After the planet Uranus was discovered in 1781, astronomers realized its orbit could only be explained if there was another, yet unseen, planet somewhere beyond it. The great French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier publicly predicted the existence — and location — of the planet we now know as Neptune, making it the first planet predicted before it was ever seen.
In that same vein, today we predict the emergence of a type of politician we have yet to see — one that will likely emerge from rural America, perhaps even rural Virginia.
Before we get to that point, let’s work through the political math. When the parties started realigning in the ’60s and ’70s, we in the South saw a new type of Democrat arise. Those Democrats declared themselves to be “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” — signaling they were not the segregationists of a previous generation but weren’t radical enough to alarm the business community. This was the formula that led to the election of Democrats such as Charles Robb, Gerald Baliles and Douglas Wilder in the 1980s — and ultimately to Mark Warner in 2001. We don’t hear that phrase as much anymore, but there certainly is such a species, even if they are no longer as numerous as they once were.
We’re now going through yet another realignment, one that has accelerated in the Donald Trump era. There are several ways to describe this realignment, all of which are correct in their own way. Trump-style Republicans have abandoned certain party traditions and instead embraced conservative populism. Geographically, Democrats are increasingly the party of the cities and suburbs, and Republicans are the party of rural America. Economically, Democrats have become the white-collar party and Republicans the blue-collar party. In terms of education — which many political scientists see as the real dividing line — Democrats are becoming the party of the college-educated while Republicans are strongest among those with less than a college education.
We have seen this play out here in Virginia: Northern Virginia once was considered a Republican stronghold and Southwest Virginia a Democratic bastion. Now, exactly the opposite is true. That’s worked against Republicans in Virginia — they’ve traded Loudoun County for Lee County — but worked in their favor in some other states. Trump’s narrow 2016 wins in the industrial heartland were no accident; Biden’s narrow wins in 2020 don’t necessarily guarantee that states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have permanently moved back into the Democratic orbit. Biden won Arizona and Georgia on the strength of voters in Phoenix and Atlanta — but saw states like Iowa and Ohio move further away from Democrats.
Historically speaking, this is a shift of tectonic proportions. Democrats may claim to be the party of working people — and can point to union endorsements as evidence — but many of those actual working people are voting Republican. Democrats have bemoaned that many voters are voting against their economic interests by voting Republican — that cultural issues have trumped (no pun intended) economic ones. Every political coalition has its points of tension, but here’s one that we might want to pay more attention to: The small-government philosophy favored by traditional conservatives may be at odds with the needs of many of these “new” Republican voters. That’s exactly what Democrats have been saying for a long time. The historian Thomas Frank wrote a famous book about that — “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The problem, though, is culturally conservative voters aren’t willing to stomach the cultural liberalism that comes with the economic policies that might benefit them. What we haven’t seen yet — yet — is a Republican who addresses those contradictions. Put another way, what we haven’t seen is the Republican equivalent of the “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” Democrat — in this case, the “culturally conservative but fiscally liberal” Republican.
No Republican would ever actually invoke the L-word, but they could easily come up with another word that sounds more appealing to their constituents. What might a “socially conservative but fiscally liberal” Republican be in favor of? More spending on rural schools, for starters. We’ve pointed out many times before how poorly funded schools in rural Virginia are. The state subsidizes most school funding in rural Virginia — in Scott County, 65% of the school budget comes from Richmond; in Buena Vista, 62% — and yet still those schools are far less funded than their counterparts in the most affluent parts of the state. Money doesn’t always buy a good education but it does buy some things — such as better buildings and better technology. Lee County is teaching cybersecurity but on an electrical system that often shorts out. They don’t have to worry about that in Loudoun County. At what point will we see a Republican who tells voters — buy all the guns you want, but we need to start taxing Northern Virginia more to pay for our schools. Such a message wouldn’t go over well in Northern Virginia but it might do very well in rural Virginia. And why stop with schools? Rural Virginia has lots of infrastructure needs — the free market that conservatives love has fixed the broadband problem in Democratic-voting Northern Virginia but not GOP-voting rural Virginia. Why can’t rural voters have their cultural conservatism and economic liberalism, too?
We’ve seen some stirrings that could lead to just such a type of Republican. In 2016, Republican legislators pushed a constitutional amendment to enshrine Virginia’s anti-union “right-to-work” law. They were astonished when actual Republican voters in large parts of rural Virginia voted against it. In Dickenson County, nearly 77% of the voters that year backed the Republican nominee for president — while 63% voted against the Republican-backed constitutional amendment. Republican legislators proved to be very out of touch with their own voters.
Likewise, Florida voters went for Donald Trump in 2020 — but also approved a $15-per-hour minimum wage that traditional Republicans opposed. Voters often are ready for something before their politicians are. It’s entirely possible there’s a new type of Republican voter out there just waiting for a new type of Republican candidate.
When the most affluent parts of the state vote Democratic, and the poorest vote Republican, Robin Hood might well turn out to be a conservative.
— The Roanoke Times