On Tuesday evening, a man won an election in a place that does not exist. The man, who had previously been the CEO of a company that does nothing, was elected governor of Nowhere after promising to do something about issues he could neither define nor describe.
If the above summary is slightly unfair to the achievement of Glenn Youngkin, to the no-doubt jolly and life-enhancing work in private equity and consulting done by his former employer the Carlyle Group, and to his place of residence in Northern Virginia, where McMansions and fake brick-veneered apartment complexes and shopping centers seem to emerge spontaneously from the earth like the “spacious wound” out of which the mansions of hell arise in Milton, take comfort. Youngkin has already earned more than his fair share of praise from conservatives both here and abroad, some of it fairly cringe inducing.
If I had my druthers, we would not overdetermine the consequences of this election. The opposition besting the president’s party in the first midterm contest is not exactly a world-historic first. But since everyone seems to insist that we have to talk about it in grand sweeping terms, I will take a shot at explaining why, apart from the bare fact of enjoying a loss for the Clintons as much as the next right-of-center take-worker, I am not optimistic, much less enthusiastic, about Youngkin. (I will resist the temptation to make any jokes about the similarity of his surname to a brand of Chinese malware dolls.)
Over and over again we have been told that Youngkin won because he promised to “ban” something called “critical race theory” or “CRT.” Prescinding from the difficult question of what CRT means to its opponents (I am not convinced that it functions as anything except shorthand for “The basic assumptions that make up the worldview of most educated Americans,” including Youngkin), I find myself asking what exactly this “ban” is supposed to look like? Could it be an executive order, one that would be immediately subject to any number of (likely successful) legal challenges? Could it be a piece of legislation that, in the unlikely event it passes in the statehouse, would also be taken hostage by the courts, perhaps for years at a time? No one knows, and what’s more, no one seems to care. A victory of epochal proportions was declared more than 36 hours ago by television pundits, political consultants, and a handful of intelligent writers who should know better.
My skepticism about what, if anything, Youngkin will be able to accomplish does not exhaust my concerns. In fact, I am less interested in the question of what he might do in office than I am about what his victory tells us about the prospects for social conservatism under even the most favorable political conditions (i.e., an unpopular president, a laughably bad ersatz incumbent, etc.).
Never mind the prevailing narratives. Youngkin won not because Virginia is full of closeted social conservatives (he pointedly refused to discuss abortion, for example) but because the kind of affluent suburban voters who supported Joe Biden in 2020 decided to fire the help. After nearly two years of putting up with suspicious-sounding medical excuses from caretakers, they were fed up with the teachers’ unions whom they had put in charge of babysitting their children while they pursued dual incomes and ordered takeout. “Education” was indeed a dog whistle in this race—not for “white supremacy,” but for Karen’s impatience with her de facto employees, whose job is to keep Dylan and Heather occupied until they are old enough to start getting high test scores and applying to college.
Meanwhile, all the talk about opposition to “CRT” papers over the question of what exactly the voters who made the difference in Virginia’s election oppose. To the extent that the critical race theory discussed over the course of the campaign bears any resemblance to the already loosely defined academic discipline of the same name, it is difficult not to imagine that the objection was not to anything specific in its contents but rather to the fact that it presents any kind of structural critique of American society at all: the idea that undergirding the self-satisfied consumerism of life in our meritocratic suburbs there is something essentially rotten, indeed sinful, that the present order has been made possible by means of some unspeakable and ancient privation, and that one day there will be a reckoning of sorts, not only for individuals but for the world itself, and that much of what we have done and built will be rejected as false and damnable.
It is easy to see why a traditional religiously inflected social conservatism rejects this kind of thinking. It is after all a parody, and not a very sophisticated one, of the Christian account of the cosmos. But for suburban cultural conservatives, and their Barstool kin, the same objections—“How dare you suggest that any of us are or will be subject to judgement! Have we not earned higher-than-median scores on standardized tests? Do we not have dogs from shelters?”—would apply to the real thing. It is the basic notion that any aspect of their lifestyle should be subject to criticism, and the horror at the idea that their whims and preferences should take the backseat to any other considerations (sordid or otherwise), that animates opposition to CRT, not a sober rejection of a specific set of texts or ideas.
Besides, even if suburban opposition to CRT amounted to anything loftier than “They should not tell us too much what to do!” it would still be a hopelessly inadequate and almost painfully over-selective response to a problem that is not in any meaningful sense discrete. Fashionable academic tosh (most of it half-understood at best by the illiterate daycare workers we amusingly refer to as “teachers”) exists along a continuum of structures, institutions, practices, assumptions, and attitudes that together make up the life of our professional classes, a depraved social order made possible by hormonal contraception, abortion, spoliation of the environment, wage theft, and many other evils, one which neither Youngkin nor his supporters meaningfully oppose or even question. In fact, one could say without hesitating that they are not even aware of it, much as the conservatives who once cheered on Hobby Lobby in its legal battles did not see the futility of taking comfort in a small actuarial victory for a seller of Chinese plastic knicknacks.
All of which is to say that for social conservatives the election of Youngkin isn’t a “victory.” It isn’t even a holding pattern. Like all of our elections, it is at best a participatory multimedia event, a chance to indulge in schadenfreude (for example, at the expense of progressive commentators arguing with a straight face that the first black woman to hold statewide office in Virginia is a white supremacist), a live-action roleplaying game. And I fear that among many other things it could have the unintended consequence of giving false hope to those who should remain disillusioned about the reality of life in a post-political, indeed, post-social economic order, with its attendant false anthropology, ethics, and so on. We are not one iota closer to bringing an end to these things than we were on Monday. And when that end does come, in the fullness of time, it will not be because a main-chancer who wins awards like this one beat Terry McAuliffe.
“Once again, we are proud to have achieved a perfect score on the @HRC’s Corporate Equality Index. We know there is much work to be done and look forward to continuing the progress for our LGBTQ colleagues.” – Carlyle Co-CEOs, Kewsong Lee & Glenn Youngkin https://t.co/lwm53kZiKY pic.twitter.com/xatLs2WmOk
— The Carlyle Group (@OneCarlyle) March 28, 2019
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.