What does the election of a Republican governor in Virginia’s election last Tuesday mean? Ask 20 different political scientists and you’re likely to elicit 20 different book-length explanations, each more turgid and less readable than the last. But three possible and mutually reinforcing explanations stand out: The election can be seen partly as the natural tendency of voters in off-year elections to reject the candidates of the party of whichever President occupies the White House; partly as a growing concern over what’s taught in our public schools; and partly as a growing revolt against authority in general, as also shown by the resistance to mask and vaccine mandates.
More often than not, in off-year and midterm elections, voters will vote Republican if a Democrat occupies the White House, and vote Democratic if the President’s a Republican. The thinking among election experts is that voters do so to express whatever frustrations they may feel about the President, but which they can’t directly express by voting against him since he’s not on the ballot. So they vote against his fellow party members running for office instead. Hence Republicans made great gains in the midterm elections held during Bill Clinton’s first term as well as during both of Barack Obama’s terms. Democrats made gains in the midterms during George W. Bush’s second term and Donald Trump’s term. Only if the President is exceptionally popular will the opposition party fail to make gains. The public by and large supported Bill Clinton during his impeachment crisis, and thereby voted to add more Democratic seats to the House of Representatives in 1998. George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 won him a 90% approval rating in the public opinion polls, and more Republican seats in both chambers of Congress in 2002. This year, President Biden should see the election results both as a harbinger of greater losses to come in 2022 and a wake-up call concerning 2024.
In Virginia the most well-publicized and bitterly contested issue—by the voters, at least, if not by the candidates themselves—was whether “critical race theory” was being taught, or should be taught, in Virginia’s public schools. Democratic candidate and former Governor Terry McCauliffe, who was trying to make a comeback, added fuel to the fire when he said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Regardless of the context in which McAuliffe made this statement or his efforts to explain and backtrack, it’s difficult to think of any statement as breathtakingly arrogant and stupid, as well as likely to rile parents up, as this one. It’s a classic.
On one level, this statement, and the reported controversies at local school board meetings in Virginia and elsewhere over CRT, can be seen as merely the latest episode in the long-running controversy over what should be taught in her schools, and how. Last summer I discussed how virtually any topic of importance in a typical public school curriculum—biology, English literature, American history, mathematics, whatever—can provoke controversy. For each of these topics, there’s vigorous arguments about what to teach and how to present it. Some arguments are more valid than others. But what’s indisputable is that parents have both an interest in what’s taught their kids and a determination to advance their arguments, whether at open forums or in the voting booth. The controversy over how to approach CRT may or may not last long (many deny it’s being taught at all, and not knowing exactly what CRT involves, I’m taking no sides–yet). But controversy over public school curricula in general will be with us more or less forever. And rightly so if, as I believe, parents have the right to help determine what their children are required to learn.
But the bitterness over the CRT fight, playing out in Virginia’s election and likely to surface elsewhere as well, may also reflect a growing anti-authoritarian attitude in general, which can most plainly be seen in the continuing fight over mask and vaccine mandates. This controversy stands in stark contrast to the way those of us of a certain age obediently lined up to take our Salk booster shots in the 1950s and our Sabin sugar cubes a decade later, thereby eliminating the threat of polio. But back then the majority of Americans—77% in one poll recently cited by CNN, thought the federal government could be relied on to do the right thing all or most of the time. Now the same question elicits expressions of faith in government ability and integrity from only 17%. So why the 60-point drop in public opinion over the last 60 years?
Since 1964, when the poll was taken, we’ve witnessed Watergate and Iran-Contra among our scandals, as well as the botched wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve seen the expansion of federal programs—the Great Society, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and the array of President Biden’s proposals—which however benevolent their intentions, have expanded, or will expand, the power of the federal government over us. Government dishonesty, government incompetence, and government overreach all contribute to enough resentment on the part of a large enough segment of our population to create distrust and a determination to resist government initiatives and mandates. The vaccines currently available are, in most instances, effective in either preventing Covid-19 or least reducing the intensity of its symptoms, and are free and easily available. Yet when mandated, much of the public refuses. And resistance is not limited to the right. During the last presidential campaign, both Biden and Harris raised doubts about the effectiveness of the vaccines, given that they were being developed at “warp speed” at the direction of President Trump. And this resistance is apart from the drivel and blather pumped out of the fever swamps of the radical left and radical right.
So what do last week’s election results mean—probably much more than what’s been covered here. But at the very least, Democrats should be concerned about the possible GOP tsunami heading their way. Educators should remember that parents will continue to demand the right to have a say in their children’s education, and government officials at all levels must realize that the trust of the American people in their governments is not great enough to guarantee the acceptance of mandates, no matter how rational, well intentioned, or potentially benevolent those mandates may be.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.