love the American flag as much as any American but I would never use a flagpole flying our flag as a club to assault other Americans that I call my ‘enemies.’ That is not the American way.” Or: “The values I grew up with are good values and I want them to endure. But the values of the people who want to turn Americans against each other and divide our country are not my values.”
At the end of Barefoot’s focus group, the women were asked if they’d have considered changing their vote if Democrats had passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The bill, which was passed by the House the following week, is something that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, has claimed would have helped win the election for McAuliffe.
Ninety-one percent of the suburban women said no, 9 percent said yes, and one woman laughed and said, “What does that have to do with anything?”
She’s right to laugh. But that 9 percent actually points to something hopeful. In a close race, a 9-point swing like that can matter. If Democrats had passed the reconciliation bill as well and could talk about universal pre-K, the child tax credit, clean energy investments, and subsidies for child care, they might have won even more back. And if Democrats were out of touch culturally, though, that swing could be even higher
A major new survey from Jacobin, YouGov, and the Center for Working-Class Politics points to another way that cultural chasm can be bridged: with candidates who focus on these economic issues but don’t talk like juniors at Oberlin.
The survey design was unusual: Instead of asking about issue preferences or messaging alone, it concocted prototypes of candidates and asked which of them was more appealing. When it came to a candidate’s background, the survey found — somewhat awkwardly for a socialist magazine — that voters of all races and classes had the most positive reaction to small-business owners. The most disliked candidates were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Working-class candidates — teachers, construction workers, and veterans — also fared well, though not as well as mom and pop.
Broadly, Jacobin did not find evidence to support the Great Left Hope that if the masses would turn out in full at the ballot box, they’d eagerly support democratic socialists candidates and policies. “Many working-class voters in advanced economies have actually moved to the left on questions of economic policy (favoring more redistribution, more government spending on public goods, and more taxation of the very wealthy), while remaining culturally or socially moderate,” they write. They contrast this from where mainstream Democrats have gone: left on culture while “tempering their economic progressivism.”
But the survey also pointed to how they could be won over, and the results mapped with Levison’s and Barefoot’s findings. Language Jacobin described as “woke” created a cultural barrier between voters and candidates that diminished support for both “woke progressive” and “woke moderate” candidates, while universal, populist language did best for Democrats. Notably, “woke messaging decreased the appeal of other candidate characteristics,” they write. “For example, candidates employing woke messaging who championed either centrist or progressive economic, health care, or civil rights policy priorities were viewed less favorably than their counterparts who championed the same priorities but opted for universalist messaging.” Startlingly, the survey found a 30-plus point gap between support for a teacher running on a populist, universalist message versus a CEO running with a moderate economic platform, couched in woke rhetoric reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
In today’s debate over critical race theory, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of the busing wars in the 1970s and ’80s. Like with busing, Democratic elites are creating conflict within the working class while protecting their own class and cultural interests. By the early 1970s, white school districts had spent nearly two decades resisting Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in schools, and national attention had turned to redlining and the dug-in segregation of housing.
The 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act had banned residential discrimination and empowered the federal government to forcibly integrate neighborhoods. In 1973, Donald Trump and his father were sued by the Department of Justice for racial segregation in their housing and settled two years later. That same year, a Gallup survey asked Black residents to choose from a list of preferred solutions to school desegregation, and the top choice was the most intuitive: neighborhood integration and an end to redlining. Only 9 percent of Black residents named busing as their preferred approach to school desegregation which, again, is intuitive: Attending the neighborhood school is always preferable, all things being equal, than being bused somewhere else. The same was true for white voters: Just 4 percent supported busing.
But neighborhood integration would require white residents to give something up. Even today, according to law professor Dorothy Brown, the author of “The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans — and How We Can Fix It,” when neighborhoods integrate, with the Black population reaching at least 10 percent, property values either decline or grow more slowly. Facing that systematic decline in wealth, many white residents fought neighborhood housing integration. Busing, meanwhile, could be avoided by the well-off by sending their kids to private school. And so Democrats went with busing over housing. Republicans began to use busing in campaigns as a dog whistle to bigoted parents resistant to desegregating education, banking on the fact that there was additional political gain to be had among a majority of voters who opposed it for a variety of reasons. In 1981, Gallup found 60 percent of Black voters supported busing as a means to integration, though opposition was strong as well.
“‘Antibusing’” is a code word for racism and rejection,” wrote Jesse Jackson in 1982. “True, some blacks oppose busing, but not for racial reasons. Blacks sometimes are against busing because all decisions about desegregation are being made for them, not with and by them.”
Battles over language are by definition divorced from the material reality that structures inequality.
White parents who couldn’t afford private school fled to the suburbs, creating new school districts along racial lines; since busing only happened within a school district, that meant it was largely going on inside big cities, with the suburbs immune. White working-class voters who remained in the cities noted rightly that the professional class in the suburbs, which proudly supported busing in the city, was merely signaling its own virtue, while engaging in the same bigoted resistance to — or avoidance of — integration.
Today’s white Democratic elites are also confronted with school systems that have substantially resegregated, persistent racial income and wealth gaps, and test scores that reflect those patent inequalities. Their answer has been to thoughtfully interrogate the concepts of white privilege and systemic racism by examining interpersonal relationships and developing a new vocabulary that gives its speaker license to feel as righteous about things today as white folks did in the Boston suburbs in 1975. But, as Jamelle Bouie writes, battles over language are by definition divorced from the material reality that structures inequality.
We must remember that the problem of racism — of the denial of personhood and of the differential exposure to exploitation and death — will not be resolved by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.
That’s because racism does not survive, in the main, because of personal belief and prejudice. It survives because it is inscribed and reinscribed by the relationships and dynamics that structure our society, from segregation and exclusion to inequality and the degradation of labor.
Bouie answers with Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition to “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Telling the truth about King and his politics has always been too much for American liberals. The vulgar version of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives popular in boardrooms and school workshops is meant to fill the void created by a refusal to assault the roots of racism; they provide a way to talk about racism that strips it of its material reality and slots it instead into the world of individual self-improvement. Without the systemic context, it merely trains people in how to enact roles, identify people failing to play their proper role, and properly “call them out.”
One woman in the focus group, asked how she understood critical race theory, said, “It teaches our kids America is defined by the worst parts of its past.” Instead of hiring corporate consultants to pretend to tear down white supremacy in the classroom, Democrats could dedicate themselves to the pursuit of living up to the values on which the nation claims it was founded. Frederick Douglass’s famous speech delivered in 1852 — “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” — pounds at the conscience of the nation by describing the gap between its founding principles and its everyday reality.
“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost,” Douglass said.
Teaching the truth about American history, including all of its awfulness, doesn’t require teaching kids that they or their country are defined by the worst of its past. Quite the opposite: America’s greatest heroes have always defined their project within the outlines of the promise and spirit of the nation’s founding, daring and challenging it to live up to its promises.
“Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country,” Douglass concluded on that Fourth of July. “There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope — while drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.”
That’s something “cultural traditionalists” can all get behind. It would still, of course, trigger the far right. But the resulting fight would isolate the extremists, exposing their hostility to Douglass’s message as the raw racism it is. Democrats win the argument when it’s about Charlottesville, but lose if it’s Loudoun County. But Loudoun County isn’t Charlottesville, just as Glenn Youngkin isn’t Donald Trump. Let the right lose its mind attacking Frederick Douglass. Make him and his allies like Robert Smalls — those who fought oppression against the worst odds — the true heroes of American history. And not one more word, for the love of God, from Robin DiAngelo.