Last week's GOP-friendly election results on Long Island and nationwide — particularly Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race — have been widely attributed to the perception that the Democrats are too far to the left on social issues. Some analysts blame right-wing demagoguery, others left-wing overreach. While all such interpretations should be approached with caution, particularly when it’s far too soon for a proper analysis of voter attitudes, Democrats would do well to heed the wake-up call.
The race in Virginia, where Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe led in polling right until the home stretch, certainly pivoted on social issues — specifically, schools and the teaching of "critical race theory." That issue has also fueled intense debate on Long Island.
The consensus among the liberal commentariat is that "critical race theory" is a racist dog-whistle — code for a backlash against education that honestly addresses the history of racial oppression in America and, more generally, against racial equality. Some have linked this backlash to the one against school integration in the 1960s. "This country simply loves white supremacy," tweeted journalist Jemele Hill in a sweeping generalization.
But we’re not in the 1960s. In Virginia, the pushback against progressivism in public schools was led by a diverse group of parents, some of whom are Asian American, Hispanic and Black. Youngkin’s running mate and the state’s next lieutenant governor is a Black woman, Winsome Sears, who grew up in the Bronx and made history as the first woman and first woman of color elected statewide. In an interview with the Virginia Mercury in August, Sears remarked that all of Black history should be taught, but "[i]f Critical Race Theory means that telling a child that once you emerge from the womb you are a racist and a colonizer … [t]hat's going to create morale problems for everybody."
"Critical race theory" in its strict sense — an academic analysis focused primarily on legal issues — may not be taught in public schools. But closely related "critical pedagogy," which encourages viewing everything through the lens of oppression and privilege, is very much a part of public education in progressive school districts. "Anti-racist" and "racial equity" education today often reflects the same principles. Elementary schools have assigned such texts as "Not My Idea," an illustrated children’s book in which "whiteness" is portrayed as literally a deal with the devil.
Yes, some of the pushback comes from people who don’t want their kids to be taught the history of slavery or Jim Crow. But not all the opposition should be lumped together.
It would be a mistake, of course, to blame the Democrats’ bad night entirely on the backlash against "woke" anti-racism, whether it’s proposals to "defund the police" or progressive education. To some extent, the results reflect frustration with anti-COVID-19 measures (associated with the Democrats) and the slowness of a return to normal life — as well as a general sense that the Democrats are failing at governance.
But what Democratic strategist James Carville has called "stupid wokeness" is a real problem for the Democrats — enough that moderate Republicans like Youngkin, who are smart enough to avoid being too closely linked to Donald Trump, can score victories even in "blue" areas. Given how wedded the GOP remains to Trumpism, that’s a problem for America, too.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.