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“Campaign Strategy,” Lies and the Contest for America’s Soul

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Soundings

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I was fascinated and appalled by Glenn Youngkin’s recent campaign for the governorship in Virginia.  The former private equity fund executive ran for the office he attained on four basic planks, three of which were outright lies while the fourth ultimately relied on a lie:

  • He claimed allowing transexual young people to use the restroom of their choice will result in widespread sexual assaults in Virginia’s schools, but the number of individuals comprising this group is infinitesimal as a percentage of Virginia’s school population and the chance that such would occur is also vanishingly small. This is a perfect example of the politics of fear mongering and scapegoating. Youngkin deliberately used fear of difference to foment hysteria among voters.[1]
  • The now governor-elect also contended repeatedly that he would eliminate “critical race theory” in Virginia’s K-12 schools on day one of his governorship. The chief problem with this claim is that the perspective is not taught in such schools and appears most frequently, when it appears, in law and graduate school curricula, and in upper division courses at some of Virginia’s major universities. What is more, CRT, as it is known, is a view of history and of the social economy and I know of no educator in the state demanding student obeisance to the view. It is, rather, a perspective and an important one, to which students should appropriately be exposed. This campaign assertion was plainly false and designed to mislead, manipulate and outrage voters unaware of the facts.[2]
  • Youngkin also ran a “successful” ad featuring a Republican Party activist and mother from Northern Virginia claiming that her son had endured a nightmare as a result of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in an advanced placement English class while a senior in high school. Morrison, who died in 2019 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Critics Circle award, among many other honors during her distinguished career. She is widely considered one of the finest novelists of the 20th century and the book Youngkin’s ad held up for censure has long also been judged one of the most powerful of that century.[3] While the novel’s themes are surely plain and harsh, no one who has read it would contend that it misleads or somehow deserves opprobrium. Rather, it is regarded as a classic precisely because of its power to promote honest and thoughtful reflection on the cruelties of American history. In short, there is no reason to suppose that a 17- or 18-year-old student should not become aware of the heartlessness human beings and Americans have exhibited toward those they wish to believe threaten them because of their difference, a theme of Beloved. Youngkin’s decision to attack the book revealed his personal ethical bankruptcy and raised the allied question of where he and his Party will stop with such efforts. Shall we burn Mark Twain’s books because they, too, raise enduringly difficult concerns, or do the same for John Steinbeck’s powerful body of work? Ban Kurt Vonnegut’s novels because they also raise searching questions about human behavior? Eliminate study of the Nazi Holocaust or that in Cambodia or Armenia because they raise challenging issues about the possibility and reach of human’s capacity to hate? Youngkin never indicated where he would draw the line on these concerns and on what basis. Instead, the former corporate leader used the ad concerning Morrison’s masterpiece to inflame potential voters on the issue of race and to persuade them that telling America’s history truthfully in fiction or nonfiction, should not be permitted. After all, such efforts threaten claims of white supremacy and the rightfulness of a society built not on equality, but instead on an anti-democratic racial hierarchy. Youngkin’s campaign strategy offers clear evidence of just how far the Republican Party has fallen in its quest for power. The GOP no longer seeks to discipline hate in the name of pluralistic comity. Instead, if a trope, however false, dangerous and deleterious, works to garner votes, the Party will sanction it.
  • Finally, Youngkin frequently railed against Virginia’s sales tax on groceries, arguing he would eliminate it while never mentioning how he would do so.[4] That is, he called for a tax reduction without costs, saying nothing about the services citizens would see reduced or eliminated if his proposal were adopted. This sort of trope is also a favorite of the modern GOP, as it allows the Party to starve government of resources, its only widely adopted goal, while reducing the tax burden, already relatively low in Virginia, on wealthy constituencies. Not coincidentally, this strategy also allows Republicans to offer a message that eliminating government revenues will ensure that services are not provided to “undeserving” Black and Brown people who otherwise would laze about while enjoying them. The modern-day GOP has employed this profoundly misleading narrative since at least the 1950s.

        I offer five observations concerning Youngkin’s much lauded electoral victory in Virginia and the false narrative on which it was predicated.  First, our area’s regional newspaper, The Roanoke Times, reported the success of the former equity executive’s strategy and noted that it was predicated on “white fears and insecurity” and then, remarkably, said nothing else, except to highlight that it “worked.”[5] This is another sort of ethical bankruptcy. If the press adopts utilitarian claims as evaluative criteria and does not question when candidates knowingly lie or mislead in its reporting, maintaining any semblance of free institutions in this nation will be exceedingly difficult.

        Second, the narrative Youngkin used is hardly new to his Party. Trump employed it less artfully and with more obvious cruelty, but these individuals’ reliance on false “othering” and fearmongering is more than plain. The Party has apparently decided that democracy can and should be sacrificed on the altar of power. Certainly, Youngkin chose to do so and has received plaudits from GOP leaders and many in the media for his decision.

        Third, this electoral strategy seems destined increasingly to contribute to tearing our diverse country apart. And, indeed, recent scholarship and public opinion polling has suggested that just such is occurring, although the reasons why are surely complex and somewhat opaque.[6] Republican party officials have made clear they are uninterested in participating in policymaking and are simultaneously willing to do and say virtually anything if it will heighten what they perceive to be opportunities to garner or maintain political power. Youngkin’s lies were so in line with the GOP’s willingness to lie about virtually anything that they elicited yawns from many observers.

        Fourth, Youngkin, like former President Donald Trump and many other Republican candidates in the last several years, proved willing to employ a deep story that tapped voter insecurity around manufactured cultural crises in order ultimately to signal those citizens with whom it resonated that he was on their side in ensuring that society returned to a social hierarchy rooted in the superiority of whites. While this may allay some voters’ insecurities concerning stagnant wages, deteriorating environmental and social conditions amidst many other factors, that allayment is ultimately hollow, as it does not serve those individuals. Instead, it principally supports a small and already very wealthy ideologically radical elite, even as it does nothing to address widening wealth and income distribution and yawning gaps in economic and educational opportunity for many of the voters accepting its claims.

        Fifth, and as a commentary on this deeper issue that Youngkin’s campaign raised, I want to highlight the fact that its story directly contradicts the nation’s history.  Christy S. Coleman, the Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and one of this nation’s few Black women to lead a major museum, recently delivered the annual Tracy W. and Katherine McGregor Distinguished Lecture in American History at the University of Virginia.[7]  Her major theme in those remarks was that this nation’s museums need to tell the American people the truth about their history, good, bad and ugly. She argued that those institutions must faithfully recount the entire American story, including the experiences of its native and African peoples as well as its countless immigrants. Indeed, contrary to Youngkin’s campaign claims, there can be no U.S. history that does not include the experiences of its diverse inhabitants. One cannot purport to study, much less comprehend, the complexities of American society unless one is prepared to share all that has befallen its residents across its evolution. That history has involved willful genocide, colonialist claims of superiority abroad and at home and systematic cruelty and deprivation of rights against vast swathes of the country’s population. Against this reality, Youngkin and the GOP have embraced a narrative that deliberatively deceives, scapegoats and continues to other targeted groups, all in the name of power. Coleman rightly argued that the country’s museums and the nation more broadly now need a “narrative correction” that acknowledges the dehumanizing ugliness of too much of this nation’s past, celebrates its always present pluralism and seeks to ensure that all its residents enjoy the possibility of moving forward in their lives without the additional burden of elected or would-be leaders targeting them for hatred to secure votes.

        This analysis implies that American democracy will survive or fail in its current crisis depending on which of these narratives successfully captures the broader public imagination. There are no guarantees and millions have elected to embrace a vision of American society as a racialized and, for many, a gendered hierarchy. The question is whether those telling the nation’s actual history alongside a sincere quest for democratic freedom for all, rather than its concocted, partial and self-consciously discriminatory one, can share their story in a way that citizens find compelling. The principle now in play is whether the United States can embrace an honest effort to realize the motto on its Great Seal since 1782, E Pluribus Unum, or whether it will adopt instead a guiding imaginary or story of civil and human rights and equality for only some. Youngkin and the Republican Party have certainly made their stance clear on this question.

Notes

[1] Goldberg, Michelle. “The Right’s Big Lie About a Sexual Assault in Virginia,” The New York Times, October 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/28/opinion/loudoun-county-trans.html, Accessed November 8, 2021. 

[2] Editorial Board, “Youngkin is using the critical race theory bogeyman to rile up the Trumpian base,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/25/youngkin-is-using-critical-race-theory-bogeyman-rile-up-trumpian-base/, Accessed November 12, 2021.

[3] Manchester, Julia. “Youngkin ad features mother who pushed to have ‘Beloved’ banned from son’s curriculum,” The Hill, October 25, 2021, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/578408-youngkin-features-mother-who-pushed-to-have-beloved-banned-from-sons, Accessed November 8, 2021. 

[4] Israel, Josh. "Fact Check: Youngkin’s grocery tax math doesn’t add up,” The American Independent, September 29, 2021, https://americanindependent.com/glenn-youngkin-grocery-tax-cut-virginia-governor-election-terry-mcauliffe/, Accessed November 6, 2021. 

[5] Leonor, Mel. “Gov.-elect Youngkin pledges new path,” The Roanoke Times, November 4, 2021, p. A-1.

[6] Edsall, Thomas. “How Much Does How We Hate Each Other Matter?” The New York Times, September 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/29/opinion/political-polarization-partisanship.html, Accessed November 6, 2021. 

[7] Coleman, Christy. “More than a Muse: The Role of Museums in Shaping Public Memory, Discoveries and Meanings,” The Tracy W. and Katherine W. McGregor Distinguished Lecture in American History,” October 27, 2021. University of Virginia, Alderman Library, https://m.facebook.com/UVALibrary/photos/a.142225419135420/4777051458986103/?type=3&m_entstream_source=timeline, Accessed October 27, 2021. See also: Patterson, Arielle, “Christy Coleman is Reshaping our Story,” Coastal Virginia Mag.com, June 2, 2021, https://www.coastalvirginiamag.com/christy-coleman-is-reshaping-our-story/, Accessed November 9, 2021.   

Publication Date

November 15, 2021

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