Virginians have an ambivalent relationship to the South. We are the only state that was literally divided by the Civil War, and while we made a disastrously wrong decision in 1861 we did not follow the Deep South over the Goldwater cliff in 1964. But that was the last year Virginia gave its electoral votes to a Democrat, so my votes in presidential elections have been meaningless in the Electoral College except for my 1976 vote for Carter in Alabama where I was a grad student. The 2008 election is an opportunity for Virginia to redeem itself for the last forty years of racially polarized voting, and I find Obama’s strong lead here highly revealing about my home state and its present role in the national mainstream. Virginia’s average lead of 7.4% is approximately the same as Obama’s advantage nationally. It has been suggested that the influx of migrants into Northern Virginia accounts for Obama’s strong lead, but at the rate things are going it appears that he will also carry the rest of the commonweath. Certainly he will carry most of the cities, those of the western half (Danville, Roanoke, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Staunton, Lexington, Radford) as well as those of the eastern half (Norfolk, Richmond, Alexandria, Portsmouth, Petersburg, Newport News, Hampton, and perhaps Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.) The divide in the commonweath is neither latitude nor longitude, but urban/rural; and since the rural element is steadily shrinking, McCain will find few local wins in the state.
Statistically Virginia now has more in common with the northeast than the rest of the South, so its poll results are not surprising except for our long history of Republican presidential votes. Here is a site with comparative statistics showing Virginia’s rankings in various economic indices. The constant evocation of fears of terrorism by the McCain campaign reminds me of two points in Virginia history where terrorism inspired self-destructive panic. First was the Nat Turner insurrection, where the murder of 55 whites by a slave army inspired by a religious prophet led to disastrous consequences across the South. The Virginia General Assembly in 1830 had been prepared to undertake serious discussions about ending slavery. By the end of 1831, thanks to the paranoia inspired by Turner, any white Southerner advocating manumission was risking his life and abolitionism became tantamount to treason. In North Carolina, the racial panic inspired by Turner’s terrorism caused the disenfranchisement of Indians; in Tennessee it caused the disenfranchisment of Free Blacks. Across the South it caused attitudes to harden and played a part in making war inevitable. The John Brown attack at Harper’s Ferry further created an atmosphere of panic among Virginia whites that contributed to the disastrous decision to secede from the Union. I see the Civil War as a “let’s you and him fight” in which hotheads from the Deep South, well out of harm’s way or so they thought, made decisions that dragged the Upper South states into a war in which we, not they, would be the biggest losers of life and property.
For most of the following century, Virginia glorified the Lost Cause more than any other state. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Massive Resistance to desegregation was embraced by the state government. But in 1964, Virginia for a change refused to go along with the Deep South and its racial animosities, and gave its electoral votes to Lyndon Johnson at the height of the Civil Rights movement. That was the last time a progressive Virginian could be proud of our state’s role in a national election until this year. Nixon’s Southern strategy turned us “red” and from my first vote in 1972 until the present we so remained.
One explanation of Virginia’s change has said that government employees in the DC metro area, including the military, are thoroughly disgusted with Bush/Cheney politicization of the civil service and military, and are part of the overwhelming Obama groundswell. Why else is Virginia “turning blue” this year? Part of it has to do with the coattails of state Democrats. Mark Warner is thirty points ahead of Jim Gilmore for the Senate seat vacated by John Warner, not because he’s a Democrat or a liberal or named Warner, but because he is widely acknowledged to have been a much better governor than his predecessor. Jim Gilmore rode into office on a deceptive gimmick (car tax reduction) and ran us deep into the red without ever admitting his fiscal irresponsibility was the cause. His Democratic successor Mark Warner then had to pick up the pieces, and inspired confidence in the process. This perhaps makes Virginians somewhat more immune to Republican economic snake oil than residents of other states. Tim Kaine has likewise been a competent and popular governor who has improved our image nationally. Meanwhile, another Republican ex-governor humiliated us on the national stage in 2006, George Allen with his horrendous “Macaca moment” and various racist skeletons that came out of his closet as a result. Virginians are now represented in the Senate by the far more intelligent, competent, and centrist Jim Webb. Would that my congressman, the “Moozlim”-baiting fanatic Virgil Goode, might likewise be shown the door by voters of the fifth district.
Douglas Wilder, our governor from 1990 through 1994, has been much in the news lately commenting on the present election, and serves as a reminder of what makes Virginia different from the rest of the South. The world did not come to an end when a black man rose to leadership of our state, and he is generally honored as an elder statesman. In the wake of the 2004 election, I was aghast at the sectional hatred expressed by many Democrats in online discussion,. This site was all too popular at the time, as stereotyping and scapegoating of Southerners became widespread. ”You’re all alike, and you’re all to blame” led directly to “and we’d be better off without your sort in the country.” The same people who were expressing hatred of Virginians four years ago have probably changed their attitudes. If North Carolina, Florida, and even Georgia give their electoral votes to Obama, it may be time to stop talking about a Republican South, and instead regard these states as part of the Democratic East. The party realignment will be such as to restrict the Republican heartland to the Deep South, Appalachia, and the Great Plains. But even if Virginia is the only one of the eleven former Confederate states to turn blue this year, that should suffice to insure victory for Obama.