We are awash in talk about narratives these day—talk about how useful, and maybe even essential, narratives are in helping us understand the world around us. While much of this talk is doubtless true, we need to leaven enthusiasm with caution when it comes to the question of the durability of our explanatory narratives. In politics, at least, the shelf life of a reliable narrative may be very short indeed.
Consider the case of Virginia politics. If there is a state that represented in microcosm the aspirations of the American left, it was—at least until this November—the Old Dominion. The governing narrative was summed up in the headline of a 2019 New York Times story: “How Voters Turned Virginia From Deep Red to Solid Blue.” Demographics were a big part of the story, with one recent analytical piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch crediting the state’s growing racial and ethnic diversity during the last decade for the newfound strength of the Democratic Party. Those years saw the population of rural and mostly white Virginia shrink and that of diverse and college-educated Northern Virginia grow. Today, one in 10 Virginians is Hispanic. People of color now make up 41 percent of the state’s population, compared with 35 percent a decade ago, and for the first time, they constitute a majority of people under age 18.
Yet just two years after the New York Times’s “deep blue” article, the Republican Party candidate and former venture capital CEO Glenn Youngkin defeated seasoned pol and former governor Terry McAuliffe in the state’s gubernatorial race. Serving as a possible death notice for an arguably short-lived political narrative, the headline of a story in the Washington Post put it succinctly: “Virginia Republicans rise from the ashes while Democrats ponder what went wrong.”
The question, of course, is whether any new narrative can explain the phoenix-like return of the Republican Party. I suggest that status was the decisive factor. That is, the public and political assertions of a person’s standing in society and of those groups with whom he or she identifies. In these cultural politics, elusive but powerful sentiments of rank, appreciation and condescension, and valuation matter more than the purportedly deterministic mixture of Virginia’s recent racial, ethnic, and economic demographics. In short, we must reckon more with the politics of recognition that are governed by status concerns if we ever wish to understand our political moment (much less do anything about it).
When the author and acute social observer Tom Wolfe set out to describe the “specific devices that give fiction its most absorbing or gripping quality,” key for him was the “careful notation of status details, the details that reveal one’s social rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of speech, how one talks with superiors or inferiors, to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve—and with what sort of accent and vocabulary.” From reading Max Weber in graduate school, Wolfe had warmed to the explanatory power of status over class, particularly in dealing with American society. Interviewing Wolfe, fellow writer David Price noted that “Wolfe’s nonfiction and fiction alike treat status competition as the mover of just about all human actions.”
The concepts of status and recognition—status awareness, status competition, status defense—are useful not only to such literary chroniclers of social manners. They can also serve political scholars and citizens alike, helping to explain people’s perceptions of candidates and the way they see how political parties see them. The fortunes of candidates and parties rise and fall according to the way voters perceive how they serve (or don't serve) their status interests. By viewing politics through the lens of status—both actual status and aspirational status (there is a spectrum)—we can gain a purchase on such astonishing reversals as Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor. The facts of the race bear repeating: The Republican won despite being an unknown and being outspent by his opponent by about 10 percent (McAuliffe’s $55 million to Youngkin’s $50 million).
As the Virginia campaign showed, status-related impressions can generate dramatic reversals in political behavior in a matter of weeks, if not days. A group’s identity and the identity of the opponent can form just as quickly. Consider the role of critical race theory. The potent ideological cocktail mixed up by right-wing think tanks and news media and grassroots organizers became an issue only a few months before the general election in Virginia. Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, took credit for having “successfully frozen [the Democrats’ brand] into the public conversation” by putting what he called “all of the various cultural insanities” under the label of that theory. “The goal,” he explained in a string of Tweets, “is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”
Between May and mid-August preceding Virginia’s fall election, Fox News referred to critical race theory over 1,900 times, and though Virginia public schools did not actually teach critical race theory, Democrats never seriously or effectively challenged Republicans’ use of the term. Indeed, many Virginia voters saw Democrats’ attempts to brush the issue aside as a refusal to recognize their concerns as legitimate and worthy of acknowledgement. Those voters not only felt unrecognized; they felt demeaned, disrespected, and, in the process, made to be subaltern—low status.
One post-election CNN interview with four “suburban moms,” three of whom had voted for Joe Biden—one Democrat, two independents, and one unaffiliated—was replete with telling status cues. All four said their frustration with the Democratic stance toward the shutdown of the schools and the repercussions on kids’ learning was the decisive factor in their vote. “Glenn [Youngkin] listened to us,” one said, “He spent a lot of one-on-one time with parents.” Of McAuliffe, another said, “He seemed very dismissive of the general voting public.” They described the Democrats’ dismissal of the school issue—“phony, trumped-up culture wars,” they tended to call it—as “very tone-deaf, very dismissive.” In sum, one said, “We were really concerned about our kids’ education, and the Democrats were not listening to that.” She warned, “You’re going to keep losing unless you pay attention.”
It’s easier to see in retrospect that Democrats should have been more aware of the role of status and cultural issues. After all, those issues had been instrumental in bringing down the last Republican stronghold in Virginia in 2017. Up until then, despite the fact that the state had voted three times in a row for a Democratic presidential candidate and elected two Democratic US senators, Republicans held a supermajority in the House of Delegates. This was due in part to the partisan gerrymandering of 2011 when a Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House skewed the district maps to their own respective benefit.
But also decisive were public perceptions of changes in the Republican Party as a cultural and political institution. Those changes became evident after the violent and hateful Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie made the fateful choice of tying himself to the cause of Southern heritage, refusing to disavow all aspects of the Unite the Right rally. Virginia Democrats responded with a mailer showing Gillespie next to Donald Trump, wearing his signature red MAGA hat. The message on the mailer was direct: “On November 17, Virginia gets a chance to stand up to hate.,”
A stunning reversal of fortunes followed. Democrat Ralph Northam clobbered Ed Gillespie for governor, winning by 10 points, the largest margin for a in 22 years. The stranglehold that Republicans held on the House of Delegates melted away. A thirty-six-seat supermajority shrank to a single vote in a single election. And two years later, they lost their majority entirely.
What was this about? Unlike Deep South states where violence, bigotry, and demagoguery were routinely featured on the main stage, so the assumption held, this supposedly conservative commonwealth had always sought to soften the harder edges of modern conservatism with a genteel approach to politics, characterized by the so-called “Virginia Way” and the politesse of the “First Families of Virginia.” The ascent of Trumpism, with its flagrant embrace of political violence and bigotry, had already led to some degradation of the Republican brand in Virginia. Despite steamrolling toward the Republican nomination, for instance, Trump nearly lost Virginia in the Republican primary on Super Tuesday in 2016, as a late surge toward more moderate Marco Rubio earned 32 percent of the vote to Trump’s 35 percent.
After the Unite the Right rally, however, in a diverse state where governance and restraint had always been valued, the Republican Party was now associated with of neo-Nazis, political violence, chaos, and the Dixie flag. The status people associated with the Republican Party suddenly eroded. In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, exit polls revealed staggering reversals among white voters who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election (35 percent) and those who had gone for Ralph Northam in the 2017 gubernatiorial election (42 percent), particularly among white college-graduated women (52 percent for Clinton, 58 percent for Northam).
But just four years later, Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor represented another reversal of fortunes. Consider the exit polls. Compared with 45 percent of whites who voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, only 38 percent voted for McAuliffe. As was widely reported, it was among the non-college-educated whites that the implosion was most significant. Joe Biden won 38 percent of these voters, but McAuliffe only won 24 percent, with Youngkin amassing a remarkable 76 percent. Most tellingly in relation to the school issue, among voters with children under 18 at home, Biden won 54 percent, while McAuliffe garnered only 48 percent. In a state where whites still make up 67 percent of the population, this was enough to shift the election in Youngkin’s favor, giving him a two-point margin of victory.
The identity of a party can be an index for what Tom Wolfe observed about good narrative nonfiction: We must pay attention to status cues, to how the party is seen by people as responding to, or ignoring, their status-related anxieties and aspirations. I was reminded of this lesson on our most recent Election Day when I volunteered at a precinct in Charlottesville for an hour or so in the morning. In cold, driving rain, I stood under an umbrella handing out sample Democratic ballots to voters. To my right was a group of four white college students doing the same for Glenn Youngkin. We had granola bars; they had doughnuts. We had blue colors; they had red.
I struck up a conversation with them. They were from around Virginia—northern Virginia, Harrisonburg, Hanover, Hampton Roads. When I asked one of them, a young woman, how she found being a member of College Republicans at the University of Virginia, she told me that she was afraid to admit to being a conservative or to write papers expressing her true views, because she knows she will be graded down. Instead, she said, she writes her papers “to the narrative” to get better grades. Another volunteer, a young man, told me he couldn’t wear his College Republican baseball hat socially because he knows it will lead to shaming and, potentially, ostracism. They told these stories with a mix of emotions I can describe only as resentment, frustration—and resolve. Because there they were, four college kids in driving rain. There were no young people at our poll. The Democrats had trouble getting even one person per hour from the Democratic Party.
You could criticize, dismiss, even deride such statements. But taken at face value, if only as authentic emotional expressions of their beliefs, they are political dynamite—or Kryptonite, depending on your metaphor. They show how the two different candidates were perceived in relation to matters of respect, status, and recognition and why those perceptions shifted the race so dramatically.
Wherever you stand on the origins, intent, and process of the controversial set of policies and actions we call “cancel culture,” it seems clear one effect of “cancel culture” (and I intentionally use scare quotes for the term) is the feeling among many that they are being socially diminished. They feel they are being excluded, looked down upon, and disrespected both as members of a group and as individuals.
Further, we might consider that Donald Trump—whether or not you believe he authentically cared about the problems of the non-college-educated voters who made up his base—was perceived by them to care, passionately, about the predicament of those Americans he described as the “silent majority,” who felt forgotten or neglected. These people believed Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign was elevating them—as a group—in terms of status. Trump successfully crafted a narrative that said he saw and cared about this group’s need for elevation, often doing so by defining their interests in zero-sum terms against various other groups who threatened their status, whether global elites, Mexicans, immigrants, or blacks. Many MAGA followers responded to this message with great emotion and faith, because they believed Trump—the gilded, flawed, self-attested billionaire—wanted to raise their status.
But where the politics of recognition played an even more significant role in Virginia’s election was in the public schools’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The facts are clear: The shutdowns were handled poorly. Other states like Florida and Nevada circulated substantial plans and resources—teaching guides, WiFi hot-spots—to parents in advance of, or just after, the schools were temporarily shut down. They shifted to online education quickly, with required blocs of synchronous learning.
But in Virginia—a state with a particularly weak centralized board of education and particularly strong local school districts—the opposite was the case. The state let school boards make their own decisions. But school boards, lacking resources to take on a pandemic, chose no path at all. When schools shut down, they just shut down. My wife and I, for instance, were the working parents of twin public school kindergarteners at the time. For the first two weeks, we heard nothing at all from our school other than an emailed list of online platforms like ABC Mouse we could arrange on our own. Then it was spring break. The week after, voluntary weekly Zoom classes were offered. After pleading, we could go to the school to pick up a poorly assembled photocopied handbook of voluntary exercises we could administer on our own. And then the news came that schools would be shut for the rest of the spring.
For someone who, while on the city council of Charlottesville, routinely voted to allocate over 40 percent of our tax revenue to city schools—and as a public school parent—I was keenly frustrated by the complete break-down of the single greatest commitment of local government. When in-person education resumed a year later, the schools were shut down, inexplicably, all day on Fridays. So we were still losing 20 percent of the function of schools.
My wife and I are both white, middle-class parents who also have higher degrees. We were in a totally different category of vulnerability than people without those traditional sources of economic and social stability. Still, our lives were knocked completely out of kilter. Our whole family struggled with what I now know to describe as “dysregulation.” Our boys struggled with basic skills like reading and handwriting. For a time, we needed to put the left-handed one into occupational therapy to provide basic structure and skills school would have provided.
If I experienced frustration and fury at this situation—and if I felt condescended to and ignored by an establishment making these decisions—I can only imagine what other folks with fewer resources felt. For Glenn Youngkin, the question was whether that frustration and yearning for recognition could make millions of voters overlook and overcome the degraded status associations the Republican Party had acquired after the events of August 2017.
In the end, it wasn’t that hard. McAuliffe relentlessly sought to tie Youngkin and his supporters to the shabby 2017-vintage Republican brand, running millions of dollars of television and online ads asserting that “Youngkin is Trump,” even describing him as “Trumpkin.” Those attacks were doubtless partially successful, weighing Youngkin down and preventing him from a break-out victory. But they were not successful in undercutting the core status message of Youngkin’s campaign.
In contrast to his opponent, Youngkin spoke directly and empathically to the frustrations of parents about how the shutdowns affected their lives. And he did so in a way that was not so much about policy as about how parents felt, and whether they felt respected. By contrast, in the campaign’s second and final debate, McAuliffe notoriously said he wasn’t "going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision.” Disastrously, he went further, saying “I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe effectively did Youngkin’s work for him, allowing him to use McAuliffe’s own words to say that McAuliffe was out of touch with Virginia’s parents and their values. In a poll asking Virginians who should have more of an influence on a school’s curriculum, 49.8 percent sided with parents, while 38.8 said school boards.
While McAuliffe parried by constantly referring to the superiority of his policy plans for schools—e.g., his promises to increase teacher pay, school funding, and pre-K funding—those policy-heavy messages conveyed little sympathy with the frustrations of parents of K-12 students. To make matters worse, the Democratic team was dismissive of the idea that Youngkin’s approach was resonating. A Politico article quoted former secretary of education Anne Holton: “I think it’s a non-issue that the other side is using to try to rile people up.”
The Democrats’ response to the related issue of “critical race theory” (and I will again use scare quotes here) was similarly ineffective—and was similarly dismissed by McAuliffe and many commentators as simply and only about racism. “It is a disgrace,” McAuliffe said in one debate, “it is disqualifying to be governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia to be bringing these racist dog whistles into our state.” After Election Day, Charles Blow of the New York Times wrote, “[I]t’s no wonder Youngkin’s critical race theory lie worked. The parasite of white racial anxiety needed a new host, a fresher one.”
Yet what if the issue wasn’t whether the “critical race theory” issue was a “lie” or that it was a policy at all? What if many parents who had previously voted for Democrats felt excluded, derided, looked down upon by what they believed was connoted by the “critical race theory” umbrella? In public schools around the Commonwealth, as in many private, nonprofit, and public organizations today, there has been widespread adoption of the frameworks broadly popularized by Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be Anti-Racist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility—frameworks that, importantly, have been conflated with far more institutionally focused and profound critical race theory, such as work exposing the devastating racism in our local ordinances, our zoning systems, and even the construction of highways. I offer this take not in sympathy or solidarity with these experiences, but in attempting to understand the stunning reversals we have witnessed in most recent Virginia politics. If Kendi’s book suggests that virtually every aspects of society can, and should, be analyzed through an anti-racist lens, even hesitation about his framework can be criticized as racist. And to be described as a racist is to be described as low, subaltern, degraded.
Meanwhile, DiAngelo’s framework, which diagnoses white people upset about being called racists with what she calls “white fragility”—a defensive pathology requiring self-monitoring by the “fragile”—might understandably be felt as a double-blow to the status of anyone so described. If so many white non-college educated Virginians, and particularly women, think they might be seen by as insufficiently anti-racist, or worse, self-indulgently fragile, by members of the Democratic Party, is it any wonder that they turned away from that party?
In an essay published just before the election, Ross Douthat observed that both Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s books had appeared on a statewide racial-equity reading list distributed in 2019 by Virginia’s superintendent of education. He argued that a growing “anti-C.R.T. movement has combined a set of moderate and even liberal objections to the new progressivism—objections that show up in superliberal New York as well as suburban Loudoun County, Virginia—with an older style of objections to talking about slavery and segregation at all.” In conclusion, he wrote, “You can tell people that C.R.T. is a right-wing fantasy all you want, but this debate was actually instigated not by right-wing parents but by an ideological transformation on the left.”
These status-related cultural politics have become the everyday shooting match. As business guru Peter Drucker observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.” Yet a political science professor at Berkeley once scathingly told a graduate seminar I was in, “I don’t believe in culture because I don’t know what it is.” Social scientists like this see culture as nonfalsifiable. And, granted, it is difficult to distinguish cases in which one cultural variable is present and another is not. This is because culture can be immersive and often barely visible; more subtle than signified. It’s the emojis we throw up on Instagram and the political slang we use with our friends, co-workers, and family. It’s the latest Facebook petition on the hot-button issue that causes a surge of outrage, and it is the shared post that leads us to cry at home in our bed over a horrifying video.
And it’s the way in which many of the voters who turned away from McAuliffe felt that they were being treated as unworthy of recognition by the Democratic Party and worthy of recognition by the Republican Party.
Both status and recognition can be dismissed as unquantifiable, even if their influence on voting behavior and elections is decisive, or they can be examined, clear-eyed, as clues to the past, present, and future. Because they offer answers to a paradox. Namely, how a fleece-wearing private equity executive worth $400 million who sent his kids to expensive private schools, in a brief campaign in which he spent $50 million of his own money, could convince Virginia’s parents that he was their savior, while at the same time reassuring Virginia’s conservatives he was their man, and doing all of this while barely putting forward any specific policy proposals.
Because this cannot be ignored. And because it may be prologue to the future.