by James A. Bacon
The national news media are full of commentary today analyzing the implications of the Republican sweep of statewide offices in Virginia. Almost all focus on Glenn Youngkin’s deft exploitation of the culture wars playing out in the state’s public schools, especially in Northern Virginia.
Youngkin does indeed deserve credit for harnessing the parents’ rebellion against “critical race theory.” Parents of school children shifted decisively from McAuliffe to Youngkin during the campaign. But there’s a big piece of the story that everyone is missing: how conservative media established the narrative of “critical race theory” and made it a top-tier issue in the election, catching the Washington Post flat-footed in the year’s biggest political story unfolding in its own back yard.
Scrappy conservative publications have long served as a counter to the dominant liberal media. They have served as a partial antidote to the dominant progressive narratives of our time, plugging voids in mainstream coverage by filling in “the other side of the story.” But they always played defense. This is the first time I can recall in which conservative media seized upon a narrative and drove an issue that decisively influenced a statewide election.
Do not underestimate the importance of this. The power of the mainstream media to craft narratives and frame the issues confers an extraordinary advantage to Democrats, both nationally and in Virginia. A Washington Post exit poll of voters in Tuesday’s election shows that 36% define themselves as conservative compared to only 23% who call themselves liberal, with a 41% identifying as moderates. Ideologically, Virginia voters lean conservative. Virginia should be a red state, but it hasn’t been for years — until this year
Youngkin did not create the parents’ rebellion, he just figured out how to ride it to victory. A grassroots movement of parents created the rebellion, and conservative media fanned the flames.
The parents’ rebellion is a national movement. Northern Virginia — Loudoun County in particular — became the epicenter, but not because the implementation of policies and practices inspired by Critical Race Theory is so much more advanced there than elsewhere. Northern Virginia became the epicenter because conservative media — the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the Epoch Times, National Review, the Daily Wire, and above all Fox News — have a presence in the Washington area. Conservative reporters and editors tend to live in Northern Virginia, which is less sapphire blue than the rest of the Washington metropolitan area. They could see what was happening in their communities, and they reported on it, creating a positive feedback loop with the grassroots movements already in place.
The parents’ rebellion first surfaced in Fairfax County, where the Northam administration and Fairfax public school officials revamped the admissions criteria for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, widely held to be the best public school in the country. The problem was that 70% of the student body, who qualified on the basis of an admissions test, were classified as “Asians”; only a few were Black or Hispanic. On the grounds of “equity,” admissions criteria were changed to open the elite school to disadvantaged minorities. Many parents decried the replacement of the merit-based approach with social-justice criteria.
Northern Virginian parents became agitated again upon discovering that a proposal to transform the mathematics curriculum had worked its way far through the Virginia Department of Education’s bureaucratic approval process. At issue was whether the Northam administration proposed to eliminate “advanced” classes. Virginia Department of Education officials backtracked amidst the uproar through the rhetorical trick of insisting that high-achieving students still would have access to “advanced” classes such as trigonometry and calculus, while downplaying the fact that the mathematics overhaul would eliminate tracked courses allowing advanced students in lower grades to progress more rapidly than slower students.
As parents became wise to what the Northam administration and its progressive allies in several of the state’s largest school districts were doing, they began paying more attention. They began digging. They issued Freedom of Information Act requests. They documented how CRT advocates were paid handsome sums to give presentations and perform consulting work, and how policies derived from critical race theory were driving curricula changes, teacher and staff training, disciplinary policies, and the “honest and open dialogue” about race outside the classroom. And they fed their findings to conservative media and blogs. (No one did this more successfully than T.J. High School parent Asra Nomani, a media-savvy former Wall Street Journal reporter, whose ambuscades we published on Bacon’s Rebellion).
For all intents and purposes, the newspaper whose motto is, “Democracy dies in darkness,” declared a blackout. When the issues couldn’t be ignored, the Post repeated the talking points of the Northam administration and the McAuliffe campaign: Republicans and conservatives were engaged in racist dog whistles, creating bogeymen, and, in effect, making it all up. “CRT is not being taught in our schools,” became the absurd mantra, as if rebel parents had claimed that high school students were being instructed in an abstract academic theory originating in law schools or, alternatively (and contradictorily), that parents objected to teaching students the cruel history of slavery and racism in America — topics that were already embedded in the Standards of Learning.
The story kept mutating as the battleground shifted to Loudoun County, where the school district was pushing “equity” (equal group outcomes) as justification for changing admissions standards to Loudoun’s elite school of science and technology. Then the school board backed controversial new guidelines for transgender students. Irate parents began packing school board meetings, not just in Loudoun, but in Virginia Beach, Albemarle County, and elsewhere. Local newspapers covered these as localized events, never connecting the dots, never conveying that parents were reacting to a radical ideology that was transforming their schools without their knowledge or approval.
Then came the revelation that Fairfax County schools had purchased sexually explicit books — containing graphic words and illustrations — for their libraries. The dam broke politically when gubernatorial candidate McAuliffe famously said, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Then came the request by the National Association of School Boards that the Biden administration sic the FBI on parents as “domestic terrorists” harassing and threatening school board members…. And then Attorney General Merrick Garland’s pledge to do so… And then the revelation that one of the parents cited by the NASB for his arrest for disorderly conduct had, in fact, been the parent of a daughter who had been raped in a Loudoun County school bathroom… by a boy wearing a skirt and allegedly referring to himself as “gender fluid”… And that Loudoun school officials had covered up the rape…
Conservative publications and Fox News, fast followed by community publications, broke these stories. Washington Post ate their dust, falling behind by three news cycles. The Virginian-Pilot treated the school controversies as a local issue, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Virginia Public Radio barely mentioned the controversies at all.
Conservative media spotted a real story and made it a national issue. For once, they drove the narrative every step of the way. They helped make history. Youngkin could not have won without them.