Republican Glenn Youngkin was recently sworn in as the new governor of Virginia, a state Joe Biden won with nearly half a million votes. What caused such a rapid change in sentiment?
There were many factors, but one stands out: the schools.
ALG Research, a Democratic polling firm, surveyed Biden voters who had switched to Youngkin and concluded, “They felt shaken by shifting and inconsistent policies and concerned about the impact on student learning loss. , and some felt Virginia was not following the science in keeping schools closed later than other states. One participant, a Biden voter, said bluntly that her vote for Youngkin “was against the party that closed schools for so long last year.”
Terry McAuliffe, the losing Democratic candidate, made a particularly disastrous mistake when he said during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.
But as ALG observed, his blunder “wasn’t the problem at all.” It was so damaging because it “played into an existing narrative that Democrats weren’t listening to parents…(Parents) generally don’t feel heard right now when it comes to schools, and they blame liberals and democrats.
Democrats face an extremely difficult environment as the midterm elections heat up in the fall, but to mitigate the damage, they must learn the lesson of Virginia. “There is no public tolerance for serious disruptions in people’s lives,” Harvard’s Bob Blendon, an expert on public health issues, told Politico. “People have lost patience.”
Yes, they did, and Republicans are already exploiting that fatigue. “It’s going to be a huge problem, one of the defining problems when we get into November 2022,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the Republican National Congressional Committee, told CQ Roll Call. “It’s going to be very easy for us to point out that Democrats ignored science and sided with their special interest donors rather than students.”
COVID-19 is such a powerful problem because it affects and infects every family, every day. Donald Trump lost to Biden in large part because he messed up his response to the pandemic so badly, downplaying his threat and showing little respect for his victims. Biden was much better at showing empathy, and he certainly didn’t cause the delta and omicron mutations. But he made two major mistakes.
The first was to focus too much on the scientific and medical battle against COVID-19, and not enough on the side effects of that fight. Democrats like Biden, Jonathan Chait wrote in New York, emphasized “a zero COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic.”
But any public policy decision involves costs as well as benefits. As Dr. Uzma Hasan of RWJBarnabas Health in New Jersey told The New York Times, “The mental health crisis caused by school closures will be a pandemic worse than COVID.”
Chait writes: “It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. … The damage to the social development and educational achievement of a generation of children, and in particular to the prospects for social mobility of its most marginalized members, will be irreparable.
Biden’s second mistake was pandering to powerful teachers‘ unions, which strongly reinforced the impetus to close schools. The Economist slammed these unions for ignoring evidence from other countries that schools can safely stay open, writing: “Over the past two years, American children have missed more time in class. than those of most rich countries. … Children have little to gain from school closures and much to lose. Teacher unions should stop dumping the costs of the pandemic on them. »
The disillusionment with Democrats that has rocked the Virginia race is evident elsewhere. The Atlantic, a left-leaning magazine, published a widely commented article by Cleveland writer Angie Schmitt titled “Why I Embittered at Democrats: COVID School Policies Driven Me Away From My Tribe.” A similar rant in Politico by Oakland-based Rebecca Bodenheimer proclaimed: ‘How school closures have made me question my progressive politics: I’ve never felt further removed from liberal Democratic circles I call usually at my place.”
Without voters like Schmitt and Bodenheimer, and countless other parents of school-age children, Democrats will face a truly bleak future. To start winning them back, Democrats must make opening schools a top priority. And tell the teachers unions to get lost.
steven robert teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]