The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Glenn Youngkin’s repulsive final push reveals a dark truth for Democrats

Glenn Youngkin, Republican gubernatorial nominee for Virginia. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

With Virginia voters set to elect a governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s final messages are positively overflowing with sunny calls for unity. One closing ad features footage of African American families smiling and strolling as Youngkin piously claims his campaign has been about “parents who want a better education for their kids.”

It’s a repulsively cynical finale, after a campaign built heavily around stoking white grievance with attacks on phantom critical race theory in schools and torquing up the base by feeding Donald Trump’s lies about our election system.

But this duplicity has benefited from a hidden assist. For months, Youngkin and his allies have pumped that raw right-wing sewage directly into the minds of the GOP base, behind the backs of moderate swing voters, via a right-wing media network that has no rival on the Democratic side.

Democrats will have to reckon with this. Whether Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins or loses — it will be very close either way — this race highlights this lopsided communications imbalance with unique clarity.

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The outcome will turn on several key factors. These include whether the deep-red western counties turn out; whether Youngkin can mitigate the suburban shift to Democrats; and how energized African Americans and suburbanites who are fully committed Democrats prove.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) spoke to supporters, stopping short of conceding to opponent Glenn Youngkin (R) on Nov. 2. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

As Ron Brownstein notes, Virginia’s demographics make a supercharged base essential to making this work. So Youngkin has struck a balance between feeding Trumpist appeals to that base while sanding down their rough edges and combining this with a cheerful suburban dad vibe to poach back moderate suburbanites.

The right-wing media is likely playing a major role in making this viable. Consider critical race theory, or CRT.

Let’s acknowledge that Youngkin isn’t using CRT as just a base motivator. He campaigns on it in swingy areas, and this will be partly a referendum on whether the issue can lure back the suburbs.

But to focus only on that misses the full story. Youngkin and his allies have transmitted some of their most visceral and hallucinogenic versions of the anti-CRT demagoguery straight to the base via right-wing media.

Right-wing gutter politics

Among these are Youngkin’s ugly falsehood that CRT has comprehensively infested Virginia’s school system, and his despicable lie that McAuliffe got the Justice Department to silence Virginia parents.

Indeed, Matt Gertz of Media Matters estimates that Fox News ran up to 100 segments on CRT in Virginia last spring, even though it isn’t taught in Virginia schools.

The Justice Department lie is particularly instructive: It’s a propagandistic recasting of the department’s efforts to protect education officials from violent threats. Cheerful suburban dad Youngkin is siding with the mob.

This is the right-wing politics of the moment. As Brian Beutler puts it:

The background din of everyday life in America today is feral Trumpers screaming at, threatening, or assaulting people who enforce the democratically legitimate rules of our society: servers and flight-attendants enforcing masking or vaccination requirements; school-boards setting curricula for their districts; government officials counting votes and certifying elections.

This is a politics built around maximizing social and civic antagonism. Attacking CRT says that subversive leftists and liberals are in cahoots with educational bureaucrats to indoctrinate and emotionally torment your children.

This is an old story: Since the 1970s, right-wing groups have seen allegedly anti-patriotic, anti-Christian and overly sexualized material taught to schoolkids as a useful way to “harness grassroots protest.”

Youngkin’s ad dramatizing a mother upset about her kid’s assignment traffics in these culture-warring base tropes. Yet it airbrushes out the fact that the assignment was a Toni Morrison novel and the objectionable scenes were horrors of slavery, since such absurdities might alienate educated Whites.

Similarly, when Youngkin talks education to moderate voters, we get soft slogans like “parents matter” — helped, admittedly, by a bad McAuliffe gaffe — or claims that banning CRT is a prerequisite for unity.

The soft side of Youngkin’s focus on education may indeed poach back suburbanites, and he also ran as a moderate on other issues. If that works, Democrats must reckon with this. But the other half of the problem — the communications imbalance — also matters.

A vast imbalance

To fight back, McAuliffe and his allies have slammed Youngkin for fomenting chaos and conflict in schools, all to appeal to a rabid right wing.

This is a welcome change, as Democrats sometimes balk at building their politics around social antagonisms, instead of accepting that sometimes, politics must be about unpleasant social conflict.

When they accept this, it can work. Amid 2020 urban unrest, candidate Joe Biden ran ads attacking Donald Trump and white supremacy as the true threat to civic order, refocusing on the violent lawlessness that the Trumpified GOP and parts of their coalition unleashed on our society.

Yet here’s the question in Virginia: Even though McAuliffe and his allies are doing this, is the message getting to their base as effectively as GOP culture warring gets to the GOP one?

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It’s doubtful. In contrast to countless Fox segments on CRT, Democrats rely on more conventional news outlets to reach their voters.

“One of the strategic advantages that Republicans have is they’re able to feed their base propaganda and misinformation directly through their news outlets,” David Turner, senior strategist at the Democratic Governors Association, told me.

“The Democratic Party needs to figure out ways to more actively court its base voters on a regular basis,” Turner continued.

None of this is an excuse. If Democrats lose, there will be many causes that will all require introspection. But one focus should be this communications imbalance. The dark truth is it’s gotten worse, and as Virginia shows, it’s helping put Democratic gains in real peril.