Following Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial election to Glenn Youngkin, some mainstream media pundits were quick to heap blame on the progressive faction of the Democratic Party. This admonishment not only ran contrary to the facts but also played into right-wing media’s claim that McAuliffe’s defeat was a referendum against progressivism.
Leading up to the election, and facing waning support for McAuliffe, more conservative members of the party like Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mark Warner (D-VA) moved to pin what they worried was a forthcoming loss on the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ supposed obstruction of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills currently being debated by Democrats in Congress. Tester told Politico on November 2 that the fact that “we haven’t gotten anything done … says enough” about the progressives’ strategy. Their claims rested on the belief that if the bills had passed earlier, Democratic popularity — and, vicariously, McAuliffe’s popularity — would be higher.
But in faulting progressives for Democrats’ failure to pass the bills — like mainstream media did a month ago — they ignored both the primary obstructive role Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have played and the majority support the progressive version of the reconciliation bill enjoyed. Worse still, this argument distracted from what was actually taking place in Virginia.
As progressive lawmakers had pointed out in response to criticism, attacks against McAuliffe did not focus on the reconciliation bill (a piece of legislation McAuliffe, who is not a member of Congress, has no say in). Rather, the conservative strategy in Virginia’s race had largely relied on one issue — specifically, Youngkin’s racist dog whistle assertion that “critical race theory,” an academic and legal framework that examines the impact of systemic racism on American society, was being taught in Virginia schools (it wasn’t) and promoted by McAuliffe (it wasn’t). Central to this strategy was the “feedback loop” between right-wing media and Youngkin.
In April, Youngkin used a bogus story from Fox News to attack Virginia’s Department of Education and call for the state superintendent to resign, which led to him landing a spot on Tucker Carlson’s show days before he secured the Republican nomination. Fox News would subsequently turn its well-established predilection for critical race theory to Virginia, going from airing 17 segments on CRT in Virginia schools in May to 63 in June.
The fixation would carry through to the end of the campaign. The bulk of the coverage focused on Loudoun County, the locale for another right-wing disinformation campaign wielding schools’ inclusive restroom policies for trans students to target McAuliffe. Considering that going into the election, voters identified education as their top issue, the bogus CRT claim would seem to be a far greater factor than supposed progressive obstruction. But that did not stop mainstream media from adopting the latter message. For example:
- The Hill ran an op-ed with the headline “Biden and progressives lead Democrats into the wilderness” on November 3 that blamed progressives, saying they “decided to hold the $1 trillion infrastructure bill hostage for their big wish list." The piece added that their “brinksmanship failed spectacularly” and ultimately claimed that the “inability to pass any parts of Biden’s agenda wrecked the Democratic message that they can get things done and likely is weighing on their support.”
- In an interview with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) the day after the election, CNN’s Anderson Cooper opened his show’s segment by asking, “You saw what happened last night. Do you take any blame in this?” When Jayapal responded by stressing the importance of the reconciliation bill, Cooper followed up, saying, “It doesn’t seem like [voters are] asking you – progressive Democrats – for help. It seems like they’re asking now Republicans for help.” Cooper later asked Jayapal, “Has the Democratic Party had gone too far left? I mean, your caucus, is that where the country really is?”
- An article for Axios titled “Voters punish Democrats amid left drift” had a similar take, calling the results of the election “a massive backlash to perceptions that progressives are pulling the party too far left." The article also suggested that Democratic Party leadership treat the loss as a “wake-up call to try to force a reset, starting with swift passage of a long-stalled $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal.”
- An op-ed in The Washington Post said “Terry McAuliffe paid the price” for the party not passing the bills. To its credit, it did point out Sinema and Manchin’s obstruction but laid equal blame on progressives, saying, “The Manchins and the Sinemas on the right side of the Democratic caucus and the Jayapals on the left must recognize that their carping over relative trifles has imperiled an agenda they (and their constituents) overwhelmingly support.”
- The editorial board for The New York Times wrote an editorial with the headline “Democrats Deny Political Reality at Their Own Peril” in which it claimed McAuliffe’s loss signaled a need for “an honest conversation in the Democratic Party about how to return to the moderate policies and values that fueled the blue-wave." It also stated that the results were “a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party, including on priorities like Build Back Better, which have some strong provisions and some discretionary ones driving up the price tag.”
- On CNN’s election night coverage, after the race had been called for Youngkin, host Jake Tapper handed blame to both Biden and the Progressive Caucus, saying Biden’s support for the reconciliation bill “gave the progressives momentum to keep saying, ‘We're not going to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless you moderate Democrats can commit to vote for the Build Back Better Act.'" Tapper also stated that if the infrastructure bill had passed, “there would have been something to point to beyond the stalemate in Washington.”
Still more mainstream pundits argued generally that the Democratic Party had become too progressive, going so far as to adopt right-wing terminology in claiming the party was too “woke” for Virginia voters. The fact that McAuliffe, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, had carefully managed his image as a moderate and took nonprogressive stances on some issues – like his opposition to protecting transgender students in schools and revocation of support for ending qualified immunity for law enforcement – made this argument essentially dishonest. Again, these facts did not stop this narrative from taking hold in mainstream media. For example:
- When asked on PBS Newshour his take on McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia, Democratic strategist James Carville replied with the claim “what went wrong is this stupid wokeness,” blaming the loss on the effect progressives’ “language” had on “suburbanites in Northern Virginia.”
- The Guardian ran an article that included opinions on the election from Republican strategist Geoffrey Kabaservice, who claimed that Democrats “pretended that nothing resembling CRT was being taught in the schools while also claiming that anyone objecting to the new progressive pedagogy was a white supremacist.” Kabaservice also said McAuliffe “should have appreciated the dangers of indulging such progressive hubris.”
- An op-ed for The New York Times with the headline “Republicans Schooled the Left in Virginia” stated that McAuliffe’s loss showed the “immediate future of the Democratic Party depends on its leaders separating themselves, to some extent, from academic jargon and progressive zeal” since “overreaching cultural progressivism” has helped create “an immense political opportunity” for Republican candidates.
- Analysis from CNN claimed that Democratic popularity was hurt by the fact that “progressives ... have been a dominant force in the party in Washington, playing into GOP claims that the President is hostage to far-left influences in his own party.”
- Election night coverage from MSNBC’s The 11th Hour With Brian Williams saw host Brian Williams ask Republican political consultant Mike Murphy what local Democratic parties should learn from the results of the election, with Murphy responding that “voters keep reminding the Democratic Party that the really strong progressive super-woke stuff is a dud with the electorate.”
- During MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle Reports, anchor Stephanie Ruhle asked her panel of guests whether the results of the election meant the Democratic Party needed to shift away from its progressive base in order to “recalibrate ... and start focusing on everyone else.”
This framing played perfectly into the conservative strategy to blame McAuliffe’s loss on the purported radical progressivism of his party, ignoring the conservative-manufactured culture war fueled by right-wing media. Here are some examples of the sort of conservative coverage the mainstream media helped to feed:
- An op-ed for The Wall Street Journal said the election “repudiated the progressive agenda nationwide” and that voters had “registered their unhappiness with the woke agenda.” The article characterized Youngkin as not “shrink[ing] from disputes over culture and school curriculum” while claiming McAuliffe had “ignore[d] parental objections to teaching critical race theory in schools.”
- An article in The Washington Times credited Youngkin’s win to the Democrats’ policies of “never-ending coronavirus-tied mandates and clamps on freedoms. Radical teaching in the schools. Propaganda pushes about LGBTQ policies. The ripping of rights from parents and insistence that government knows best.”
- The Daily Wire posted an article titled “Virginia Parents Champion Victory Of ‘Family Values,’ ‘Parental Rights’ After Democrats Routed In State-Wide Elections. The piece attempted to fully shift blame away from the role the outlet played in spreading falsehoods on Virginia schools and instead said Youngkin’s victory was due to “local outrage over education creat[ing] a groundswell of anger against Democrats and progressive school curriculum, ideas, and policies such as student mask mandates.”
- The Federalist said the race was “widely seen as a bellwether for far-left Democrat policy priorities, specifically the party’s radical positions on education,” including “COVID school closures, critical race theory, targeting parents who speak out against school boards, and — in Virginia’s Loudoun County — covering up alleged incidents of sexual assault that cast doubt on transgender policies.”