Jon Liss

We Need to Walk With Both Feet: Virginia Election Reflections

We Need to Walk With Both Feet: Virginia Election Reflections
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Members of New Virginia Majority rally for the right to vote in January 2021. They were pressing the state legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment ending felon disenfranchisement. “We must develop the mature practice that better utilizes mass protest as well as mass voter mobilization,” Jon Liss writes. Photo courtesy of New Virginia Majority.

By Jon Liss

The surprising Republican victory in the Virginia state elections confirmed some things we already knew and sharpened some strategic questions. We saw again how much candidates and campaigns matter, and how easy it is to reconstitute a white voting bloc that had been temporarily splintered by the extremist excesses of Trump. And the results force us to grapple with how we calibrate the relationships between mass mobilization and voting, between coordination with the Democrats and independent political organizing—and how we leverage our deep base-building work to get to the scale we need to win elections and struggle for governing power.

BY THE NUMBERS

Virginia holds elections in odd years, in part to keep Black and working-class voter turnout down.  When New Virginia Majority (NVM) started 14 years ago, turnout topped out at less than 45%. In many of the precincts with a majority of people of color where we worked, turnout was in single digits to mid-teens.  This year all three statewide offices were up for election, as were all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, the lower house of our legislature. The State Senate serves four-year turns and will be up for election in 2023.  It has 40 members and now has a 21–19 Democratic majority.

In 14 years of work, NVM chipped away at Republican domination of state government. In 2019, we flipped the legislature, giving the state a Democratic trifecta. This year the Republicans won the races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, and gained a 52–48 majority in the House. About 55% of all registered voters turned out, the highest for an off-year election since 1997.

RE-GLUING THE WHITE BLOC

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin built a statewide coalition of white voters, carrying every category except college-educated women. He patched together Trumpers and never-Trumpers. It was not a given that this would happen. Whiteness creates the possibility or even likelihood of this bloc being formed; it is not, however, preordained.

Virginia has largely transitioned from a rural plantation and tobacco economy to a state where dynamic growth is taking place in high tech, finance/ real estate, the public sector, and formerly public sector jobs that have been privatized. This has created a “swing” white petit bourgeois or middle class. It is a suburban, mostly white population that Democrats and Republicans struggle over. In the 2020 presidential race, this population helped give Biden his 10% margin of victory. In 2021, Youngkin won them back by fanning white parents’ anxieties over what was happening to their children in the public schools.

His campaign linked disparate grievances over public education into a coherent critique of the approach taken by the Democrats and their candidate, Terry McAuliffe. This interview with Youngkin’s campaign strategists shows how the campaign proactively forged the critique and capitalized on a monumental debate blunder by McAuliffe. In response to parents who wanted to ban books associated with “critical race theory,” including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The Youngkin campaign was able to successfully create an argument that this wasn’t about white supremacy but rather a matter of returning public education to the parents. It was a factually thin argument, but it created the needed political space to move tens of thousands of white middle-class suburban voters. These are people who would take their children to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Washington, D.C. and who love the diversity of Northern Virginia.  However, the Republicans successfully played to their anxieties.

FIGHT FOR EVERY VOTE

The Republicans also vied for the Democrats’ traditional base. Youngkin, a multi-millionaire who dropped $20 million of his own money into the race, pursued every voter and grouping of voters across the state. His campaign appealed to 12 different language groups, from Latinx to Ethiopians to varied Asian nationalities; it ran few if any anti-immigrant ads, which represents a huge shift from the recent past. In many places, 5–8% of Biden voters of color voted for Youngkin. In others, people just didn’t vote.  This added up. In Alexandria where more than 75% of voters supported McAuliffe, Republicans had tables well stocked with lit and refreshments at almost every precinct. Picking up last minute, low-information voters by being there also added up across an entire state.

THE DEMOCRATS ARE NOT A CLASS ACT

The Democratic Party’s failure to address the lower strata of the working class in its policies and programs has compounded the problems it had holding its base and winning some white voters. The remnants of white industrial workers, including rural agricultural workers and former miners, powered huge Republican majorities throughout the western (Route 81) corridor in Virginia. These voters were critical in defeating a Right to Work referendum in 2018 and in building the vote for Trump in 2016 and 2020. It is in these areas that we also see the 5–8% of working people of color voting Republican.

Since the late 1970s, the Democratic Party has centered public sector workers, or what could be called high-education and low/moderate salary workers. (Think teachers and social workers.) It has appealed to workers through their nationality/race and gender/gender identification. Race and gender are real and important categories of analysis, principles of organization, policy development and struggle. People live complicated lives, and the issues we face are often impacted by multiple identities or pieces of our lives. Housing, wages, access to healthcare and beyond are all issues that we can talk about in ways that point toward a working-class agenda—but if we can’t get anywhere near the tiller of the Democratic Party, we can’t steer the conversation in ways that will address working-class needs and demands.

INDEPENDENT VS. COORDINATED WORK

How do those of us in working-class, multi-racial organizations better influence and shape the Democratic candidates that we endorse and mobilize voters for? Messaging, policy, and voter targeting are worked out with the campaign. The candidate may have the preponderance of power, but how do we contribute to a winning strategy rather than being seen as electoral turnout “vendors’? Recruiting and training candidates from our base is part of the solution, but at what point do we need to “walk”? At what point are we better served by independent work as opposed to coordinated work?

Our ability to influence the narrative and policy direction of a campaign is closely tied to our ability to build to scale. There’s a very real tension between the scale of our community organizing and the scale of outreach and mobilization needed for elections. We may have 200,000 people we’ve been talking to over 14 years, but compare that to the more than 3.2 million people who voted in this election. We do door-to-door individual conversations, but campaign ads on TV are creating the high-level narrative arc. At best the numbers of people we reach with deep (or community) organizing runs in the low thousands. We do leadership development with many of them, but how do we build that into political education at the scale we’ll need to thread the dynamics of the current moment?

VOTING PLUS MOBILIZING

A key part of our work at NVM has been winning people over to the notion that there is a link between voting and a “better life.” This has been a slow process.  “Using democracy to win more democracy” is great when we have the power to secure health care for hundreds of thousands of people, or win back voting rights for 200,000 formerly incarcerated people, or change the rules so many immigrants can legally drive a car.  The flip side is that the election of Youngkin, in Virginia, can easily lead to four years of playing defense and fighting the worst that is proposed.

Given the anti-democratic structures which were set up to protect the “white republic”—which in Virginia include our off-year elections and voting rights restrictions—we will need great coordination between electoral and non-electoral struggles for change. We can’t just advocate “voting” if we don’t better utilize local direct action and mass disruptive strategies directly linked with voter mobilization. We can’t see these strategies as divisive but must develop the mature practice that better utilizes mass protest as well as mass voter mobilization.

This year and last, those things did stay in different camps. Young voters who filled the streets of Richmond for 100 consecutive days after the murder of George Floyd didn’t turn out to vote. How do we learn to walk with both feet? It’s difficult but we will have to do it.

NVM has worked for years on a process to end felon disenfranchisement in the state. We have what we call the “Right to Vote” club. The state was almost ready to pass a constitutional amendment—but now the make-up of the legislature has changed. We can’t just go testify with 25 or 50 people. We’ll need crowds in the thousands to be sure the proposal doesn’t get buried in a legislative committee, never to see the light of day.

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