The stunning defeat suffered by the Democrats in Virginia, a surprisingly close race in deep blue New Jersey and the defeat of a “police defunding measure” in Minneapolis represent a remarkable turning point in American politics. It is less an affirmation of a resurgent Trumpism than a rejection of what might be called Bidenism, an unnatural merger of traditional Democratic corporate politics with a radical, progressive agenda.
Appealing to what James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, has dubbed “faculty lounge politics” — with its emphasis on Critical Race Theory, racial quotas, transgenderism and defunding the police — has become an obvious flaw in their political strategy. These positions might prove popular in certain sections of the media, but not so much among the public.
The Virginia results made evident these failures, particularly on radical education and transgender policies. A state that was on the verge of becoming a deep blue bastion, largely based on the affluent Washington suburbs, moved to the Right in part due to resistance among parents to a new progressive education agenda that prioritised issues such as race, slavery and gender. State-wide polls taken just before the election showed Governor-elect Gregg Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McCauliffe by 15 points among parents.
Yet educational excess was not the only policy area that hurt the Democrats. Overall, the election was won in the Northern Virginia suburbs where the GOP reduced the large Trump deficit in half from 2020. Here, as across the state, the sagging economy and rampaging inflation will have dominated this election; exit polls show that taxes and economic worries were even larger factors than education, pushing voters towards Youngkin.
Not surprisingly the egomaniacal Trump and his minions will claim credit for the GOP gains — Republicans also won Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor race, the state Legislature and possibly the Attorney General — as their own. This is true in part, the Republican base in the state’s rural hinterlands overwhelmingly opted for Youngkin.
Some on the Right will no doubt view the elections an expression of “buyer remorse”, paving the way for a Trump restoration. Yet Trump, according to the national polls, remains barely more popular than the hapless Joe Biden, and would still likely lose Virginia. He would probably lose many of the affluent suburbs and, unlike Terry McCauliffe, would stimulate progressive voters and minorities to the polls.
In some sense Youngkin may have found the secret sauce for post-Trump Republicans — genuflect to Dr Demento, but don’t have him over for dinner, or brunch, or even in your state. While the Democrats focused on Trump — Biden cited Trump’s name 24 times during a campaign appearance on McAuliffe’s behalf last week — Youngkin sensibly zeroed in on the issues that matter most to your regular suburban family: public safety, schools and taxes. He realised that even moderate, liberal parents do not want racialism brought back into the schools, even if it’s introduced not by neo-Confederates, but impassioned social justice warriors.
His message helped him raise GOP shares, particularly among younger and middle aged voters, where Trump had been trounced in 2020, by double digits. He made a less impressive showing with minorities, who account for roughly a third of the state’s population, although he did win 30% more African-American votes — a key constituency in the former Confederate capital of Richmond in particular — than Trump. The GOP also was wise to nominate a former Marine and Jamaican immigrant, Winsome Sears, for Lieutenant Governor, who may have out-performed Youngkin in the race. Nominating and even electing racial minorities may be dismissed as “tokenism” by many, but ignores the fact that many minorities, and particularly immigrants, are more culturally conservative than the average American.
Yet Youngkin’s challenges, and those of the national GOP, remain enormous, including a national media which will follow and magnify every Gubernatorial misstep. His path to success could easily be thrown off-course by the extreme agenda of the Right, which too often matches in many ways the authoritarianism of the progressive Left. Texas, where the Right seeks to undermine local powers and is focused on issues such as abortion, could be a negative model in more centrist places like Virginia, and other bellwether states.
But these challenges are chopped liver compared to what the Democrats now face. Clearly the far-Left agenda is not popular even in safely blue areas. In a sharp reversal from early in the pandemic, the desire for more government has fallen to barely 40%, while support for the huge Green New Deal remains tepid at best. On Tuesday, Minneapolis overwhelmingly rejected a police defunding initiative and Eric Adams, a former cop and centrist-sounding Democrat, became Mayor, succeeding the unpopular Leftist Bill de Blasio while defeating his ideological heirs.
The problem the Democrats face is that the progressive agenda now increasingly dominates the party, with even the redoubtable Nancy Pelosi seeming to be led around by boisterously socialist members of the caucus. Along with their powerful allies in the public employee unions, they have tied Biden to a radical programme that would embrace CRT, undermine America’s still-large energy industry, support steps to densify the suburbs and turn against Israel. Suffice it to say that these are not winning positions in much of the country.
Increasingly, the progressives and Biden are increasingly desperate. They seem desperate to impose a radical agenda now, in part because they fear the country, which rejects many of their priorities, will destroy their tiny majority, itself a gift from Trump’s idiotic post-election behaviour, next year. Meanwhile, Biden’s assumed successor, Kamala Harris, has polled badly or worse than her boss.
Successful parties intuit when to shift Right or Left and focus on issues with wide appeal. But Biden seems intent on stumbling through his Presidency as he carries the agenda of those, like Senator Bernie Sanders, who opposed his nomination. McAuliffe may have run a bad campaign, but he also was a victim of the remarkable incompetence, and poor communications, coming from the White House.
If the Democrats are to succeed, what they need is an answer to GOP populism that does not focus on cultural issues. Rather than pin Donald Trump on his tail, they should have gone after Youngkin’s background as co-CEO of the ultra-connected private equity fund Carlyle group. Fundamentally, non-racial social democratic programs of expanding health care, an infrastructure programme focused on roads and bridges, a clear strategy to deal with China all could work to expand, not shrink, the party base.
But this is not the path they have chosen. They still hope that by reviving the Trumpian ghost, enough centrists will go their way. But this will never work: you can’t win the centre while clinging on to the least popular parts of the progressive agenda.