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Opinion | Republicans Schooled Democrats in Virginia

After Terry McAuliffe stumbled to defeat in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points exactly one year ago tonight, a mild suggestion seems in order: Democrats probably need a new way to talk about progressive ideology and education.

In the Virginia race, the script for both candidates was straightforward and consistent: Glenn Youngkin attacked critical race theory, combining it with a larger attack on how the education bureaucracy has handled the Covid pandemic, while McAuliffe denied that anything like C.R.T. was being taught in Virginia schools and also insisted that the whole controversy was a racist dog whistle.

The problem with the McAuliffe strategy is that it fell back on technicalities — as in, yes, fourth graders in the Commonwealth of Virginia are presumably not being assigned the academic works of Derrick Bell — while evading the context that has made this issue part of a polarizing national debate.

That context, obvious to any sentient person who lived through the past few years, is an ideological revolution in elite spaces in American culture, in which concepts heretofore associated with academic progressivism have permeated the language of many important institutions, from professional guilds and major foundations to elite private schools and corporate H.R. departments.

Critical race theory is an imperfect term for this movement, too narrow and specialized to capture its full complexity. But a new form of racecraft clearly lies close to the heart of the new progressivism, with the somewhat different, somewhat overlapping ideas of figures like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo enjoying particular influence. And that influence extends into schools and public-education bureaucracies, where Kendi and DiAngelo and their epigones often show up on resources recommended to educators — like the racial-equity reading list sent around in 2019 by one state educational superintendent, for instance, which recommended both DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and an academic treatise titled “Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education.”

That superintendent was responsible for Virginia’s public schools.

Now progressives will counter that the backlash that may have helped carry Youngkin to victory (and it’s certainly only one factor among many) isn’t just about these texts and ideologies but about a broader discomfort with any tough truth-telling about America’s racist past, whether it takes the form of Toni Morrison novels or Norman Rockwell paintings. And they’re right that the anti-C.R.T. movement has combined a set of moderate and even liberal objections to the new progressivism — objections that show up in superliberal New York as well as suburban Loudoun County, Virginia — with an older style of objections to talking about slavery and segregation at all.

But progressives can’t isolate and attack the second kind of objection unless they find a way to address the first kind as well, especially when it comes from voters (including minority voters) who may have supported Hillary Clinton or Biden but feel unsettled by the ideas filtering down into their kids’ classrooms in the past few years. And the McAuliffe approach isn’t going to cut it: You can tell people that C.R.T. is a right-wing fantasy all you want, but this debate was actually instigated not by right-wing parents but by an ideological transformation on the left.

So Democratic politicians may need to decide what they actually think about the ideas that have swept elite cultural institutions in the past few years. Maybe those ideas are worth defending. Maybe Kendi and DiAngelo are worth celebrating. Maybe school superintendents who recommend their work should be praised for doing so.

If so, Democrats should say so, and fight boldly on that line. But if not, then Democratic politicians in contested states, facing Republican attacks on education policy and looking at the unhappy example of Virginia, should strongly consider acknowledging what I suspect a lot of them (and a lot of liberal pundits) really think: That the immediate future of the Democratic Party depends on its leaders separating themselves, to some extent, from academic jargon and progressive zeal.

As for what Republicans might learn from their Virginian triumph, the short version is this: The combination of a struggling Democratic administration and an overreaching cultural progressivism has created an immense political opportunity, and under current conditions you don’t actually need a Trump-like figure at the top of the ticket to mobilize Donald Trump’s core voters. Instead, with the right candidate and circumstances, you can hold your Trumpist base and win back suburbanites as well.

The problem is that the core Trumpian constituency still wants Trump to lead the party, on pure own-the-liberals grounds, if nothing else. But maybe, just maybe, the solution is for the party’s less-Trumpy constituencies to rally around an alternative whose electoral lib-owning just put Trump’s 2020 showing to shame.

Yes, that’s probably a fantasy, but at the very least, a certain kind of Republican donor and consultant will wake up this morning from a very pleasant dream — of Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign, run as a presidential race in 2024.

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