The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lesson from the election: Democrats spend too much time on institutions, not enough on the voters

Pro-Youngkin signs in Ashburn, Va., on Oct. 26. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Never underestimate the power of the pendulum swing of politics, which regularly redistributes political power from those who have it to those who don’t. Politicians float into office trailing clouds of promises, reality almost inevitably disappoints, and voter expectations come down to earth with a thump. Then they start looking around for someone who hasn’t failed yet.

But even allowing for what political scientists call “thermostatic public opinion,” the Republican win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race — and a close shave in formerly true-blue New Jersey — suggest something more than the pendulum. Triumphant Republicans cite critical race theory and residual parental rage over school closures. Dejected Democrats blame a racist White backlash and partisan media stoking imaginary fears.

Perhaps we can resolve this debate by embracing the healing power of “and.” Conservatives are indeed making a patriotic cause out of every ham-fisted lecture or borderline racist educator training. But they can only do so because the left keeps providing them fodder. And the legalistic Democratic response to those concerns has been spectacularly ineffective, alienating the electorate while illustrating the limits, and even the dangers, of the left’s “long march through the institutions.” Having taken over so much of academia, the media, and various government and corporate bureaucracies, Democrats count too much on their ability to work the refs, which impairs their efforts to connect with voters.

As it happens, Richard Hanania of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology has just written a long essay in which he identifies a common cycle: Left-wing activists and media types take some extreme position, which Democratic politicians initially shun and Republicans turn to electoral advantage. But behind the scenes, “No matter what happens electorally, bureaucrats, courts, HR staff, and other members of the managerial class make sure that the left-wing position wins.” Eventually, “Public opinion moves left and accommodates the new reality. Democrats go all in on the new consensus” while Republicans try to stage a modified limited capitulation, accepting the premise but nibbling away at the implementation.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

Yet almost 50 years after Roe v. Wade, it is now conservatives who have gotten control of the courts, in anticipation of which Republican state legislators have been enacting muscular legislation intended to ban or sharply restrict abortion, with surprisingly little political reaction thus far. Nor have they made many rhetorical concessions to pro-choice sensibilities.

Or consider affirmative action. In 1996, California passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 209, which forbade the state government (including universities) from using race-conscious policies. In 2020, another ballot initiative was proposed to reinstate affirmative action. Voters in deep-blue, majority-minority California rejected that reversal by more than 10 points.

As Hanania says, left-wing policies often achieve more success through managerial and legal channels than they could by appealing to voters. Over time, as status-quo bias kicks in, that can even provide a backdoor route to popular support. But as the alternative examples show, just as frequently it doesn’t. At which point the consensus of the managerial class can become a problem rather than an aid.

To return to critical race theory, and how Republicans made it an issue: Was the name technically inaccurate when applied to public school curriculums? In many cases, yes. Was the breathless conservative media coverage making what was happening sound more radical, and more common, than it actually is? Also yes. Would some of the angry parents really prefer the lightest possible gloss on America’s history of racial injustices? Yes once more. Is it impractical for every parent to have a veto over every lesson? Undoubtedly.

Nonetheless, the absolutely worst possible political response was to say I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” as Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe did. Nor was it much better to insist that nothing was happening in schools — even as schools were talking about their “equity work” — or to deny that CRT had anything to do with primary or secondary schools even as the educational bureaucracy was calling it an “important analytic tool in the field of education.”

No, spoke too soon — the worst possible reaction was to suggest that those who objected were driven by “parasite of white racial anxiety” or simply “loves white supremacy,” to harvest just two of a series of sizzling hot-takes from prominent media figures about the Virginia results.

It was as if the managerial class shouted in one hectoring voice: “Respect our authority!” Voters exist to pay taxes to fund the schools, not to have stupid, racist opinions about what should be taught there. They certainly aren’t entitled to stand in the way of the justice agenda that their betters have already decided on.

A political strategy of “sit down and shut up” is self-evidently disastrous. But it is even more dangerous when it suffuses the private murmurings of a protected class, because that makes it so much easier for them to avoid learning anything from the resulting electoral rebukes. They just keep making plays for the refs while the fans defect to the other team.