Friday, November 10, 2006

Virginia and the future of American politics

Garrett Epps is an old time Richmond resident that many will remember as a writer for the Richmond Mercury magazine (in the days before Style) and the author of the classic novel about Virginia politics, The Shad Treatment. Garrett now teaches at the University of Oregon but still keeps on eye on Virginia.

He argues that Virginia is transforming from a reliably conservative state to one more reflective of the nation. In other words, it is becoming a new bellwether for America.

Here is a portion of his article appearing in Der Spiegel:

…. For all its trappings of the past -- lovingly preserved Civil War battlefields, restored plantations, Jeffersonian academic buildings -- Virginia has been moving away from the airtight red world of the Republican South and into a new status as a kind of bellwether state. The land of Lee and Byrd is now the home of AOL and Sprint Nextel; the world of family and clan is now also the haven of immigrant and outsider. Some moment in the past decade marked a tipping point, the moment at which a reliable red state becomes something far more muted in color.

In the past decade, Virginia's presidential behavior has begun to diverge from that of its red neighbors to the South. Republican presidential candidates have carried Virginia every year -- but by slender margins. In 1996, Bob Dole took Virginia by less than 2 percent of the vote -- less than half his margin in North Carolina. Bush beat Kerry in Virginia by roughly 8 percent -- a much smaller margin than in North Carolina, which had a native son on the ballot. And the parts of the state that respond to moderate, centrist candidates are the parts that are growing.

Some reports suggest that Allen is eager to maintain his viability as a candidate to replace the aging Sen. John Warner, whose term expires in 2008. But an argument can be made that Allen is a young man with a brilliant future behind him -- that it will get harder to elect a hard-edged Bush-style conservative from Virginia with each passing year. When we look for the future of American politics, we may be able to descry much of its shape in Virginia.

Not really the South?

This is not one of the perennial complaints that Virginia isn't "really" the South anymore. Parts of Virginia are as Southern as Biloxi, Miss., or Doraville, Ga. But Virginia now contains multitudes: upscale suburbs in northern Virginia that mimic the behavior of similar neighborhoods in Illinois or Massachusetts; a military-dominated port district in the east that responds to defense issues; big, ethnically diverse cities in the center that play urban politics by the rules of St. Louis or Cleveland. And in the midst of this microcosm, the state has spawned a sharp political class that seems to have borrowed a slogan from George Allen, the football coach: The future is now.

Virginia as political laboratory goes back at least 30 years. Looking back, we can see that the state has consistently foretold where the nation was going to be in a few years. Richard Viguerie pioneered computer-generated right-wing direct mail from his headquarters in northern Virginia. Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority in Lynchburg; Pat Robertson (son of a Virginia senator) began his Christian Right broadcast empire in Virginia Beach. In 1976, a near-bankrupt Virginia Republican Party hired as its finance director a young nerd named Karl Rove. Much of the flavor and formula of Reaganism grew out of 1970s Virginia.

During the 1980s, moderate Democrats -- Charles Robb, Gerald Baliles and L. Douglas Wilder -- ran the state, pioneering what would later be Clinton-style New Democrat themes: fiscal prudence, social moderation and racial reconciliation (nearly two decades before Deval Patrick, Wilder was the first African-American ever elected governor of any state). In the 1990s, Republican governors Allen and Jim Gilmore provided a foretaste of the Bush approach to governing -- ideological, polarizing, top-down and relatively heedless of the real-world consequences of their actions. As Bush himself is learning, that is a style of governing that voters grow tired of. Moderate Democrats now rule Richmond, and Webb, a very conservative Democrat in combat boots, has snatched the Senate seat out from under Allen, a former future president in cowboy boots.

Race, of course, played an interesting role in the election. Consider the contrast between Virginia and Tennessee: George Allen had to apologize repeatedly for seeming to deride a voter for his race; Bob Corker, on the other hand, paid no political price when his supporters ran an openly racist TV commercial suggesting that Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American, might have sex with an adorable Southern blonde.

But the exit polls show that the core of the Virginia race was Iraq. Those who approve of the war, and who favor keeping or expanding the current U.S. force there, went overwhelmingly for Allen. Those who disapproved, and who want the troops to start coming home, went for Webb.

Getting the United States out of Iraq without disaster is going to be difficult job. Virginia mirrors the nation in its reservations about the war; and by the narrowest of margins, its voters have apparently decided to trust a man who has written a few books rather than another man who seems unwilling to admit having read even one.

Let's hope that too becomes a national trend.

1 comment:

Willie said...

It's true some of Virginia is shifting towards the middle. But much of Southerm and Cnetral Virginia are higly conservative, especially on social issues. It almost seems like there are two different states in one. Northern Virginia, which goes as far out as Prince William now is more centrist or even liberal, is highly populated by immigants and intelectuals.
But much of the South would have put Allen in. Even at the polls in Warrenton when I went to vote I noticed many were actually scared of the turnout thinking it spelled doom for their conseravtive state.