If you care about the working of democracy, American style, then you loved the election outcomes in both Virginia and New Jersey last Tuesday. The winners wore different party labels in each state, but beyond that difference was a more important quality that united them. As Tom Kean said repeatedly after his landslide reelection as New Jersey's governor, the message of his victory was that the politics of inclusion was the right politics for the GOP. Since that was the explicit message of the history-making Democratic ticket in Virginia, on which a white man, a black man and a white woman rode into office together, it made the day's verdict unanimous.
In other times, that might have seemed unremarkable or self-evident. But these are not normal times. Ideologues on the right openly preach the politics of polarization. As they see it, the electoral trick is to identify those issues that might separate 51 percent of the voters from their fellow citizens, then lay into them with a vengeance. At the end of the process lies a disaffected minority and an arrogant, vengeful majority determined to put its entire program into place without regard for compromise, conciliation or political generosity.
On the left, there are still voices that proclaim salvation through ideological purity. They are a healthy reminder that the litmus test on single issues was not invented by the right, but sprang from the fervid certainties of left-wing crusaders in the 1960s. If you were not willing to sign on the line for issues A through Z, you were not a "true Democrat," they said. The great middle mass of Americans watched from the sidelines and decided they weren't willing to play under those terms. They went up for grabs, and along came Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
The election returns from two admittedly dissimilar states were affected by cirumstances that do not overlap. Tom Kean has governed so well that he went from the narrowest of gubernatorial triumphs four years ago to the largest of margins in his second. The Democratic ticket in Virginia benefitted in large measure from the esteem in which most voters hold outgoing Gov. Charles Robb, who campaigned extensively for all three.
But the similarities are nonetheless worth remarking. Kean has been remarkably consistent, and canny, in reaching out to blacks and other minorities, to environmentalists and to labor. Equally consistent in his economic conservatism, he has nonetheless preached and practiced a theory of growth which holds that it not only can, but must, raise all boats. In his approach, he has been the antithesis of the New Right believers who dominated the Republican National Convention in Dallas.
In Virginia, many observers, including me, doubted that its voters were ready for the striking diversity of the Democratic slate. No matter that by most conventional standards, none of the three statewide candidates was left of the national center. No matter that all ran carefully crafted campaigns stressing those things that bound them to Virginia's traditional concerns rather than to the national party's platform. At bottom, it was still a black man and a white woman's presence that symbolized what the election was all about -- and the voters responded by providing victories in proportions that ranged from the comfortable to the overwhelming.
There is nothing partisan in the cause for cheer in the way the winners fashioned their triumphs in New Jersey and Virginia. They proved that the old textbook notions of what the nation is all about aren't so wrong after all. In a cynical season, that's the best news of all.