With the passage last week of the infrastructure phase of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, Democrats arguably did more to benefit Americans in a single massive investment than the GOP has done in the last 30 years.
On the other hand, the Republican election campaign — particularly in Virginia — was another brilliantly executed sleight of hand, striking fear in the hearts of malleable voters over things either grossly exaggerated or nonexistent.
Priding themselves in the diversity of the party — the big tent — Democrats might more effectively rally their cause if the tent were not so easily compared to P.T. Barnum’s Big Top and it certainly wouldn’t have hurt a bit if such diversity coalesced into passing legislation well before their internal kerfuffles turned a reliably blue state thoroughly red.
One brutal headline said it all: “If Democrats can lose in Virginia, they can lose anywhere.” Once the bastion of blue-collar working people, the party managed to squander that constituency with a deadly aggregate of taking them for granted and allowing the GOP to control the narrative.
But learning a lesson they should have learned five years ago, about underestimating voters, was certainly not the only ingredient in what turned out to be a devastating election cycle, losing a state that Biden won by 10 percentage points only a year ago. Perhaps the worst, at least the most embarrassing takeaway was that Democrats came out of this mess seemingly more focused on the previous president than even the staunchest Republicans, who managed keeping him at arm’s length while still energizing his most loyal supporters.
GOP operatives continue their mastery of the nonissue, transforming an ill-conceived remark by Terry McAuliffe — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” — into a powerful meme that galvanized what appeared to be a spontaneous and angry reaction at school board meetings throughout the state.
Though McAuliffe’s observation may have been accurate, he inadvertently played into the hands of a much larger, very well-funded opposition, determined to flip the switch and make critical race theory the pivotal issue despite no Virginia schools including any aspect of critical race theory in their curriculum.
According to an investigative post-mortem by The Daily Beast, much of the backlash against it has been carefully orchestrated and funded by well-connected billionaires, including the Koch family. For instance, Nicole Neily, a Koch network alum, began a group called Parents Defending Education designed to fight critical race theory through legal action and claimed a “grassroots” effort, though she previously worked at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, identified by the Columbia Journalism Review as “The Kochs’ leading media investment to date.”
Maurice T. Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts political science professor and author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” told the Daily Beast that “white backlash groups” such as Parents Defending Education “trade on a long-inglorious but successful history in this country.”
Kyle Herrig, president of left-leaning watchdog accountable.us, said the well-funded movement has “turned students into political props while extremist groups (are) spreading lies about inclusive education not backed by educators or facts.” Instead, these groups are supported by billionaire-financed GOP loyalists.
For Republicans, ratcheting up the manufactured nonsense raises constituent threat levels to flashing red, encouraging rabid, if misdirected, tunnel vision at the ballot box, repudiating critical race theory along with socialism, satanism, Big Bird, immigrant invasions and Hillary Clinton’s global pedophilia cabal.
Unfortunately, we appear well past the tipping point where rational arguments are enough to counteract the meticulously crafted, racially motivated hogwash that has become a reliable mechanism to cover up the party’s lack of any ideas beyond tax cuts for the wealthy.
While Democrats rightly wonder if they’ll be able to accomplish enough before midterms to maintain their congressional majorities, Republicans are no longer interested in policy at all. Remember, in the run-up to the 2020 election, they were unwilling to develop even a minimal framework for governing, content limiting their platform to “whatever he (the former) wants.”
The GOP is instead banking on the escalating culture war taking precedence over having a coherent agenda, and if Virginia is any indication, they’re intent is to completely redefine the political landscape.
Democrats are in the unenviable position of defending reality at a time when much of the electorate has been carefully nurtured into rejecting the veracity of anything they disagree with, including an accurate depiction of American history. The conservative notion of the country’s exceptionalism denies institutional racism has ever existed, at the same moment Republicans are doing their best to make it ever more difficult for people of color to vote.
While the sheer irony is a perfect example of the GOP’s hypocrisy, the disheartening truth is that it may not matter.
One of the problems is that as the country, including schools, becomes inevitably more diverse, some parents are easily riled up over schools addressing racial equality or the history of race relations, including slavery, which have all been purposefully linked to critical race theory by opportunistic Republicans.
When McAuliffe let slip his poorly thought-out remark about parental roles, he was ahead in the polls, but provided his opponent Glen Youngkin an opening to join forces with the Koch machine to send the Democrats reeling.
Jeff Greenfield, writing in Politico, points out that mainstream Democrats are still overwhelmingly focused on policy rather than culture, trying to govern, “which is the job they were elected to do” — but “if Democrats believe that the passage of an infrastructure program and a large social spending bill will provide the ammunition to repel a GOP-launched culture war, they’re deluding themselves.”
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Walt Amses is a writer who lives in Vermont.