Virginia, 2020, and Identity Politics

Charlie Cook New
February 12, 2019

Over the last few days the bullets of identity politics have been ricocheting through the state Capitol in Richmond, the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, and to a certain extent, the whole Democratic Party.

While Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a white male and a Democrat, vigorously denies posing in a medical-school yearbook picture wearing either blackface or in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, he concedes having worn blackface another time, while doing a Michael Jackson imitation moonwalk in a dance competition during medical school. Another white male statewide-elected Democrat, Attorney General Mark Herring, confesses to wearing blackface at a party in college. The only other Virginia statewide elected official, African-American Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, is fending off allegations that he sexually assaulted an African-American woman during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. Fairfax calls it consensual sex, the woman describes it as forced oral sex.

Meanwhile, white female Sen. Elizabeth Warren was confronted by a Washington Post report showing her signed Texas Bar Association 1986 membership card in which she labeled herself as an American Indian. This was seemingly at odds with her own DNA test that showed only trace levels of Native American ancestry, and previous protestations that she had not made such claims, putting both her veracity and candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in question. Just to round it out, former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be nearing a decision to enter the Democratic nomination contest despite the view among some in the party that 2020 is not the time to nominate yet another white male. He is judged for being what he is, not for anything that he has said or done. Wow, a lot going on, all around the incendiary matters of race, gender, and #MeToo.

In this column earlier this week, just as the Fairfax allegations were first aired and before Herring’s transgression became known, I speculated that a Northam resignation might come at any time. The thought was that regardless of the specifics of the allegations, if a governor were in a situation in which he or she could no longer be effective—if the opposition party would not cooperate and the goodwill within one’s own party was seemed irreparably diminished—that governor would seem to have to resign.

That still may well happen with Northam and Herring. But we should consider that, if someone in public life deep-down believes that they are guilty of insensitive and juvenile behavior but absolutely not a racist, then resigning could be seen as, in effect, confessing that they are guilty of the charge. The desire to clear one’s name is an almost primal instinct. We also have seen a number of cases—Presidents Clinton and Trump the most prominent—of the accused simply toughing it out, defying attacks by just hanging in there.

It all comes down to one’s tolerance for pain versus a desire to just accept what seems inevitable, and try to move past a horrible situation. While I think “zero tolerance” on almost anything is a mindless abandonment of judgement, a white adult, putting on blackface, is a pretty tough one to ignore.

Another consideration pointed out by someone affiliated with Northam was that for this year’s session of the legislature—which began Jan. 9 and runs out on Feb. 23—Wednesday was “cross-over day”, the point halfway through a session when legislative measures in one chamber have to be finished and move over to the other chamber. It was argued that if a governor could just hang in two more weeks, through the conclusion of the legislative session, that this could be survivable. A common tactic among those going through Navy SEAL, Army Special Forces or Ranger, or some other incredibly challenging training and selection program, is to say to themselves, “I am going to make it through today. I am not going to drop out today. I may drop out tomorrow or the next day, but not today.” That every day they just strive to get through that day without dropping out. Some find that this psychological technique really works.

But to the broader issue of identity politics, the Warren case is interesting. Within the confines of the Democratic Party, her problem is in part alienating a constituency group, Native Americans, as well as representing herself in a way that doesn’t seem to be completely accurate or appropriate. But Trump’s demeaning nickname for Warren, “Pocahontas,” is actually aimed at an important part of Trump’s coalition: working-class whites in general and working-class white men in particular.

The Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, examined this group in a fascinating 2017 report about “relative deprivation,” the frustration among many that they have not achieved their life expectations because of societal or economic reasons. In her 2017 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, University of California, Berkley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild found, after extensive interviews with working-class tea-party supporters in Louisiana, that they saw certain other groups as “cutting in line” at the expense of themselves, that they felt that they were working harder and harder yet not getting ahead. The politics of grievance is very real today and exists among working-class whites just as it does among others they resent. Warren’s claim could easily trigger that belief.

Against this backdrop, by almost all accounts, Joe Biden is edging closer and closer to getting into this race, raising the question of whether he is either the unifier who can pull together a Democratic Party that desperately wants to unseat Trump, or—as an older, white male—a dinosaur, no longer nominatable within the Democratic Party?

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 8, 2019