Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s victory on Nov. 2 was indeed a warning sign for Democrats, but the broad tenor of news coverage indicating this portends the party’s annihilation in 2022 and beyond is deeply overwrought and misleading.

The most tendentious interpretations — that Youngkin’s victory, as well as a very narrow Democratic win in the New Jersey governor’s race and other setbacks for progressive causes around the country, signal America’s wholesale rejection of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party — are pretty clearly reflective of the political preferences and blinders of their promulgators. For a clear-minded corrective, this piece by Steve Benen provides valuable commentary on the way the Virginia governorship has generally gone to the party that lost the White House in the previous year, in the thermostatic way that Americans tend to move towards the opposition party, as well as on how a short while ago Democrats soundly defeated a recall effort of Governor Gavin Newsom in California.

It seems fairly clear that Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings played a significant part in Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s loss. After all, Virginia has been trending blue for some years, and Biden defeated Donald Trump there by a solid 10 points just a year ago. While turnout was relatively high for both parties, Democratic base enthusiasm just didn’t match that of the GOP, strongly suggesting knock-on effects of a generalized lack of enthusiasm for Biden. And this lack of energization, in turn, owes much to the festering spectacle of inaction in Congress, as the twinned Build Back Better and bipartisan infrastructure bills seem to be enacting a real-world demonstration of Zeno’s paradox, ever approaching the finish line but never quite making it over. Josh Marshall captures the dynamic succinctly, writing, “When the public mood is sour and the President looks powerless to accomplish the things he says are important members of the President’s party will lose elections.”

But it wasn’t just a lack of Democratic enthusiasm that led to the loss. It appears that those who voted for the GOP were particularly energized by Youngkin’s claims that parents have lost control of what their children are taught in public schools. But centered as these claims were around false allegations of the teaching of critical race theory, we can more accurately say that Youngkin rode to power by making racist appeals to the Virginia electorate. What makes this a particular wake-up call for Democrats is that where Donald Trump badly failed to win Virginia by his own appeals to white supremacism, Youngkin was able to pull it off. More specifically, as observers like Adam Serwer and Eric Levitz have noted, Youngkin was able to enthuse rural and right-wing voters while also luring back some suburban voters who had previously shifted to the Democrats.  

A Republican Party able to replicate this strategy, twinned with continuing low enthusiasm for Biden, would indeed be a catastrophe for the Democrats, and for American democracy. After all, what is so concerning about this Democratic loss is the larger political crisis that forms the roiling background of everything that happened on Tuesday: that the GOP overall has devolved into an openly authoritarian, white supremacist party that is well on its way to instituting one-party rule in states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Texas through a mix of gerrymandering and voter suppression; a majority of whose representatives voted to reject the 2022 presidential election results in the wake of a coup attempt by Donald Trump; and, at the risk of repeating a detail just mentioned, whose former president attempted a coup to overthrow American democracy. Levitz captures what should have been the results of this perfidy:

Democrats needed this to be untenable. They needed it to be impossible for the GOP to simultaneously broaden its base and remain in the good graces of Donald Trump and his core constituents. Which is to say: They needed Republicans to have finally gone too far, and disqualified themselves from the advantages that the out-of-power party typically enjoys in our two-party system.

The Virginia results demonstrate that this voter punishment of the GOP has not in fact happened; that politicians like Youngkin have managed to find a path forward that links insurrectionists and more “moderate” whites via the alchemy of plausibly-deniable racist appeals.

Yet, as chilling as this reality is, the more cheering news is that whether such a strategy works in 2022 and beyond is very much in the hands of Democrats. Defeating it rests on whether Biden, along with national Democrats, can revive his popularity, and whether the Democrats are willing to directly take on the GOP’s defining authoritarianism and white supremacism (even when the latter is cloaked in the plausible deniability of anti-CRT language). Addressing the issue of Biden’s popularity is another way of saying that the president needs to get a lot more done over the next year, and doing so in turn requires full acknowledgment of the crises that beset us a year into his presidency.

First, Americans remain deeply concerned and unsettled by the covid pandemic, which, despite mass vaccinations and some return to normalcy, continues to upend people’s lives — not least by taking 1,000 of them every day (Biden made an enormous error in basically declaring the pandemic over back in July — a premature victory lap that bizarrely underestimated the obvious potential of the delta variant to reverse the progress we’d made). In retrospect, I think it’s also clear that Biden made a huge error in not acting more aggressively, and far earlier, to promulgate vaccine mandates.

It’s also well worth pointing out that the GOP has played a key role in hampering Biden’s attempts to end the pandemic, both through its encouragement of vaccine resistance and to basic expedients like mask-wearing and even social distancing. I mention this because the president absolutely must do all in his power to staunch this pandemic, including escalating the vaccine mandate to include air travel in the U.S., and this path will necessarily involve a much more forceful confrontation with the GOP on the matter of its covid sabotage. As more and more Americans join the ranks of the vaccinated, GOP resistance to vaccine mandates looks kookier and kookier: bringing the fight to the GOP can both accelerate our transition out of the pandemic and make them pay the price they so well deserve for helping prolong a pandemic that has now killed more than 750,000 people in the United States. The suggestions by some GOP governors that they are now against all mandatory vaccinations seems like a point of particular vulnerability.

Americans’ faith in Biden has also been shaken by the ongoing economic weirdness that encompasses worker shortages, inflation, and consumer product delays due to overburdened supply chains. Even as there is plenty of positive news — the economy is growing, we’re adding jobs, many workers are able to demand and get higher wages, and the “Great Resignation” could well end up with millions of happier citizens and greater economic efficiency — the bad news is still unsettling, and hurts Biden when he appears to have no ability to fix it at the moment. Part of this is reality — there will be inflation when some products are in short supply and shipping costs are through the roof — but this doesn’t absolve Biden of doing everything he possibly can to get inflation trending down and supply lines unsnarled. I remain deeply perplexed that the Biden administration keeps coming up short on bringing sufficient government resources to bear on supply chain challenges. Even with the crucial acknowledgment that many of our logistics nightmares were decades in the making, it seems incredible that, with Democratic control of Congress and his presidential prestige hanging in the balance, we’re not seeing more federal intervention in what comes down to moving physical objects from point A to point B. This does not require the Manhattan project to resolve, just manpower, loading docks, and logistical expertise.  

Finally, support for Biden has been undermined by the lack of legislative progress in Congress to date. Key to defeating the GOP and its authoritarianism is showing that democracy works in terms of making people’s lives materially better. I’m hardly in the “blame-Biden” camp for why the BBB and BIFF bills have taken so long, but by hook or by crook, Biden has the responsibility for getting his agenda over the finish line.

To varying degrees, the fate of Biden and the Democrats on these three fronts is well within their control. But engaging only on these matters isn’t enough. The Virginia results, if nothing else, should be sufficient to convince them that an explicit, relentless assault on the GOP’s white supremacism is both justified and necessary. Specifically, they must develop a strategy that denies the Republican Party the ability to affect concern about “critical race theory,” when CRT is the GOP’s current way of saying that white supremacy should be embedded in American institutions, beginning with schools not teaching about such basics as the evils of slavery and its ongoing racist legacy. I think those who have been arguing that Democrats cannot cede “culture war” fights to the GOP, in the hopes that their policies will win the day, have been vindicated by what we saw in Virginia. After all, “culture war” fights really are political fights, about what values we believe in and what sort of country we want to have. I think Amanda Marcotte hit the nail on the head when she tweeted:

Imagine if McAuliffe had, instead of that idiot parents having input in schools comment, had hit back with, “I believe MLK Jr. should be taught in schools, and don’t think some mini-Trump should be able to stop that.” Instead, he waited until the last minute to strike back.

I can’t believe Republicans ran what is tantamount to a pro-book burning campaign, and Democrats, ever fearful about culture war politics, let that one lie until it was too late.

The idea that Democrats should be on the defensive when Republicans campaign on banning books by black people is an absurdity (and also no doubt speaks to McAuliffe’s particular shortcomings as a politician). If white supremacism is the engine of the GOP’s appeal, then the Democrats need to do everything possible to discredit and destroy that engine. 

Anxieties over schooling due to covid provided a lozenge beneath which the toxic pill of anti-CRT racism could appear palatable, and make use of many Americans’ resentment and anger — particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter protests of last year. It should surprise absolutely no one that the GOP would try to cultivate and benefit from a racist backlash against BLM demonstrations.

Finally, above all, and unifying other Democratic efforts, the Democrats must learn to talk explicitly, unremittingly, and damningly of the GOP as America’s authoritarian party, unfit to hold power. This reluctance is all the more amazing when you stop to consider that the great majority of GOP members, as well as the vast apparatus of right-wing media, expends much of their energy constantly making the false case that Democrats are a traitorous, un-American gang ready to sell out the country to Islamist terrorists and Mexican rapists at the first opportunity. Perhaps most critically, the Democrats need to stop acting like the GOP is an equal and respectable partner in government. As Jared Yates Sexton wrote in the context of the Virginia election, “[M]ake the GOP’s radicalization a prominent issue. Quit reaching across the aisle for a hand holding a dagger. Talk incessantly about what this antidemocratic, authoritarian movement represents. Stop gifting them respectability and cover.”

It is simply amazing that in Virginia, the GOP alleged that Democrats intend to undermine the nation by teaching “critical race theory” to kids, while Democrats chose not to emphasize that authoritarian, racist GOP values already led to an attempted coup by the former president (the clincher is that the GOP’s anti-CRT strategy is a manifestation of the same illness that led to Trumpism and the authoritarian surge that resulted in the coup attempt). Put the GOP on the defensive by moving forward the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect democracy, and use the January 6 commission to identify and punish all GOP politicians who took part in the coup attempt or tried to cover it up afterwards.

One final point, in the hope of sort of tying all these observations together. Since the Virginia election, I’ve seen a few people taking big picture views of U.S. politics and society, pointing to things like the 2008 financial crash and rampant inequality, and more recently the covid pandemic and the George Floyd civil rights protests, as reminders that our society and politics are far from stable and experiencing a prolonged period of transition. To these I would add the overwhelming urgency of responding to climate change. Taken together, they form a background of anxiety and fear to American life. The growing authoritarianism of the GOP has roots in this instability, as does the appeal it poses to millions of Americans. In uncertain times, people tend to want strong leaders who can offer them certainty and protection against perceived threats. The Democrats have the obligation to present America with leadership where strength takes the form of competence, inspiration, and vision, as a democratic answer to the strongman, racist authoritarianism of the GOP. 

From this perspective, there is very little worse that the Democrats could now do than to subscribe to self-blaming ideas of their own foreordained doom in 2022 and beyond. The idea that the one party that stands for democratic governance in the United States should lack confidence about the fundamental soundness of its vision for America, or in the various policy proposals in the BBB and BIFF bills that consistently receive broad support among the voting public, is frankly nonsensical. The fundamental problem is that the Democrats have not fully engaged the fight they need to engage against Republican sabotage, propaganda, and incitement of violence. Engage that fight, offer no quarter to the authoritarian right, and let the chips fall where they may.