By Shaun Kenney March 3, 2022
As this session continues to wind down to a rather boring conclusion, Republicans should be keen to find small opportunities to focus on what a 2023 agenda might look like.
This isn’t to say that Republicans in the General Assembly haven’t been doing their jobs in ones-and-twos. Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) is playing a masterful hand at this rate, doing the most with what he can. After all, the mask mandates went away because both the House Republicans and the Senate Republicans artfully solicited and engaged the help of one State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) — one of a number of center-left Democrats quickly realizing that the progressive left is a losing proposition in 2022 and 2023.
One of the more frustrating things about watching the sausage get made is that when Democrats are in power, they go by leaps and bounds. Yet when Republicans take back the reins of power, most of what we do is cement the gains made by the political left. The reason why isn’t too terribly difficult to decipher. The institutions — unelected yet wielding immense power — who benefit from the law-rigging want the changes to remain and will scream bloody murder if you attempt to revert back to the status quo.
Therein lies the great difficulty for conservatives in Virginia.
(1) Conservatives do not control the institutions; progressives do. Media, academia, education, entertainment and the bureaucracy are all firmly in the hands of the political left. Churches — such as they are — are slipping into the hands of the political left as they continue to secularize in order to be rendered acceptable (and ergo impotent). Only the military, law enforcement, and first responders — the security apparatus — remain as bulwarks against the left — the sole reason being that when they fail there are concrete consequences (someone dies, someone gets hurt, someone gets invaded).
It’s O’Sullivan’s Law straight through: any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time.
(2) Conservatives need the Virginia Senate as well as the House of Delegates and the Governor’s Office in order to return to sanity — and even then, do conservatives have a majority in our own party much less in Virginia?
Youngkin didn’t exactly discover a new calculus so much as it was handed to the campaign, with President Joe Biden withdrawing prematurely from Afghanistan, inflation and gas prices reaching Carteresque levels of incompetency, and McAuliffe bungling the question as to whether bureaucrats (those slimy institutions again) or parents had the sole right to educate our children. Even with all of those missteps, it was just enough to beat McAuliffe by about 60,000 votes.
In a state of 8.6 million souls.
Institutions — Not Demographics — As Destiny
In short, Democrats snatched victory from the jaws of defeat — and thank God they did. The question now remains as to whether or not Republicans are doing the basic blocking and tackling required to alter the dynamic of (1) — bending the institutions back to sanity.
Case in point? Education reform.
What started as student vouchers quickly turned into charter schools, which in turn quickly turned into what former Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling rightly termed “feeder schools” — namely charter schools sponsored by Virginia’s colleges and universities.
Take a harder look at Critical Race Theory in public education as well. The problem here isn’t so much that we can wave a magic wand and erase it from the curriculum, but that the institution itself — the administrators, bureaucrats and teachers — all are invested in teaching it no matter what parents might say.
The fact that Virginia’s so-called pro-life leadership shot down every pro-life bill except a 20-week regulation ought to horrify evangelical and Catholic conservatives. Not only did they slaughter versions of the Texas six-week regulatory ban, but when they went for the least motivating option? They couldn’t even get that passed.
State Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) has discovered that grievance politics is so much more effective than argument. Every action of the House GOP and Senate GOP at this rate is racism. Straight up, pure, 80-proof racism. The argument isn’t even made in good faith, not that it has to be so long as it continues to be effective in dampening Republican efforts to trim the hedges erected by the Democratic majority under Ralph Northam (who somehow remains immune from the charge of racism).
So why does it seem as if Republicans just aren’t making any headway? Having a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly is important, to be sure… but remembering that there is a silent fourth branch of government that remains unelected and wholly invested by progressives who see government as a force for change (sic) in the world is where Republicans are missing the mark — precisely because we don’t see government as a force for change but merely a mechanism.
Let’s Be Serious About Student Vouchers, Republicans
If there is one institution ripe for a little bit of Schumpeterian creative destruction, it is indeed the failed institution of Virginia’s public education system. This is the one “big idea” that Youngkin flirted with during his gubernatorial campaign, and it is the one institution that unites the whole of the Republican coalition.
Democrats will pretend to be in a thousand fears over what diversity in thought actually looks like. Don’t worry about the whip and buggy industry. There are thousands of homeschooling co-ops who would love to operate out of the basement of the Baptist church and have the benefit of their state voucher. There are thousands of Catholic students who would love to have the benefit of their state voucher. There are thousands of students in failing public schools in Richmond and Petersburg who deserve better than a cookie cutter education.
One small step that could help break the logjam? Repeal Virginia’s Blaine Amendment.
Blaine Amendments are controversial state constitutional provisions rooted in 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry. Their purpose was to prevent the government from funding Catholic schools. For decades, opponents of educational choice have employed Blaine Amendments—found in 37 state constitutions—as blunt weapons to impede and invalidate educational choice programs.
This wouldn’t be a heavy lift for Virginia legislators. In fact, the Institute for Justice has a helpful how-to guide for anyone seriously interested in plowing forward on actual school choice rather than a fig leaf.
Republicans need to orient themselves on the true task and challenges ahead. Swapping out politicians is only the first opening. Taking back the institutions (that’s right, dismantling the legacy of Jim Crow et al.) and exposing them to true diversity of thought and the ideals of human flourishing?
Even Senator Lucas can’t say no to that.
As this session continues to wind down to a rather boring conclusion, Republicans should be keen to find small opportunities to focus on what a 2023 agenda to restore the spirit of the possible might look like. Yes, that will entail a true Contract With Virginia that will have to be more than just small-but-doable wins.
Education reform is close to the heart of every Virginian.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.