The national flap over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page demonstrates how the affairs of states and localities are subject to external pressures that they were more free from formerly. There is something to be said for the “nationalization” of political sentiment, in that it tends to make the states more like one another–something that the United States resists but needs. Yet citizens can only be citizens of a particular place, and they above all others are entitled to decide who their leaders should be. That Democrats outside Virginia have opined so freely on how Ralph Northam should behave at this point betrays an uneasiness about self-government that should be anathema in US society.
It’s doubly ironic that the Democratic Party, which is banking on its “zero tolerance” policy to distinguish it from the dog-whistle variety of Republicanism, should have gone so quickly for the bait that a right-wing website, Big League Politics, dangled. According to Mother Jones, Big League Politics is “a young media outlet best known for defending white nationalists.” The site is run by disgruntled Breitbart News staffers who view Breitbart as having gotten “too moderate.” BLP represents an element of Virginia’s electorate that lost out when Republican Ed Gillespie beat their favored candidate, Trump enthusiast Corey Stewart, in the gubernatorial primary.
In publicizing an old photo from Northam’s yearbook, BLP bet that Democrats would immediately throw Northam under the bus, no questions asked. How right they were. Many influential Democrats, responding almost viscerally to the “evidence” of a single old photograph (in which the governor is not identifiable), immediately called on Northam to resign. Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, DNC chair Tom Perez, and presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro all fell into the trap, needing no further information to declare Northam suddenly and completely disqualified. The absolutism and self-righteousness of “zero tolerance” bid fair to destroy Northam, who gained office with the support of the more moderate and forward-looking part of Virginia’s population.
Though a distant observer, I followed Northam’s run for governor rather closely. A relative who lives in Virginia decided early on to canvass for Northam, as a way to work for positive politics in the wake of Trump’s election. Through her letters, I followed Northam through his primary battle with the Sanders-backed insurgent Tom Perriello, whose effort was seen as a bellwether for progressive Democrats nationally. Despite Perriello’s losing, The Nation declared that Northam had “moved left in the course of the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.” Northam repeatedly denounced President Trump on the campaign trail, declaring that “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”
Was it, in fact, because of Trump that Virginia’s own home-grown strain of hate flared so dangerously in the middle of the gubernatorial campaign? In the Republican primary, George Zornick writes, “Corey Stewart ran an offensive campaign based heavily on Confederate nostalgia and almost knocked off former RNC chair Ed Gillespie for the nomination.” Gillespie staved off Stewart by less than 45,000 votes. Various publications report that Stewart’s campaign consultants, Reilly O’Neal and Noel Fritsch, became the owners of BLP soon afterward. Both men had also worked on Alabaman Roy Moore‘s US Senate campaign, which failed amid allegations that he stalked and molested underage girls. Fritsch and O’Neal are wide-ranging political troublemakers, who help the alt-right by casting aspersions on liberals and other proponents of racial and sexual equality.
The dangers of inflaming such divisions became clear at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a mêlée broke out between white-supremacist groups and their opponents, culminating in an act of domestic terrorism in which at least forty people were wounded and one person was killed. (See this Wikipedia page for details and videos of the event.) The assembly of so many extremists, armed and rallying around a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, left many Virginians (and the nation) painfully uneasy about the extent of militant intolerance in the state. Where was Virginia heading?
Northam’s solid victory in November 2017 represented a general rebuke to factions stoking divisiveness and hatred. On Election Day, Democrats and others opposed to Trump and alt-right extremism went to the polls in remarkably high numbers. Turnout was the highest it had been in twenty years. Nonetheless, the campaign exposed a thick sediment of bitterness over race and emancipation that had lain unresolved for many years, arguably since the time of the Civil War.
As Donald Trump joined with leading Democrats in condemning Northam as a racist, the alt-right nearly succeeded in making Northam indistinguishable from the very extremists he battled and triumphed over in the campaign. When politics makes such strange bedfellows, be wary indeed.
I’ve lived in Chicago all my days; I would say it’s a rather cosmopolitan city. I think almost everyone does their best to set aside differences in color, religion, and ethnicity; I genuinely believe this. We strive to let neither extreme far-right nor far-left zealots gain a toehold in any office. I wish this were true nationally.
You wrote at length about Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2017, how, just a few months before the election, the hateful Charlottesville riot exploded; I always wonder how hateful, far-right folks end up that way. I think it is some type of “indoctrination.” A learned behavior that their peers/family preach to them, that comes from everywhere around them I suppose. As you aptly put it, could be/is a hangover from the Civil War. All the southern states suffer that way and the only places that consistently vote Dem are the counties where there are cities or large towns. Just seems that tolerance abounds when folks end up living in diverse areas. . . .
I really enjoyed reading your post/article. Very articulate.
And yet there is still a vast amount of real segregation in Chicago–and there is a lot of everyday hostility–it just isn’t palpable in normal times. I guess what bothered me about the establishment Dems’ behavior with respect to Northam was the rush to judgment, which ends up closing down public discourse and preventing us from really getting the ins and outs of “the other side.” I wish I knew what would change the hearts and minds of people who cling to the “Lost Cause” mentality and don’t want anything associated with it to be disturbed. Interestingly (as you may know), Lincoln was never willing to view the Confederates as anything but US citizens in rebellion–he was aware of how difficult it would likely be to incorporate everyone back into one mutually respecting polity after the war. He did not want those who fought for the Confederacy to be punished. And yet the way it turned out, there was never any occasion or necessity for those on the side of the Lost Cause to admit to there being anything wrong with that crusade. I think this is why it has taken some parts of the South a very long time to move on into the present and disavow some aspects of their ancestral history. There are many bigots in the North, too; but fewer public flash-points for their feelings to fester around.
At first, thinking this a silly and not-atypical college foolishness and compounded by the ever-so-self-righteous Dems willing to eat-their-own. (Re-pubs can’t do that–there’d be no one left.) And [thinking] he would disavow his involvement and defend his ‘honor’ by demonstrating how he had learned, changed, and grown from that low point to be a beacon of light for all his constituents. We’re all still waiting…
The “Indentured Servants” comment didn’t provide any warm-fuzzies. And shows he may just know enough history to put both-feet-in-mouth. (As a historian, you’re aware of the facts).
Slavery began in 1619 Virginia, when a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown with a ‘cargo’ of Africans and a few weeks later an English ship also. The Africans were not ‘sold’ for money (there wasn’t any) but were traded for food and other commodities. With no history nor experience in human slavery the colonists did indeed treat them as indentures, even setting a time limit on their servitude, as it was what they were familiar with. But soon enough it had become full-blown slavery.
I’m not wholly decided on whether he (and the other foolish VA leaders) should resign and give over the reins to Republicans. That is for Virginians to decide, not ‘outsiders’. But can say, I don’t have much faith and respect for the lot of them.
Allen, I agree that Northam has a lot more explaining to do. If he fails to explain to the public who is in the picture on his yearbook page and what it means, he is doing everyone who voted for him (and all his fellow Democrats) a terrible disservice. This is particularly true if he is dressed as the Klansman in the picture.
Our optics-driven media doesn’t make having a nuanced discussion of race relations or discrimination any easier. But here is an opportunity–at the very least Northam could prove to all that he is not a coward.
I did find this article on his background worthwhile, even if the tone was irritating.
Susan, re: your reply to Harley. If Lincoln had lived reconstruction would have been more like re-assimilation. And so much of the clinging to the ’cause’ would have been vastly reduced and look much different then and even today.
Allen–I’m intrigued–what might have been different?
Susan, For two days I’ve been trying to give a sensible, simplified response but the complications of the entire period keeps rearing its head and I get bogged down in the details and sent off in so many directions. It could easily become another alternative history and we don’t need any more of those.
So true–I thought so after I asked–yet the present moment seems to hinge partly on such old grievances and grudges that yes what did and didn’t happen somehow seems germane. I think of South Africa, and how after their apartheid ended they had their famous “truth and reconciliation” hearings, where every person was entitled to come forward and formally state what had happened to them–what losses they had suffered–what wrongs they had seen committed. Everyone white and black was allowed to speak their truth without consequences. Nothing more happened. Their truths were not investigated. No one was punished. There was an end to vengeance. And even though that country still has many severe problems, perhaps the souls of many involved in a violent political struggle were healed –or at least relieved of a part of their burdens.