Voters Give Democrats a Woke-Up Call: WSJ

Will the party recognize its mistake in embracing extremism? Will the GOP prove worthy of its wins?

‘Took my first DC trip yesterday since pre-COVID. Union Station mostly deserted, hardly any stores/restaurants open. 2 homeless guys hanging out & begging in the seating area at Sbarro’s. Real ‘decline of the republic’ vibe in the building. The election results didn’t surprise me.”—the Week columnist Damon Linker on Twitter Wednesday

“What a weird thing it will be if Donald Trump has done less harm to the Republican brand than Robin DiAngelo has done to the Democratic brand.”—the Atlantic’s David Frum on Twitter Tuesday

“Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”— Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.) on Joe Biden, quoted in Thursday’s New York Times

(WSJ) These quotes leapt out in a week of listening and reading. A widespread sense of national deterioration, increasing resistance to the woke cultural regime, and Democratic leadership’s misreading of the nation’s mood and needs yielded Tuesday’s remarkable returns.

Some big pushback is going on. It’s not over and might only have begun. In the broadest sense it was propelled by a desire to reclaim the nation’s footing, to push away from disorder and things worse than disorder, and to regain our poise as a nation. Sometimes elections begin things; less frequently do they end them, but I think Tuesday marked a kind of psychic endpoint to the past terrible two years—an end to pandemic dominance, to pandemic thinking and all that came with it, from lockdowns to social and cultural unrest.

To some degree it was a pushback against smugness, too, which has become a primary behavioral tic of many, not all, on the progressive left. I am thinking of unions and school boards that act as if they own the schools and you little mommies had better pipe down, and those in the professional classes who say, “I believe in science” to dismiss critics and alternative arguments. There is the smugness of the woke regime itself. On PBS James Carville, after the election, blamed “stupid wokeness” for the party’s losses. It went beyond Virginia and New Jersey: “I mean, this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this ‘take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools,’ . . . People see that.” It had a “suppressive effect all across the country on Democrats. Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something.”

A consideration of Tuesday’s context must include the shock of Afghanistan. There was already plenty of political and cultural uneasiness, the administration was new, and this sudden and dramatic failure seemed to reveal three terrible words: no baseline competence. It shook certitudes: Maybe it wasn’t good enough not to be Donald Trump. And when President Biden didn’t follow the example of JFK after the Bay of Pigs, taking the fault on himself, but instead was consistently defiant and defensive, his numbers went down and never came up. It was too telling. It was damaging.

“The Blob” is what they call the foreign-policy establishment, but it might also be used as a name for the Democratic domestic-policy establishment. The Blob rarely does anything helpful culturally because it’s blithely unaware of the country’s cultural problems. It tends to turn a blind eye when its constituent groups become extreme.

It likes to spend and doesn’t worry about raising taxes. I take the current American feeling on spending to be an Italian mother’s response when I was a child when her husband informed her she was spending too much on the family. “It takes money to live,” she said, silencing him. It does. A lot of people need a lot of help; a nation needs public works. But when the spending reaches multitrillions and almost nobody seems to bother keeping an eye on it, seeing it isn’t wasted or abused or wrongly funneled, applying limits to moderate it, or admitting any potential downside, such as inflation, then people get anxious. And when they get anxious they get mad, and push back.

Terry McAuliffe had one kind of race in Virginia, Phil Murphy had another in Jersey, but neither seemed to have a program beyond: The Blob continues.

When Republican Glenn Youngkin mentioned trouble in the public schools, Mr. McAuliffe called it a “racist dog whistle.” But the trouble in the schools is real. Two months ago an education activist told a small group in Virginia that people don’t yet understand that Americans’ relationship with public schools changed during the pandemic. For the first time ever, on Zoom, parents overheard what is being taught, how, and what’s not taught, and they didn’t like what they heard. The schools had been affected by, maybe captured by, woke cultural assumptions that had filtered down from higher-ed institutions and the education establishment. The parents were home in the pandemic and not distracted. They didn’t want their children taught harmful nonsense, especially at the expense of the basics. The education activist said: None of this is fully appreciated, but it will have profound implications.

On Tuesday it did. The pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, in the Washington Examiner, backed up the argument. Her polling had Mr. Youngkin ahead by 15 points among parents of K-12 children. “Those saying ‘education’ is simply a proxy for racism, and that this result is proof that white or conservative parents really don’t want schools to teach about topics like slavery or give a complete picture of American history, have misread the full picture of parents’ anxieties.” She found 77% of Republicans and 96% of Democrats alike agreed “we should acknowledge the terrible things that have happened in our nation’s history regarding race so students can learn from them and make the future better.” But parents were “alarmed” by “anything that seems to be deterministic about race, such as telling children their skin color will shape their future.” They are uncomfortable “with anything that feels like it is separating children by race.” They’re “also alarmed” by the learning loss that happened during the pandemic, and “upset” over efforts to gut gifted-and-talented education in the name of equity.

Democrats have allowed themselves to be associated with—to become the political home of—progressive thinking. They thought they had to—progressives would beat them to a pulp if they didn’t get with the program. They thought it would play itself out. This was a mistake. You can’t associate a great party with cultural extremism and not eventually pay a price.

Were voters, Tuesday, saying, “Gee, we’re all Republicans now!” No, and it would be foolish for Republicans to think so. It means more voters than usual saw Republicans as an alternative, and took it. It means what a crusty political operative told me decades ago. He had no patience for high-class analyses featuring trends and contexts. When voters moved sharply against a party he’d say, “The dogs don’t like the dog food.” Tuesday they vomited it up.

For Democrats everything depends on how they understand the reasons Tuesday happened, and whether they are agile, supple and humble enough to admit and readjust.

For Republicans the challenge is to prove that they are worthy of the bounty that came and may be coming their way—that they can do something with it.