The cohort is less Left-wing than older millennials are
Glenn Youngkin’s stunning upset in the Virginia gubernatorial election could herald the dawn of a new political age in which the culture war against wokeness decides elections.
In more refined terms, this represents a clash between two ideas — cultural liberalism and cultural socialism. Cultural liberalism is about free speech, due process, a colourblind approach to equal treatment, and a positive, if realistic, view of national history. Cultural socialism seeks to use culture to redistribute power and self-esteem. It involves restricting speech to protect the emotional safety of identity groups, trial by online moral jury, a colour-conscious approach to ensuring equal outcomes, and a ‘critical’ view of national history.
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One can be a cultural liberal while cleaving to the political centre on many issues. Youngkin didn’t repudiate Trump, but he didn’t push a particularly populist slate of ideas either. In fact, as a polished, courteous investment banker and former CEO, Youngkin is more of a throwback to the Mitt Romney brand of Republicanism. Regardless, Youngkin locked up the votes of Trump’s white, rural, non-university educated base. In addition, he gained ground among groups that have recently drifted into the Democrat column: women, young people, Independents and voters in the Washington suburbs in northern Virginia.
Education is the battlefield upon which cultural socialism and cultural liberalism met in Virginia. In 2015, a presentation by the Virginia Department of Education instructed its public schools to ‘embrace Critical Race Theory’ and adopt cultural sensitivity toward African-Americans by not using school suspensions. ‘White supremacy’ and ‘education equity’ were among the many CRT buzzwords used in schools, with school board clashes breaking out in prosperous Loudoun County. The National School Boards Association penned a letter labelling parents ‘domestic terrorists’, prompting US Attorney General Merrick Garland to issue a memo calling for the FBI to investigate which he later walked back.
The net result is that education emerged as a major issue in the Virginia campaign. Youngkin’s attack ads showed a clip of his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe saying ‘parents shouldn’t be telling schools what they should teach.’ Associating McAuliffe with the culturally socialist education establishment, and against parents, proved a winner with voters.
Education (14%) was the top-ranked issue for voters after the economy (31%) and COVID (17%). Fully 35% of Youngkin voters said Critical Race Theory in education was the most important reason for their vote. Some of the largest swings to Youngkin occurred in wealthy suburban Democratic-leaning counties like Loudoun and Fairfax where high-profile clashes between educators and parents took place.
Survey experiments show messages to half of people taking a survey see whether those who read them respond differently from those who read nothing. Showing voters two messages about Critical Race Theory, one opposing it, the other claiming it to be a Right-wing invention, shifted young people toward Youngkin compared to young people that read nothing. The youngest (Gen-Z) voters moved 7 points while Millennials shifted 5.
This predicted the actual exit polls, where the youngest (18-24) group, normally thought of as strongly Democratic, broke nearly even: 47% for Youngkin and 52% for McAuliffe. This placed them to the Right of both the 25-29’s and 30-39’s. These results also reflect new evidence that Gen-Z are more opposed than Millennials to Cancel Culture and Critical Race Theory while young Republican voters are more motivated by culture war issues than older Republicans.
On balance, it appears that the new culture war divides Democrats and unites Republicans, resulting in a net gain for the Right. The GOP will increasingly use woke overreach in institutions as a recruiting sergeant. If the Democrats fail to rein in their radicals, expect more Virginias.