It's election week. So it bears repeating. The race for Virginia governor is not going to tell us much about next year's congressional elections. The results will, however, tell us how strong the backlash has gotten. That, in turn, will help us think about what the midterms might offer.
By "backlash," I mean the reaction by those who defend the status quo against those trying to change the status quo. Specifically, the reaction against political gains made in the wake of George Floyd's murder, which was widely understood to have triggered a "racial reckoning."
Reformers think state-sanctioned murder is bad and should be prevented. The status quo thinks murder is the exception and anyway, George Floyd probably got what he deserved. After all, he was Black.
But the results of this week's elections in Virginia, especially the statewide gubernatorial, will tell us something else — how good a job some Americans have done in making the goals of an authoritarian collective, which is what the GOP has become, seem respectable. The president nailed it when he said, in a speech there: "Extremism can come in many forms," Joe Biden said. "It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest."
Liberals can be trusted to find problems with society's status quo. That's what makes them liberal, among other things. Conservatives can be trusted to say there's nothing wrong except the "troublemakers." Liberals try hard to send a message. Conservatives don't want to hear it but know the message is dangerous (to their interests), dangerous enough that they set out to kill the messenger. Among other things, that's what makes them conservative, or something more sinister.
But there is a third group to keep in mind. These are the apologists. These are the people who work hard to create reputations of independence and integrity, but who are in fact aligned with the conservatives, because the conservatives have money and power. It's lucrative to protect and defend the status quo. That this is true means it doesn't matter if the apologists actually believe their nonsense.
The apologists were active before the 2020 election. (Recall that some of them signed that awful letter published in Harper's magazine that decried "cancel culture.") Their voices were relatively muted, however. The press corps elevated the voices of reform while Donald Trump was in office. Now that Joe Biden is in office, the press corps is elevating the voices of apology. This is maddening to those of us trying to bring change to America. But in a sense, this is natural and predictable.
Fact is, there will always be a Jewish person making antisemitism seem respectable. There will always be a Black person making white supremacy seem respectable. There will always be a woman making misogyny seem respectable. There will always be a member of the LGBTQ community making anti-LGBTQ hatred seem respectable.
There will always be someone from the out-group willing to embrace the in-group's power and prestige to tell the in-group what it wants to hear. This is the way of the world. We shouldn't be sad or shocked. It's just another bump on the road toward greater freedom and justice.
There are so many, it's hard to pick one apologist to pick on. But here's an example that came to my inbox this morning. It's from Noah Rothman. He's an opinion contributor at MSNBC and associate editor at Commentary. He made a name among liberals who watch the cable network, as a "conservative" willing to criticize Donald Trump.
Rothman and his magazine are very worried about the rising tide of antisemitism in the US. We should all be worried. Yet Rothman and his magazine stand against the Democrats in pretty much all imaginable ways. You'd think they'd be in favor of the Democrats given that the party is the greatest defender of Jewish Americans and the greatest opponent of antisemitism. (Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish member of the Congress in US history.)
But the Democrats also criticize Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. For a very small group of extremely ideological pundits, which is to say, a very small group of white racists who also happen to be pundits, that's a line that must never be crossed. That suggests something secret and sinister about the Democrats that a majority of American Jews, who vote Democratic, are not seeing. In other words, Rothman is a radical who comes off as respectable. He's therefore the ideal person to say the GOP isn't as extreme as the Democrats make them out to be. That's literally his latest. My inbox: "Democrats' attempt to paint the Republican Party as 'extreme' is about to backfire."ss
If you're someone who cares about freedom and justice for all, and I assume you are given you're reading this in the Editorial Board, remember this: the results this week from the Virginia elections are about more than the coming midterms. Indeed, if that's all we end up talking about, we're missing how politics works in the United States.