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Social Justice Shibboleths on a Small-Town Ballot

Hollow diversity quota victories, like the first black, female mayor in Western Pennsylvania, have nothing to do with actual governance.

I spent last Tuesday doing the most unglamorous kind of political work. Outside a black evangelical church a block from my childhood home in a city of 8,000 people, I paced around to keep warm, exchanged semi-hostile glances with my fellow poll-vultures, and accosted approaching voters on behalf of my father’s write-in campaign for mayor.

He had tried to pull off the same trick Byron Brown performed in Buffalo, using a write-in campaign to stave off a young challenger who won the Democratic primary by running to his left. He was unsuccessful, and the reasons for his loss could serve as a microcosmic representation of Biden-era politics.

That shouldn’t be so. It should be the case in politics that the smaller and more local you get, the more disconnected from partisan ideologies things become. Instead, this entire race was driven by a discourse that places symbolism above substance. Even in small-town races, the elite progressive ideologies of critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion infect everything.

George S. Quay III has been mayor of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a former steel town about 25 miles outside Pittsburgh, since 2013, when he was appointed to replace his ailing predecessor after serving several terms on city council. He went on to win two more terms of his own.

The steel mills may have closed, but the union-inflected legacy of local politics endures. My conservative father always ran as a Democrat, and until recently he got along fairly well with the old-school moderates who made up the local party machine. That all changed back in May, when the Democratic committee turned its back on its own incumbents.

Mayor Quay and two other councilmen lost their primaries to a triumfeminate of party-backed, first-time, black female candidates. Their leader is 29-year-old Kenya Johns, who is now mayor-elect. Johns is an “educator” (the most meaningless of all job titles) who “does diversity and equity consulting work.” Her compatriots are, according to one article, “[a]ctivists and community organizers.” One of them, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, posted a series of poorly spelled and punctuated Facebook posts defending arson and accusing police of seeking out careers in law enforcement solely to “kill blacks.”

Still, it wasn’t clear to me why these candidates decided to run. I might be biased, but I think my dad is a good mayor. He has balanced the budgets and negotiated solid contracts with the police and firefighters’ unions. On his watch, crime went down, empty storefronts filled up, and the city’s population increased for the first time since the 1950s.

So, I buttonholed Johns and one of the other candidates as they made the rounds and asked them point blank what they felt my father was doing wrong. Their responses were entirely devoid of substantive policy critiques. Instead, they mouthed platitudes about “unity” and “community engagement.” Johns said something about “democratic” versus “authoritative” leadership styles. That sounded like jargon to me, so I looked it up, and sure enough, the terms come from Frankfurt School psychologist Kurt Lewin. Maybe I’ll send her a copy of Mosca’s The Ruling Class.

Ultimately, though, they said it boiled down to two things: Mayor Quay failed to show up to the local Black Lives Matter march, and he was once photographed wearing a Thin Blue Line mask. That was enough. It didn’t matter that he’d purchased body cameras for the police department or that no incidents of racially charged police brutality had occurred on his watch. He was an out-of-touch old white man.

The positive case for these candidates, both as they themselves articulated it and as it was presented by local media, was equally nebulous. Questions about their competence and the benefits they might bring to the people of Beaver Falls were apparently beside the point. She will be the city’s first black female mayor. What more could you want? Anyone who fails to celebrate such a milestone must be a bigot. At least, that’s what a local news report suggested.

The Biden administration operates on a similar theory: How dare these plebs give us a negative approval rating? Don’t they know we have the first female Treasury Secretary and the first woman-of-color Vice President?

As shibboleths like these take center stage in our political discourse, our government increasingly struggles to perform basic functions, like maintaining supply chains and not being humiliated by jihadist guerillas.

Ironically, the people who seem most obsessed with privilege reveal their own privilege through their ideological fixations. Tucker Carlson made this point in a recent monologue:

[Our leaders] do not care if the actual country, the physical country, comes apart at the seams, as long as the population dutifully repeats the correct slogans. Once you understand that, you understand why every day we get some frivolous new announcement about some social justice goal that in the end will not improve the life of a single American citizen.

My impression of Mayor-elect Johns is that she fits this description perfectly. In our conversation (and in conversations I overheard her having with others) she showed little interest in the practical work of governing. It wasn’t until after the primary that she attended her first city council meeting.

As in Beaver Falls, so in Washington. An elected official’s duty should be to his or her constituents, not to optics that flatter the cultural elite’s luxury beliefs. Unfortunately, the ideology to which our leaders, local and national, increasingly subscribe is totalizing. No issue or elected office, no matter how small, can be allowed to escape from the clutches of a hollow progressivism that destroys everything it touches while demanding to be congratulated for meaningless symbolic victories.

Grayson Quay is a Young Voices associate contributor based in Arlington, VA. His writing has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington Examiner, and The American Conservative.