Youngkin has followed a familiar pattern for Republican candidates. A wealthy businessman from the corporate wing of the party gets its nomination, in what could signal a campaign aimed at swing voters. He then decides the race will turn on enthusiasm from the base, so he transforms himself into an imitation culture warrior. A new issue emerges, one that promises to produce rage and fear among GOP voters. Burying any semblance of integrity he might have had, he embraces its potential for demagoguery and fearmongering.
Then if he wins, the issue on which he built his campaign is immediately forgotten.
And the voters who put him there? Weirdly enough, they often don’t seem to care. They’ve been manipulated and lied to so often — by their politicians and the conservative media — yet they’re fine with it. Unlike Democratic voters, they don’t expect much in the way of genuine government action. It’s as if all the pandering and outrage was its own reward.
Imagine it’s January 2023, and Gov. Youngkin gathers his staff for a meeting to celebrate the end of his first year in office. “I want to congratulate all of you,” he says. “We’ve done just what we said we would: For the last year, all of you have worked tirelessly, day in and day out, to make sure no critical race theory is taught in any school in the state.”
That scene is preposterous to the point of parody. The idea that what Youngkin would do as governor has even a remote relationship to what he is running on is absurd.
That’s not the case with every campaign — sometimes Republicans find political benefit in an issue that’s on their actual agenda, like cutting taxes — but when they dash to the front of an angry mob, everyone knows what’s going on.
The prototypical example is probably George H.W. Bush, who centered his 1988 campaign on Willie Horton; ask a historian how much of his presidency was devoted to prison furlough policy. Four years ago, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, a high-priced corporate lobbyist, waged a scorched-earth campaign to convince voters that if Ralph Northam became Virginia governor the MS-13 gang would take over the state and murder everyone’s children. No one really believed that Gillespie would pay more than passing attention to MS-13 if he had won.
And today, what’s happening in Virginia is a combination of sincere anger on the part of conservative parents who fear that schools don’t represent their values, and an AstroTurf campaign funded by dark money groups in which Republican operatives pretend to be just concerned parents for their Fox News appearances. Youngkin promises to “ban critical race theory on day one,” which is kind of like promising to ban schools from discussing the theory of loop quantum gravity — you could say you’re doing it, but schoolchildren weren’t learning about it before anyway.
Multiple Republican states have passed measures this year imposing limits on what teachers are allowed to say about race, each one more stupid and authoritarian than the last. But if there’s anyone who thinks Youngkin actually cares about this, it would be a shock. Everyone knows what’s going on: Like Willie Horton and MS-13, this is just something he’s feeding the rubes.
And if he wins, it will be quickly forgotten. He’ll issue a proclamation, and maybe there will be a hastily-written bill that will die in the legislature. But he’ll spend his time working on his real agenda, which is mostly about tax cuts and making sure corporations are unencumbered by pesky regulations.
The media play a key role in the perpetuation of these cycles: Once a Republican gets elected, reporters barely bother asking what they’re going to do about the fake issue they ran on. Because we’re all so savvy, we know it was just an act. Indeed, if Youngkin wins he’ll be praised for having been so skillful and shrewd about it.
So this is the state of democratic accountability in the United States: Democrats run on a real agenda they struggle to deliver on because of the way the system enables GOP minority rule and makes progress nearly impossible, and Republicans run on a fake agenda they don’t bother trying to deliver on. It’s enough to make you think our democracy is profoundly sick.