The right’s cynical “critical race theory” obsession breaks through in the VA gov race

Why Democrats can’t just “shut up about the unpopular stuff”

Terry McCauliffe and Glenn Youngkin

Citation Andrea Austria / Media Matters

In his Friday piece about Democratic data analyst David Shor, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein’s describes Shor’s prescription as follows: “Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff.” The piece has spurred an interesting and important conversation about Shor’s assessment of how the party’s coalitional demographics might impact its future electoral success and the implications for its messaging. 

One key insight came from The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who pointed out on Twitter that “shut up about the unpopular stuff” is easier said than done. “The message discipline of the right-wing media machine means that it's pretty hard for Democrats to avoid talking about things the right wants to talk about,” he noted. 

This phenomenon, in which right-wing propaganda draws Democrats away from their preferred messages and toward the right’s chosen topics, is playing out right now in Virginia, where former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking another term in next month’s gubernatorial election. McAuliffe’s lengthy platform makes no mention of the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in Virginia schools -- perhaps because those schools say that legal framework for discussions of race isn’t actually taught. But in the final weeks before the vote, he nonetheless has had to answer questions about that somewhat farcical issue thanks to a relentless, months-long right-wing effort to create a moral panic and put it on the political agenda.  

A coordinated and dishonest right-wing campaign has sought to turn local debates about school curricula into a polarized national issue Republicans can wield in state and national elections, as I’ve extensively documented. Its partisans identify, exaggerate, or fabricate discrete local instances of alleged left-wing excesses in discussions of race in schools, deceptively brand them all as “critical race theory,” and encourage local parents to view those debates as part of a national fight. The right-wing media plays an essential role in this effort, spreading the message to the GOP base and incentivizing politicians to get involved.

This plan is being road-tested in Virginia, where right-wing activists, media outlets, and politicians have claimed schools are a hotbed of woke indoctrination. The naked partisanship behind their appeal isn’t particularly subtle. 

Virginia’s leading “parent activist” is Ian Prior, who launched a political action committee earlier this year to support “common sense candidates” who oppose “critical race theory” in schools. Prior is an experienced political operative who has spent much of his career working to elect Republicans.

Fox News ran nearly 100 segments on “critical race theory” in Virginia school systems from March through June, often hosting Prior and other local parents who also happen to be conservative political activists. The bulk of that coverage revolved around Loudoun County, which serves “more than 80,000” of the nation’s 48 million public school students and has denied that “critical race theory” is part of its curriculum. At times, the network’s coverage explicitly noted that the point of the “critical race theory” push is to defeat McAuliffe and set up the GOP to use the same strategy during the 2022 midterm elections.

McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, businessman Glenn Youngkin, was the candidate who went the furthest in adopting Fox’s “critical race theory” narrative during the GOP primary. His “Day One Game Plan” includes a pledge to “ban critical race theory,” and he’s highlighted the issue on the stump, in interviews, and in his campaign’s press releases and ads

McAuliffe also has an education plank in his campaign platform. It revolves around making a “record” investment in Virginia schools, increasing teacher pay, and establishing universal pre-K, not local curriculum decisions. 

But that hasn’t prevented McAuliffe from being drawn into the “critical race theory” debate. The right-wing campaign, amplified by Fox and embraced by Youngkin, kept “critical race theory” in the spotlight until the mainstream press started asking him about it. In recent weeks, McAuliffe has addressed the topic in interviews with local media and in a debate. On Sunday, CNN anchor Dana Bash discussed the issue during an interview with McAuliffe; the next day, network analyst Margaret Talev highlighted what she said was his “misstep” in discussing it. 

The right’s ability to incubate an issue on right-wing outlets and then get the mainstream press to adopt it is a formidable advantage for the GOP. Polls show a partisan skew of views on the press: Democrats largely trust the media, while Republicans largely do not. That means that negative mainstream media coverage has more potential to hurt Democratic politicians, because Republicans reflexively reject information from that source. Some media reporters asked over the weekend why there isn’t a “New York Times of the right” that produces credible reporting. The reason seems quite clear: Propaganda is far more valuable for the right-wing movement and the Republican Party.

Debates over what messages Democrats should adopt to win elections and carry out progressive politics are important and useful. But we shouldn’t forget that, as Serwer noted, “the other side gets a vote about what the Discourse is.” Even the most disciplined political campaign can be pulled into unfavorable territory by the power of the right-wing propaganda apparatus.