How Democrats Can Break the Vicious Political Cycle – The American Prospect


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The Republican Party has a new star in Glenn Youngkin. The buttoned-up former CEO of the private equity giant Carlyle Group was elected governor of Virginia earlier this month, after defeating Democratic Party establishmentarian and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The political press has taken a lot of interest in Youngkin after the win, because he managed to somewhat distance himself from Donald Trump and succeed in a light-blue swing state that overlaps with the D.C. media market. He represents something new, at least temperamentally, within the GOP, and there is a belief in some circles that his blueprint should be emulated nationally in 2022. There are even those suggesting he should run for president in 2024.

As opposed to the more nationalistic populism many in his party have embraced, Youngkin’s big political innovation was to “localize” cultural issues. His big applause line on the trail was about defeating “critical race theory” in Virginia schools; he echoed calls to ban Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved from being taught in public schools; and he campaigned on a K-12 curriculum reform that would supposedly empower parents to decide what was and was not taught to their children.

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Though some outlets have noted that the “critical race theory” panic is little more than a right-wing straw man, and that Youngkin’s education reform “plan” is quite short on details; 52 percent of voters in the Washington Post Virginia exit poll agreed that parents should have “a lot” of say in what their children’s school teaches, while 32 percent said that they should at least have “some.” Youngkin’s cultural rhetoric, centered around education and aimed at suburban parents, proved a winner in the current electoral climate.

On top of the cultural/education stuff, which was never too far away from anything he talked about, Youngkin homed in on the usual GOP “law and order” rhetoric and decried what he called “radical” plans to defund the police. He also promised to cut taxes, and vowed to overturn certain mask and vaccine mandates for state employees.

Glenn Youngkin’s big political innovation was to “localize” cultural issues.

Youngkin won white voters 62-38, improving on Trump’s 2020 Virginia margin with that demographic by 9 percent. He also did 7 percent better than Trump with registered Republicans and 10 percent better with self-described “conservatives.”

The Youngkin electoral blueprint will almost certainly be replicated in 2022, particularly in some Midwestern and Eastern Seaboard states. Stringent acolytes will seek to capitalize on local cultural controversies, campaign against COVID mandates, and attack Joe Biden and the Democrats on crime and economics. Trump’s involvement remains a wild card, and it will be difficult to keep him away from the campaign trail during a national midterm cycle, but GOP candidates have been given a potentially potent strategy to win elections in this political environment that is different than just kowtowing to Trump and hoping for the best.

So, then comes the big question. Given the current bleak political environment, what can Democrats do? Are they just completely doomed in the short and medium term?

Well, as it stands, 21st-century American voting and turnout patterns are extremely cyclical, and it seems that there’s only so much a given party can do at a given time to save themselves. Moreover, voting rights restrictions and gerrymandering in Republican-controlled states have unevened the so-called playing field. Still, there is a path for Democrats to counter Youngkinism and the GOP at large, though it will require a fair deal of reinvention and reform.

Let’s first consider the candidate the Democrats nominated to oppose Youngkin in Virginia and why said candidate did not, in the end, represent a viable alternative to the governor-elect.

Terry McAuliffe served as the governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018 and was seeking a nonconsecutive second term. He was an underling of Rep. Tony Coelho, the Democrat most responsible for getting Democrats to accept and attract corporate fundraising money in the 1980s. He then made a name for himself as a private fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1990s, something he proved so adept at that he was named chair of the DNC in 2001. As governor, McAuliffe was cozy with big business, most famously lobbying Jeff Bezos and Amazon successfully to build their HQ2 in Richmond. He also rewarded fossil fuel companies like Dominion Energy for campaign contributions with carbon emission–increasing pipelines, and sometimes blurred ethical lines when it came to political activity and personal enrichment.

Ultimately, McAuliffe was not equipped to counter Youngkin because he was not prepared or willing to engage in cultural arguments, or credible to offer economic alternatives.

The answer is for the Democratic Party to shift the traditional modes of political engagement and embrace a new generation of candidates.

Take, in the latter case, the fact that McAuliffe was an investor in Youngkin’s company. The Gravel Institute put it best in an election night tweet: “The Republican who just won in Virginia was an executive at the Carlyle Group—a private equity firm that has laid off thousands of unionized workers at the firms it acquires,” they wrote. “But the Democrats couldn’t attack him on it. Because the Democratic nominee was a Carlyle investor.”

There are two problems here. The first is that the Democrats are overly reliant on out-of-touch corporatists who prove unelectable when faced with disciplined, astute opposition like Glenn Youngkin. The second, related issue is that even when these kinds of Democratic candidates win, they often do not meaningfully change the status quo, and thus the vicious cycle in American politics persists. Voters elect a Republican, he proves unpopular, is replaced by a Democrat who also eventually proves unpopular, and then you get another Republican, and so on.

The answer, really, is for the Democratic Party to shift the traditional modes of political engagement and embrace a new generation of candidates. This may seem fantastical, and maybe it is, but it can be said that there are up-and-coming politicians out there right now presenting a different way of operating.

For instance, there’s John Fetterman, who is running for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat next year. Fetterman is a plain-talking but savvy communicator who is more than willing to tackle GOP cultural fear-mongering head on and express the failings of business-as-usual economics with working-class voters. Agree or disagree with him, he is someone with core convictions (such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour nationally) who is willing to defend his positions directly. He seems to always have voter interests, rather than corporate ones, in mind. Morally as much as politically, it is a style and substance the Democrats need to embrace and emulate.

Admittedly, there can never be a guarantee that any particular candidate is a shoo-in to win at any given time. Fetterman is running in a deeply divided state, and will face an onslaught from right-wing media and dark money. Still, the Democratic Party has a much better shot at fostering something meaningful and breaking the vicious electoral cycle of the 21st century when they nominate candidates who are in touch with voter concerns and are willing to fight for them. They’d have an even better chance if they actually won some of those fights, and delivered tangible results to people when in power. Otherwise, candidates like Glenn Youngkin, and the consultants who prop them up, will always have an advantage because they are in touch with their voters’ cultural paranoia and biases.

In the end, Trump, or at least Trumpism, was never so distant from Youngkin. Whether or not the former president remains an active player in the national political scene, the Democrats need to convey genuine and meaningful alternatives to the right-wing machine or else prolong our destructive cyclical malaise.

November 22, 2021
5: 00 AM

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