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Media narrative got education’s role in Virginia election backwards

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin greets supporters and potential voters at the Alexandria Farmers Market in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

As has been widely noted, progressives and the legacy media have a pretty straightforward explanation for the role education played in last week’s Virginia elections: It was a racist “dog whistle.” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart said the results showed that Republicans think “tap-dancing with white supremacy is their way back into power.” On election night, DNC chair Jaime Harrison explained on MSNBC, “This is a dog whistle to divide people. And so let’s call it what it is. It is about racial divisions, racial hatred, racial animosity.”

This is not just laughably off-base, it’s exactly backwards.

There’s the sheer weirdness of alleging it’s all deep-dyed racism in a state that President Biden won last year by ten points, where no Republican had won statewide in more than a decade, and where the winners included the state’s first black woman lieutenant governor and first Latino attorney general. Indeed, one needed a sociology degree from Georgetown to keep up with the rationalizations, what with black Republicans dismissed as the new face of white supremacy and Latino voters, long heralded as a cornerstone of the emerging Democratic majority, now denigrated as just another batch of white voters.

But such critiques of the “it’s all racism” explanation, while true, understate the significance of what Republican Glenn Youngkin did in winning the gubernatorial election.

In a high-turnout election, Youngkin won independents and made gains across the board — especially with school-age parents. This is an odd sort of racism. So, maybe there’s another explanation.

Youngkin didn’t use education to goose the base; he used it to bolster the image of him as a sensible, personable suburban dad and to connect with suburbanites and disaffected Biden voters. His education pitch was geared to showing that he understood how disruptive school closures were and why parents would be concerned when their high schooler starts lecturing them that urban riots are really just a heroic response to white supremacy culture.  

Indeed, while the specifics were quite different, Youngkin’s approach has a lot more in common with how Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama used education to appeal to the middle than with how Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden used attacks on the Common Core or calls for loan forgiveness to energize the base in 2016 and 2020.

For a long time, education has been a big part of how candidates courted the center. It gave them an opportunity to talk expansively about opportunity, responsibility, and shared values. In 1988, George H.W. Bush used his promise to be “the education president” to illustrate his “kinder and gentler” conservatism. In 2000, a commitment to “leave no child behind” was the signature pledge of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

For Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama, challenging teacher union orthodoxy, supporting charter schools, embracing notions like school uniforms, and talking about parental responsibility were all ways to highlight their centrist bona fides and counter GOP claims that they were reckless revolutionaries or the tax-and-spend liberals of yore.

This approach has fallen by the wayside in recent years. In 2016, Donald Trump treated education as one more way to energize his base, promising to abolish the Common Core, embracing school choice, and not saying much intended to extend his appeal. In 2020, pushed by the sweeping offerings of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden played to the progressive base, embracing “free” college, college loan forgiveness, universal pre-K, and massive new federal outlays for K-12.

Well, the Virginia race was a case of back to the future.

When it came to education, Youngkin mostly argued that schools need to be open, listen to parents, and reject outlandish, ideological agendas. And this was an easy argument for him to make. After all, whether “critical race theory” (CRT) is formally taught in Virginia or not, CRT is certainly present in Virginia’s schools. Virginia’s Loudoun County was telling teachers that ideas like “independence and individual achievement” are racist hallmarks of “white individualism.”

In response to the complaints about CRT, sexually explicit images in school libraries, and school policies relating to gender, Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, tellingly said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” And then, despite parental frustration with Virginia’s prolonged school closures, in a tone-deaf bit of stunt-casting, McAuliffe had American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten — perhaps the individual most associated with excessive, intransigent school closings — headline his final rally

In the Virginia race, education helped Youngkin convince suburban parents that he got their frustration and felt their pain.

While his campaign offered the standard, wonky five-point education plan, Youngkin tended to focus on simple, non-wonky points: That schools ought to be open, responsive to parents, and reject racial caricature and campus-style extremism.

Whatever the talking heads may think at MSNBC, that’s a measured stance with widespread appeal.

In a polarized era, it’s been easy for pundits and pols to focus on mobilizing the base at the expense of swing voters. That’s had big implications for how we engage on education issues with social media snark standing in for serious debate. While many in the media seem to have missed it, Youngkin just pointed another way forward.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Critical race theory Dog whistle Donald Trump Education Elizabeth Warren Glenn Youngkin Hillary Clinton Jaime Harrison Joe Biden Mainstream media moderate Democrats old school Racism suburban voters Terry McAuliffe Virginia Virginia Governor race

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