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In Virginia, Contestation as You Know It: Get Back to Making Policy!

by Jessica Gienow-Hecht

№ 36/2021 from Nov 04, 2021

"Virginia is an urgent wake-up call for the two camps within the Democratic Party”. Based on the recent Republican election victory in Virginia, Jessica Gienow-Hecht analyses the situation for liberal democracy at large in the USA, exactly one year after President Joe Biden's election victory. Even if Biden’s approval ratings are down, the author finds that Virginia is not a triumph for Donald Trump, but a rejection of Biden’s social domestic policies or failure to make good at these – and a sign of stalemated politics with risky consequences. 

Glenn Youngkin during his 2021 campaign in Wytheville + Radford, Virginia

Glenn Youngkin during his 2021 campaign in Wytheville + Radford, Virginia

So, here we go again: Two days ago, on November 2nd, 2021, Republicans swept Virginia: Businessman Glenn Youngkin defeated former Governor, Terry McAuliffe in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia (the first time in over a decade that the state has elected a Republican candidate) while Republicans also won the races for governor, lt. governor, attorney general (narrowly in each case: 50%-48%), and also gained control of the House of Delegates. Political observers have been quick to declare the outcome as a clear statement against Biden’s social policies, notably the “Build Back Better Plan” designed to fuel the U.S. economy, address climate change, modernize infrastructure and expand social policies. Youngkin, after all, had been running on a ticket supporting small government and low taxes, critical of critical race theory teaching in schools, critical of federal and state anti-Corona measures. For observers, the specter on the horizon is, of course, a more profound contestation of the liberal script in the form of Donald Trump. Does Virginia mean Trump will run again – and win?

Ironically, yesterday a year ago, on November 2020, Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential elections. He’s been in office for more than nine months. Let’s pause and think, for a moment, what the Virginia elections may entail and how good or bad the situation really is for liberal democracy at large. Internationally, the Biden administration has tried to correct and rebuilt much of what his predecessor had destroyed. Domestically, the record is more difficult to assess. Biden has achieved much in the realm of social welfare and social policy, ranging from school lunches to the increase of minimal wages, from gun control to vaccination policies. Most importantly, he has proposed one of the most ambitious infrastructure and social reform plans in the history of the United States, ideologically on a par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” in the 1930s, Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” in the 1960s. Given what a U.S. president can do domestically, realistically, he’s been at work and achieved much.

What is more, he is working hard to keep his election campaign promises, among those the effort to rejoin the Paris climate accords and revive relations with estranged allies,

Yet there is no doubt that the mood in Washington and beyond is sour, „unbeliebt und ausgebremst“ (unpopular and thwarted), as one German radio commentator put it yesterday morning. And mood, is the currency of political success in liberal democracies. Biden’s approval rates are down to 41%, down from 56% in June and way below those 88% of George W. Bush or even Barack Obama’s 53%. That said, Trump did worse with 37% in October of his first year.[1] The decline has less to do with the broken promises or measures taken, and more with both Biden’s decision, aka campaign promise, to pull out of Afghanistan as well as the ongoing debates around the Build Back Better Plan, part of which (a sizeable 1.75 trillion) is currently up for vote. Yet even Democrats are torn on the issue: progressives feel that reforms does not go far enough while moderates/conservatives such as Sen. Joe Manchin express reservations over the topline number, economic impact as well as the specifics accorded to an individual stipulations.

Both Afghanistan and the debates around the Build Back Better Plan, according to many observers, have made Biden look “weak,” internationally and domestically, in public as well as within his own party, to the extent that a significant part of the electorate has changed their minds about his competency. One might argue that this unfair, that he tried to do his best, that he is out there, every day reaching out, mending ties, seeking compromise.

One could also point out that such stalemated politics are historically not unusual, indeed, resemble nineteenth-century politics of the pre-Civil War period or the Gilded Age. Like then, the system is stalled and the act of doing policy has been replaced by intra-party partisanship. And perhaps, like then, eventually the party may collapse (like the Whigs, in the 1850s) or one wing may overthrow the other (like the Agrarian Democrats/Populists who ditched the Bourbon Democrats, in 1896). In any case, this is, by all means, a picture book example of an endogenous contestation of the liberal script: deep internal party factionalism over reform petrify the policy making process -- while opponents profit.

Which brings us back to Virginia. Here, Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe was ahead in the polls, did have a real chance to win the day – and lost. Independent and undecided voters appear to have played a major role in the outcome of the elections. That’s another way of saying that for one thing, voting continues to morph into an adhoc deed, unpredictable, perhaps even on the part of the voter him- or herself, on the day of an election.

Yet the more notable phenomenon is this: In Virginia, Youngkin, a billionaire who financed his own campaign, started off projecting himself as a Trump’s man (which he was). He then realized that Trump was anathema in the eyes of more than half of the electorate and, accordingly, refrained from openly embracing the former president (and from inviting him to the campaign); Instead, he shifted to running against Biden and especially the Progressive wing of the Democratic party, focusing on issues such as transgender bathrooms and critical race theory in schools. The strategy paid off as 17% of Youngkin voters stated in exit polls that they had a negative view of Trump.

Meaning: What we see here, first of all, is that Virginia is not a triumph for Donald Trump. Second, Virginia is, nonetheless, a victory of the Republican Party and a rejection of Biden’s social domestic policies (or his failure to make good on these). Third and most importantly, Virginia is an urgent wake-up call for the two camps within the Democratic Party to remember their history lesson, perceive where the real challenges and the real opponents are -- and get back to constructive if tedious policymaking and cooperation, within the party, again.

[1] Gallup, Presidential Approval Ratings, https://news.gallup.com/poll/329384/presidential-approval-ratings-joe-biden.aspx

Prof. Dr. Jessica Gienow-Hecht is a Principal Investigator at SCRIPTS, member of the Research Unit "Borders", Co-Coordinator of the Research Project “Gender, Borders, Memory” and Professor of International History at Freie Universität Berlin.