The Nationalization of Local Politics
When it comes to the culture wars and the polling place, history repeats itself again
For the past two decades, a friend and I have talked about writing a book tentatively titled Soundbites for Liberals. It’s built around the notion that Democrats need to develop pithy catchphrases that can rile up their base in the same way Republicans have successfully done time and again.
No matter where you sit, it’s obvious Democratic candidates continue to bury themselves in details and nuance, often so deeply they seem helpless, feckless or both. That’s why the outcome of Virginia’s gubernatorial race was a surprise only to the losing candidate.
Terry McAuliffe followed the same path that cost Hilary Clinton the 2016 presidential election, unable to fight the thunderclaps of the culture wars engulfing the state and, increasingly, the country. Republicans tapped into the frustrations of their base over masks and vaccines, policies involving critical race theory and anti-racist curriculum in schools, and distrust over the outcome of the most recent presidential election. Swing voters followed.
This approach is not new. Republicans won the presidency in five of six elections from 1968 to 1988 as Southern voters fled the Democratic Party. The only Democrat to win: Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia and ran in 1976 following Watergate.
Nationalization of local issues
The grocery store checkout line is full of impulse buys we’ve come to expect: candy, mints, bags of chips and Cheez-its, sodas, water, magazines, and tabloids. The latter two are not as prominent as they were just five years ago, but you can still find stories of celebrity breakups, political scandals, and aliens. Let’s not forget aliens.
The public’s deregulation of news in favor of online rumors and misinformation has filtered its way down to the local level. Facts today are like traffic lanes in New York City; they’re there, but you don’t have to follow them.
“People are seeing more things through a national lens, but they’re channeling their activities locally,” says Daniel Hopkins, author of The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized. “People are taking what they see on Fox News and read in The New York Times or on social media, and there’s no filter of a local reporter or editor to point out how accurate this is [locally].”
Hopkins noted that print newspapers have largely vanished, replaced by websites catering to either side of the political spectrum. And because these sites rely on clicks to get advertisers, the headlines and content often are misleading in a National Enquirer kind of way.
“It should not come as a surprise that a national set of debates around race and policing would become contentious when people’s exposure to them is almost solely through social media or polarized news media outlets,” he said.
I interviewed Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania professor, last month for a story on the multiple controversies facing school boards. In the story, which appears in the next issue of American School Board Journal, Hopkins and others note critical race theory is not taught in K-12 schools. It is an academic framework that says systemic racism is ingrained in U.S. history.
But, in the wake of debates over how U.S. history is taught, it has become a powerful soundbite.
Last fall, I spoke with Jason Kamras and Rodney Robinson, two former National Teachers of the Year, for a story on the teaching of U.S. history. At the time, critical race theory had not become the topic it is today. Traditionalists were angry about the tearing down of monuments in the wake of 2020’s racial justice protests and, as I wrote then, “the prospect of teaching a curriculum that does not put Christopher Columbus, the Mayflower, and the Founding Fathers front and center.”
Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year, is Richmond’s superintendent. Robinson, who was teaching U.S. history when he won the award in 2019, now oversees the district’s racial justice programs and minority teacher recruitment. We met on Monument Avenue at the site of the massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Robinson, who is Black, said he worked to teach a broader view of U.S. history than the one he found in textbooks. “The history of America is a very diverse one, but it’s always told from a white point of view,” he said. “The curriculum framework for the state goes along with the textbooks, and everyone is in the same business, so they leave out diverse voices and diverse history. And some people don’t want to change how they’re doing it, no matter what.”
Fear of change
Change is scary because you lose control over your environment. When that change results in the loss of power, real or perceived, it makes some lose all sense of reason.
Adam Laats, an education and history professor at New York’s Binghamton University, said many white Christian parents are fearful their children will not share their worldview, which is “a sense of proprietary ownership over American society.” The one constant, he said is the group’s “sense of fighting for power for us.”
“Disruptors want to spread fear to make something seem scary,” Laats said. “There’s not a ton of damage that can be done to a face by wearing a mask.”
Laats believes some parents have attached themselves to CRT and transgender debates because they worry they are losing control over what their children can and should learn in school.
“Part of the fuel for these fires is a sense of demographic change,” Laats said. “There’s this sense that our kids are changing. They’re becoming more actively anti-racist, more accepting of LGBTQ+ differences. Instead of pointing to YouTube, social media, and the signposts of a changing culture, parents say, ‘The school board just passed a new bathroom rule and a new pronoun rule and therefore it’s the school board that’s causing this stuff.’”
Common sense tells you there’s not a conspiracy lurking in every classroom. Common sense tells you that a cabal of elected officials aren’t meeting behind closed doors to discuss ways to indoctrinate your children. But common sense is now like toilet paper; it is in very short supply.
Culture trumps policy
Bill Clinton was the last Democratic president to understand this simple rule of politics: Culture trumps policy. His centrist politics — tough on crime, tough on welfare — appealed to the swing voters who had defected the party in the early 1990s. Ultimately, those politics hurt more people — especially Blacks and those in low-income communities — than they helped.
But, in my view, it was his signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement that fractured the Democratic Party forever. NAFTA alienated what working class New Deal Democrats, social conservatives and moderates who supported the party because of its views on labor. They started shifting to the right in the late 1960s, but the shift went into high gear because “elite” Democrats “stole” their jobs and security post-NAFTA. Their continued anger led to the emergence of the Tea Party when Barack Obama was elected.
It wasn’t until after the 2016 election that Democrats started mirroring the GOP’s playbook. Then Covid hit and protests over policing followed. Enthusiasm around the protests waned by the fall, however, and gridlocked national politics and disagreements about the federal role only became more heightened. The contentious aftermath of presidential election, marred by the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, seemed to dampen Democratic activism even more.
The Democratic base has become apathetic, debating over how to describe race and gender through words rather than lasting policies. The Republican Party, to its credit, pounced on that apathy, stuck to its factually challenged script, and came up with a list of its own definitions.
“As a country, we have transitioned from communities discussing property taxes and how much we’re willing to spend on schools to issues such as how we teach race and how we treat students who are gender nonconforming,” Hopkins said during our interview. “For decades, we worried that Americans were disengaged. Now we’re worried that extremists are too engaged. And these are the kinds of issues that don’t lend themselves to ready compromises, but national emotive issues that stir people up.”
It is, after all, a winning formula.