Voting is How Democrats Win the Culture Wars

Virginia is going to elect a new governor in just one week, and to be honest-- I’m incredibly worried. Northam, the Democratic candidate, has consistently led in the polls. Virginia is a state Hillary won in 2016 by more than five points. And I love Virginia-- for the past five years, it’s been my home, and I believe in the people here and in their capacity for hope, tolerance and progress. So I want to be confident that we Virginia voters will not succumb to the worse angels of our nature-- but Gillespie, the Republican contender, has run an effective campaign. (Not a smart one or a moral one, to be sure, but an effective one.)

You can argue whether either campaign has been sufficiently policy-focused, but certainly, Gillespie has engaged in deflection from the issues more often. His most famous campaign ad features images and terminology (such as “rape” and “kill”) meant to be associated with the violent MS-13 gang. The advertisement insinuates that if Northam becomes governor, dangerous criminals (read: any non-white people) will be allowed to invade Virginia and make it less safe.

One would hope, after the 2016 election, that voters were no longer susceptible to such base, racist fear-mongering-- but I fear we are. Recent polls suggest that despite the efforts of campaign managers, organizers and activists across the state to talk about real economic and social issues concerning Virginians, this election has devolved into nothing more than another culture war. I don’t know what the Democrats’ best strategy is when approaching these culture wars; I'm unsure anyone has figured that out. But I do know that right now, we’re losing them.

Recently, both sides (excuse the expression) have made a campaign issue out of Confederate monuments in the Commonwealth-- should they stay or should they go? What do they symbolize? What do they say about the collective history of our state? A Washington Post poll released this week  examined Virginians’ feelings on the topic. A plurality (46 percent) agree that displaying the monuments and statues of Confederate leaders is “offensive to African Americans.” However, a majority of people-- a staggering 57 percent of registered voters-- say the monuments should remain in public.

Now, I’m not suggesting Northam or any other Democrat should avoid this issue. We should be talking about civil equality and critically examining ways racism or bigotry may be perpetuated in our public spaces. But I am suggesting that talking about Confederate statues rather than other issues such as the economy, public schools, reproductive freedom, mass incarceration or gun violence isn’t winning us any elections. In Virginia, even the strategy of courting independent voters in the midst of a culture war is not going to serve Democratic candidates well. According to the same Washington Post poll, nearly 60 percent of independent voters support keeping the monuments where they are.

The election is a week away. Adjusting campaign talking points, scheduling more events or writing fresh copy for campaign ads are no longer particularly viable options. But Democrats must win this election, to defend the rights of minorities, women and the socioeconomically disadvantaged in Virginia, and to send a message that Trumpism will not triumph in our state. All of this to say-- vote. I have a creeping, terrifying suspicion (it is Halloween, after all) that Gillespie is going to win this election. The only way Democrats prevent that outcome, at this point, is to show up in huge numbers. There is absolutely no excuse not to make it to the polls Nov. 7. This election is critical.