Four reasons to be cautious about all the Virginia postmortems

It was Critical Race Theory. It was racism. It was the Democrats’ failure to talk about race. It was COVID and school closures. It was Terry McAuliffe saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” It was Terry McAuliffe’s terrible, Trump-obsessed campaign. It was Glenn Youngkin’s locally focused campaign. It was Glenn Youngkin not really being like Trump, and yet being a bit like Trump. It was simply the first gubernatorial election under a new president, and this always happens then. It was inflation. It was Biden’s sharp unpopularity. It was Biden failing to pass his progressive agenda. It was Biden’s excessive progressivism. It was the Democratic Party’s “own loss of nerve against its in-house extremists.” It was “stupid wokeness.” (“Some of these people need to go to a woke-detox center or something.”) It was “life-long Democrats, and they’re talking about what’s going on on college campuses, they’re talking about what’s going on in high schools, they are doing it; people can get mad if they want to—don’t shoot me, as Elton John said, I’m only the piano player—but this is what we’re hearing: all the time, wherever we go, when nobody’s watching, when the cameras are off, and when people aren’t worried about people calling them bigots.”

In the days since Youngkin, a Republican, beat McAuliffe, a Democrat, in Virginia’s gubernatorial election—and Phil Murphy, the incumbent Democratic governor of New Jersey, narrowly won a closer than expected race—journalists, pundits, and politicos have collectively unleashed an avalanche of analysis as to the reasons Democrats had a bad night. No single reason, of course, has unifying explanatory power; indeed, many of those listed above are perfectly compatible with one another. Different voters are motivated by different issues, and often themselves contain multitudes: a given parent, for instance, might both have been frustrated with COVID protocols in their child’s school and also receptive to the Youngkin campaign’s dog whistles around the teaching of race; the latter can be both a local grievance against a specific school or teacher and also part of an explicit, nationalized campaign to make “critical race theory” a catch-all boogeyman for the Trumpian right. To the extent that different media takes have privileged different explanations in isolation, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is, rather, how political debate tends to work in the public sphere.

ICYMI: A year after the election, America has turned the news off

Still, there are a number of reasons why we should approach debates about electoral wins and losses—and this week’s wins and losses, in particular—with care. Firstly, some of the explanations for the results appear less compatible than others, in ways that call for considered elucidation. It’s hard, for instance, to see how Biden’s actions in office have been both too progressive and not progressive enough; it’s possible that voters who instinctively think the former might have been swayed by the timelier passage of his agenda if its benefits accrued directly to them, but those benefits aren’t usually tangible overnight, and in any case, gubernatorial elections are not federal elections. It’s likewise tricky to reconcile the take that COVID has fundamentally restructured American politics with the take that there’s nothing to see here because the new president’s party almost always gets cleaned out in Virginia a year in. It makes more sense to conclude that Youngkin replicated an old political trend but for new reasons, and with the support of a shifting coalition. Disentangling what seems old and what seems new is always an urgent challenge for the press, and COVID has supercharged it.

Secondly, lively, messy debates about electoral politics have a habit of quickly ossifying into oversimplified talking points and binaries at the level of the elite national media. We saw that last year (and this year) in much of the discourse around the slogan “defund the police,” which was always inadequate shorthand for a complicated and contested set of policies, and quickly got baked into the minds of many reporters and pundits as a messaging disaster for Democrats, even though pollsters and political scientists continue to disagree as to its actual electoral salience. The phrase “critical race theory” appears doomed to the same fate or even worse, since its oversimplification is the direct result of, and thus inseparable from, intentional right-wing narrative creation. There is an urgent, nuanced media conversation to be had about the teaching of race in schools, but the “critical race theory” framing makes that less likely, not more. And again, Tuesday’s results do not offer anything like conclusive proof that CRT was electorally determinative. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, Democrats underperformed right across Virginia and also in New Jersey, where CRT was not central to the campaign.

Thirdly, as I wrote on Wednesday in the immediate aftermath of Youngkin’s win, it’s important not to over-nationalize or -interpret early elections in two states that do not represent the full complexity of the country. There is something interesting to be gleaned from the results, and the similarity of the swings in Virginia and New Jersey suggests that some broader lessons can be extrapolated. But they can’t tell us everything, and the gap between now and the midterms is longer than the amount of time Biden has spent in office. (In recent days, some cable pundits have stressed these same caveats then discarded them in the next breath.) As I also wrote on Wednesday, we need to quickly steer this debate back to policy substance, rather than taking it as grist for lazy 2022 and ’24 prognostication that treats election results as ends in themselves. Politicians on different wings of the Democratic Party are already lining up to say that this week’s results vindicate their positions, as are many pundits. (“Nobody elected him to be FDR,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia said, of Biden. “Nobody elected Franklin D. Roosevelt to ‘be FDR’ either,” the Post’s Eugene Robinson countered.) The concrete significance of policy suggestions to people’s lives isn’t perfectly predictable. But it’s far from mere guesswork. Reporting that out and asking people what they think about it is, ultimately, a much more useful exercise than months of confirmation bias and horse-race chatter.

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And, as I’ve written many times in this newsletter, including on Wednesday, it’s simply not tenable, in America in 2021, to talk about the national horse race as if it’s a fair contest—yet that’s what most of this chatter assumes, and the majority of punditry I’ve seen about Virginia has been no exception. On her MSNBC show Wednesday, Rachel Maddow situated the contest against the backdrop of a civil trial for white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville in 2017, and noted that a number of Republicans who rallied prior to the Capitol insurrection in January won election to state and local offices on Tuesday. We are “somewhere between the normal ebb and flow of politics and this freakish riptide that’s pulling us out into the darkest places we know, the darkest places we can imagine,” Maddow said, before taking aim at the “Beltway press” narrative that Democrats should be panicking about their own unpopularity. “If you are looking for something to freak out about here,” she said, “”I would suggest the weird humming noise you hear in the background might be worth a closer look.” The “why the Democrats lost” takes crescendoed, and became cacophonous, in their own right. But it’s all the same noise.

Below, more on elections, extremism, and politics:


A programming note, and an invitation:
From Monday, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is at COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage, or to just say hi; I’m especially interested in hearing from journalists who are covering the conference in an innovative way, and from those representing outlets outside the US. If you aren’t at COP, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the coverage of the conference as it unfolds. You can reach me at [email protected].


Other notable stories:

  • For Insider, Julia Black spoke with more than two dozen sources about abusive sexual behavior on the part of Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports. “Some women, as young as 19 who had no professional connection to Portnoy, recounted having sexually explicit online exchanges with him,” Black writes. “Three of these women said they had sex with Portnoy, now 44, and that the encounters turned into frightening and humiliating experiences that have taken a toll on their mental health. Two… said Portnoy both choked and filmed them without advance permission; another, who has had depression, said she was suicidal after the two had sex. And all three were afraid to speak out, fearing retaliation from the media mogul and his rabid fan base.”
  • John Durham, the prosecutor Trump’s Justice Department hired to investigate the Trump-Russia investigators, is still at work, and his probe made news yesterday when Igor Danchenko, an analyst who was a key contributor to the now-infamous “Steele dossier,” was arrested on charges of lying to the FBI about the sources of his information. The allegations against Danchenko “cast new uncertainty on some past reporting on the dossier by news organizations, including the Washington Post,” the Washington Post reports. BuzzFeed published the dossier in its entirety in early 2017.
  • Latoyia Edwards, a TV anchor, wrote for the Boston Globe Magazine about her decision to wear braids on air. As Edwards lectured her daughter about celebrating her natural hair, “I caught a glimpse of my own in the rearview mirror—fried by chemicals until it was stick-straight,” she writes. “She had to be wondering: Mom, if natural Black hair is so great, why do you anchor the news every day with a relaxer and hair extensions?”
  • In other local-news news, the LA Times built a virtual Día de Muertos altar to help readers celebrate lost loved ones; Poynter has more. Elsewhere, the Miami Herald has tasked a bot with writing stories about real estate, the Miami New Times reports. And, after reporting that city officials are no longer checking electrical safety in rental units, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contracted an electrician to inspect homes for fire risks.
  • CJR’s Caleb Pershan reports that, a year on from the 2020 election, “Americans have turned off the news—on television, online and in print.” Last month, viewership of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News was down seventy-three, fifty-six, and fifty-three percent, respectively, compared to October 2020; the network nightly newscasts are all down by around ten percent, and the websites of Vox, the Times, and the Post have all lost traffic.
  • Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, announced that the Biden administration will set up a Global Defamation Defense Fund to help journalists overseas survive malicious lawsuits. Power said that the fund will aim to counter “autocrats and oligarchs,” but AFP reports that she didn’t offer many specifics or say whether the fund would help journalists in countries allied with the US.
  • Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, declared a state of emergency as his government’s conflict with forces from the Tigray region intensified; government forces are reportedly rounding up ethnic Tigrayans, while Facebook deleted one of Abiy’s posts for inciting violence. Recently, Luwam Atikilti and Kibrom Worku, two broadcast journalists who have reported on the Tigrayan forces’ advance, were arrested by police.
  • Recently, prosecutors in Finland criminally charged Laura Halminen, Tuomo Pietiläinen, and Kalle Silfverberg, three journalists at the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, with the disclosure of state secrets. The charges relate to a 2017 article about a military intelligence operation, and also cover further articles that were not published. Helsingin Sanomat is standing by its reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more.
  • And CNN was roundly mocked for presenting a family of eleven that gets through twelve gallons (!) of milk a week as a typical household for the purposes of a story on inflation. The network also failed to fact check the family’s dubious claims about prices, and to say whether or not it was benefiting from child tax credits. The result, Christopher Ingraham writes, was a “misleading picture of the extent and severity of inflation.”

ICYMI: Facebook’s metaverse shift smacks of desperation

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: President Joe Biden speaks at a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Arlington, Va. McAuliffe will face Republican Glenn Youngkin in the November election. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)