It’s the day after Election Day, and Democrats are casting about—as they did in 2016, as they have so many times before—for an explanation for what just happened. How did they manage to lose the Virginia governor’s race to a first-time candidate? How is it possible that the New Jersey governor’s race is still too close to call? How did the moderates trounce the progressives in local elections in Seattle? And how did the whole defund the police movement go down in flames in Minneapolis?
Progressive elites’ answer is predictable and telling: Republicans duped voters into voting against their best interests by distracting them with fake culture-war red meat—like Critical Race Theory in Virginia schools—that have nothing to do with whether they can get a job, see a doctor or send their kids to college.
Consider Republican Glenn Youngkin’s defeat of Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial election. Youngkin started the race six points behind McAuliffe in a state that went to Joe Biden by 10 points. So how did McAuliffe squander such a wide lead?
As Zaid Jilani notes, the shift started in earnest in September, and it centered around schools. Answering a debate question about legislation that would warn parents about sexually explicit material in their children’s curriculum, McAuliffe said: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
These comments instantly became the touchstone of the campaign, the reason that voters gave reporters again and again for turning out for Youngkin. His campaign, along with conservative media, was able to tie McAuliffe’s comments to a host of other school-related issues—a sexual assault in a school bathroom in Loudon County; the question of whether Critical Race Theory belongs in K-12 schools; the endless COVID-19 school closures—and ultimately sway enough Democratic voters Youngkin’s way to give him a victory. A few days before the election, Youngkin led by 15 points among voters with school-age kids.
In an ideal world, Democrats would take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves whether maybe they should have rethought their approach to Critical Race Theory. Or the constant belittling of parents who want their children to take off their masks and get back to class. Or the embrace of a radical agenda that imagines the whole of America in the grip of white supremacy. Or the nomination of a professional politician whose name is closely linked with Clinton-era globalization, the displacement of the working class, and the corruption of the American meritocracy. But why do that when—in the same vein as Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”—you can just write off millions of voters as rubes?
In that now-classic 2004 book, Frank argued that Republicans had whipped the white working classes into a state of agitation with a culture war—he called it “backlash culture”—that cast liberal elites as contemptuous of the beliefs and values of working-class Americans. Unsurprisingly, the book was a runaway hit, a salve that absolved the Democrats of any responsibility for losing races while locating the “real” cause of their failures in the gullibility of the voters they had lost. It wasn’t that Democrats had done anything wrong, but that these working-class voters were too stupid, too easily distracted by conniving conservative media outlets peddling a bombastic culture war about meaningless issues like guns and abortion, to care about feeding their families.
The Virginia race saw a reprisal of that move, with an added dose of accusations of racism. Attempts to cast Youngkin and his supporters as racist were ubiquitous, and bled from Twitter memes and pundits to an actual race-baiting false flag operation in which operatives hired by the by-now-defrocked Lincoln Project dressed as white supremacists and stood outside a campaign event. Per the prevailing mainstream narrative, Youngkin’s voters were choosing him because he “appealed to their racist fears with an imaginary boogeyman”—Critical Race Theory.
“If Youngkin wins VA, it will be substantially because the beltway media gave him a pass on his racist Trumpist ‘critical race theory’ dogwhistle,” tweeted scientist Michael E. Mann. “In so many cases, worse than a pass— admiration at his political acumen,” concurred Norman Ornstein.
Progressive howling about white nationalists taking over Virginia hit a climax on Election Night, as it became clear that Youngkin had defeated McAuliffe—and at the same moment that Virginians were also electing their new lieutenant governor: Republican Winsome Sears, an immigrant from Jamaica and the first black woman to hold that position.
“I’m telling you that what you are looking at is the American Dream,” Sears, a former Marine, told an ecstatic crowd during her victory speech. As former state representative and CNN pundit Bakari Sellers was tweeting about notorious GOP strategist Lee Atwater and The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill was declaring “this country simply loves white supremacy,” the lieutenant governor-elect was leading the crowd in chants of “USA!”
“They would like us to believe we are back in 1963,” said Sears, who, as Virginia electoral history makes clear, is now perfectly positioned for a gubernatorial run of her own. (It would be the first time in American history that a black woman was elected governor.) To much of the chattering class, though, she is merely a foot soldier for white supremacy.
Attempts to cast criticism of Critical Race Theory as a dog whistle (or worse) are not unique to McAuliffe’s supporters. It’s a move that’s increasingly being used by the left in our ever-hotter culture war. Progressives first defended Critical Race Theory, then switched to calling attacks on it racist, before finally settling on a new move: insisting it never existed in the first place.
Thus, MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace was able to claim on her show Tuesday night that “Critical race theory—which isn’t real—turned the suburbs 15 points.”
“Critical Race Theory isn’t real” is another way of calling millions of voters idiots who were led to vote the wrong way by Fox News. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility for something that voters—of all races—have picked up on, even if they can’t quite articulate it. Voters like the black father who decided to homeschool his kids after his son brought home an assignment on Abraham Lincoln that didn’t sit right with him, even though he couldn’t quite say why. Or the Latina mother who opted to send “her 4-year-old to private school to avoid public school education about race,” as the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer Weil reported.
It’s true that these parents often struggle to define Critical Race Theory. They’re not in a law-school seminar; they’re not fluent in academic jargon. But they’re not imagining things. They have noticed something very real: a new ideological orthodoxy pervading public schools, including an obsession with race, and the disparagement of anyone who questions the new dogma.
And here’s the crucial point: The “Critical Race Theory isn’t real” meme is not about race. It’s not about politics. It’s not even a culture war, really. It’s about class. It’s about one class—a highly-educated chattering class—using highly specialized language to tell normal parents that they lack sufficient intellectual capacity and are imagining things because they’ve been brainwashed. A highly-educated progressive media has used its educational advantage—92 percent of American journalists have a college degree—to gaslight working-class parents of all races. Under the guise of fighting racism.
It’s no wonder Youngkin did better with working-class voters of all races. And not just better than McAuliffe, but better than Trump. And he did well elsewhere, too; 14 percent of black women—double Trump’s showing in Virginia—backed the Republican candidate.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to Virginia. The Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey came much closer to winning than pundits expected. And, in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the “racial reckoning” that wracked the country in the summer of 2020, voters decided that they’d prefer to keep their police department, white progressives in safe neighborhoods notwithstanding.
The Democrats’ abandonment of the working class didn’t begin in the early aughts, of course; by then, the mainstream liberal media had already abandoned the cause of labor for a higher-class reader, an erasure that was mirrored in the disastrous Clinton-era policies that decimated manufacturing and created a downward spiral for working-class families.
The irony is that the class warfare being perpetrated by the Democrats and their allies in the media in the name of racial justice not only paved the way for Youngkin’s victory, but the economic populism he was offering: Youngkin’s “day one game plan” includes a mix of spending and tax cuts, just as his school proposal combines banning Critical Race Theory along with expanding Advanced Placement classes statewide and pay hikes for public school teachers.
It was just the latest example of how the sneering of elite media, masquerading as a social justice fight against racism, is actually class consolidation in political, even race-baiting, garb. And voters have long since learned to tune it out.