With one week to go before Virginia’s gubernatorial election, Democrats are desperately trying to fend off what would be a crushing and embarrassing defeat, with President Biden himself set to rally the troops in Arlington on Tuesday evening. But if Republican Glenn Youngkin can hold Trump voters and win back college-educated suburbanites who bolted during Trump’s two campaigns, he has a shot at pulling off a stunning upset over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The polls are tight and (anecdotally) the burbs are Youngkin country. “In 2020, my northern [Virginia] neighborhood featured [a] few lawn signs for Biden. More common were those saying ‘Any Sentient Adult,’” Never Trump writer Mona Charen tweeted. “Now, Youngkin signs abound.”
For those who believe the only way to extirpate Trumpism from the Republican Party, a victory by Youngkin—“Trump in a vest,” his detractors call him—would only convince the GOP that they can continue to avoid confronting and condemning Trump’s Big Lie (not to mention the Jan. 6 insurrection) and still prosper. For Democrats who have more pragmatic interests in mind, a Youngkin victory would have a chilling effect, making moderate Democrats in Congress even less likely to support any part of Biden’s agenda that seems overly ambitious. So why is this happening in a state that many had written off as now permanently blue?
There are several reasons for this. First, Joe Biden is doing about as poorly among independents as Donald Trump was at this point in his presidency. Second, Trump’s sins are not transferable to other Republicans, and Youngkin’s persona (which feels more like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty) makes it easier for Never Trump conservatives to come home.
But the more interesting reason stems from the culture war—which is real, and is turning suburban voters against McAuliffe and the Democratic party. In Virginia, this battle has played out largely under the rubric of “education,” with the sub-issues being critical race theory (CRT) and trans-inclusive policies (allowing transgender students to use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity at school).
The center of this culture war is Loudoun County, where a male student allegedly assaulted female students in the girl’s bathroom. An alleged victim’s father, Scott Smith, was later arrested at a school board meeting for disorderly conduct.
“When the School Board abruptly ended the meeting, I was confronted and taunted by activists supporting the School Board’s bathroom policy,” he told DC’s WJLA TV. “I am not a domestic terrorist. I am a concerned father who loves his family and will protect them at every turn.”
During that same meeting, the county’s superintendent erroneously claimed, “We don’t have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms.” (That same superintendent later apologized for the district's mishandling of the allegations.)
When Smith was first thrown out of the meeting, the footage went viral, and the consensus seemed to be that this is what happens when right-wing rubes get caught up in these false narratives. But I haven’t seen anyone who covered or promoted this story (and applauded his arrest) revisiting it now that Smith seems like a much more sympathetic figure, an understandably frustrated father leveling a credible charge involving his daughter’s assault rather than a deranged zealot pushing an ideological agenda.
During a recent gubernatorial debate, McAuliffe added to the sense that parents should mind their own business, saying as much. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said, later adding “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (He later stormed out of an interview over related topics.)
People on the left oscillate between saying firstly that this is all overblown Republican propaganda and then that these parents just need to get with the program—as though there’s no contradiction between those two things. While stumping for McAuliffe, former President Barack Obama dismissed this as “fake outrage” and “phony trumped-up culture wars.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post published a piece on Monday explicitly saying that parents have no right to shape their school’s curriculum. So which is it?
Anyone who has been around long enough to see progressives applaud themselves for accomplishments they previously claimed weren’t happening knows the truth: progressives never tire of progress.
But sometimes the voters do.
Another issue that is driving the backlash in the burbs is critical race theory. I have hesitated to write about this—but having lived in Northern Virginia for about 15 years (I now reside in West Virginia—just seven miles from Virginia’s Loudoun County), I have a feel for these suburban voters—many of whom hated Trump—and why they are voting Youngkin.
This is what happens when identity politics goes mainstream and white suburbanites, formerly privileged to not have to think about race, become race-conscious.
Let me explain. When political alliances were largely about opposing philosophical ideas (not merely one’s preordained identity), and when mainstream America at least aspired to being a colorblind society, then white suburbanites didn’t really feel a strong tribal identity (at least, on a conscious level).
For many white suburbanites, this probably describes a period of time roughly lasting from 1980 to 2016.
But in a world where being a white, cisgendered Christian middle-class suburbanite all but automatically renders you a colonizer and a predator, you can either accept your new status happily or join the side that is fighting back.
In this scenario, being liberal is an esoteric nicety that we can no longer afford. Once upon a time, it was said that a conservative was a liberal who has been mugged. Today, a conservative is a liberal who has been canceled (or fears the prospect of it). The left is coming for us all, now, including people who think of themselves as “allies.”
This awakening was ironically expedited by Trump, a man that I and many other conservatives could not support because he posed a unique threat to liberal democracy. But with Trump gone, “it’s back to shirts and skins,” Republican pollster Gene Ulm told me recently.
Again, there are a lot of factors at play in Virginia, including Biden’s poor performance and sagging numbers and Youngkin’s temperamentally courteous, wonky persona that makes it hard for McAuliffe to try and run against Trump instead of his actual opponent.
But what Democrats also should be grappling with is that instead of incorporating college-educated suburbanites into a permanent governing majority for a centrist Democratic Party (as might have happened after 2020), they have created a newly radicalized suburban backlash against their woke-ism.
Speaking of the burbs, there’s an underrated (if underdeveloped) 1980s movie starring Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher called The ’Burbs that may hold some lessons for us. It’s ostensibly a black comedy, but by editing out about 15 minutes of the campy parts, you could end up with a Jordan Peele-esque horror film that would hold up today.
The plot involves Hanks’ character who, during a week’s “staycation,” grows increasingly convinced that his new neighbors are Satanists. The trope suggests that a sort of paranoia befalls bored affluent suburbanites with too much time on their hands. (Spoiler alert: Hanks’ character appears obsessed for most of the movie, but he turns out to be right, which is an analogy for suburbanites who sense a legitimate threat that is sometimes obscured by conspiracy theories.)
I started thinking about this film again recently, when it became clear that a lot of suburbanites are being awakened to problems in their own neighborhoods. No, their neighbors aren’t Satanists (despite what QAnon may tell you), but their way of life is being threatened and condemned, while they go about mowing their lawns and enduring hellish commutes into D.C.
As long as Trump isn’t around to mess up the GOP coalition (by keeping some of us at home), Democrats should think twice about poking this bear. Otherwise, they may find they have awoken a sleeping giant. In the ’burbs.