What’s the Matter with Charlottesville?

Charlottesville City Council. Photo credit: The Daily Progress

by James A. Bacon

In his bestselling book of 2007, Thomas Franks asked the question, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Why do blue-collar inhabitants of the Sunflower State, he wondered, so consistently vote for Republican politicians who pursue policies supposedly antithetical to their material self-interest? Perhaps the answer is that level-headed Kansans could see where the progressive policies of the Democratic Party would take them.

In Washington, D.C., progressive policies are diluted by our republic’s system of checks and balances. But there are places where the end game of progressivism has been revealed in all its unadulterated glory. One such place is San Francisco,  with its homeless encampments, open-air drug use, fecal-strewn streets, people lying passed out on sidewalks, flash-mob shoplifting, and shuttered stores.

Fortunately, Virginia has no analogue to San Francisco. That’s not for a lack of emulation. Progressives here just haven’t held the levers of power as long. But Virginians can get a close-up look of progressive political culture at work in Charlottesville. The home-town newspaper, The Daily Progress, has just published an analysis — “Charlottesville faces major challenges following mass departure of city leaders” — that might aptly have been headlined, “What’s the Matter with Charlottesville?”

Let me be clear. When I use the term “progressive,” I am not equating it to all Democrats. While I may disagree with many Democratic priorities, mainstream Democratic Party governors like Jerry Baliles, Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have ably governed the state. Charlottesville’s progressives are a breed apart. What should worry Virginians is that progressives represent an increasingly influential faction within the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Charlottesville, where progressives have displaced mainstream Democrats, gives every appearance of being ungovernable. Turnover in the top ranks of city government has gotten so bad that two city managers have resigned within the past year and a candidate for the position of interim city manager recently backed out. Said the candidate, Marc Woolley: “There’s just no way that an interim person can work underneath that craziness.” In desperation, the city has hired a consulting firm in place of a city manager — surely a first for a locality not facing imminent bankruptcy.

Things are so bad that outgoing Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who courted controversy for posting on social media a free-form poem comparing the city to a rapist, has accused city leaders of contributing to white supremacy. Things are so bad that former police chief RaShall Brackney has filed an EEOC complaint against the city, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sex and asking for $3 million — this in a city where 85% of all votes in the 2020 presidential election were cast for Joe Biden and only 13% for Donald Trump!

According to The Daily Progress, some frame the conflict as “a clash between a city set in the past and one struggling to come to terms with that past, race relations chief among them.”

“You’ve got this legacy going hundreds of years back where certain groups have been oppressed and suppressed,” says Robert Roberts, professor of political science and public administration at James Madison University.

Just one problem. Somehow, other Virginia communities with the same historical legacy are not mired in dysfunction.

Other observers blame social media. Undoubtedly, heated words on social media can aggravate personal animosities. But social media is ubiquitous in Virginia. Somehow, politicians in other Virginia communities manage to use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram without engendering intense animosities.

What sets Charlottesville apart is the extreme leftist complexion of local politics, which are tinted by the extreme leftist complexion of the University of Virginia’s academic culture. The rhetoric of the far Left is judgmental, unforgiving, and uncompromising. When there are no Trumpkins. or even Republicans, upon whom to channel their bottomless reservoirs of envy, resentment and grievance, leftists turn upon one another — Bolshevik-vs-Menshevik style.

Progressives eat their own. Charlottesville is not the kind of place where senior government officials can count on advancing a career. Who could blame them for staying away?

Update: Shaun Kenney picks up the question of “What’s wrong with Charlottesville” in a post on The Republican Standard. He examines the decline of press coverage in Charlottesville and the resulting loss of accountability. Says he: “It isn’t just the presence of a viable opposition that matters, but rather the presence of an open public square and a media that legitimately concerns itself with journalism rather than protecting the institutions and being team players.”