The US state of Virginia is just about as close to Washington DC as you can be, and even contains parts of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
Washington is home to a governing elite, as well as an underclass who serves them (predominantly black). Virginia (and Maryland) are where the public servants who run the machinery of government predominantly live.
In Australian terms, an election in Virginia is a bit like an election in the federal seat of Eden-Monaro, which is close to the seat of government and so includes a lot of public servants, nested amongst more conservative voters, and while it can swing, it has been gradually becoming more progressive.
What makes Virginia currently significant is that it has just elected a Republican as governor. Glenn Youngkin is a businessman and neophyte politician who defeated Terry McAuliffe, a 43 year veteran of professional Democrat machine politics, who has already had one term as governor, with a swing of 12%
Youngkin won for a multitude of reasons, with the Wall Street Journal finding 35% rated the economy as the most important issue facing Virginia, followed by coronavirus (17%) and education (15%).
So this was a typical bread and butter election decided mostly on economics, but it had a “culture wars” underbelly to it.
Education wasn’t an issue because it was under-resourced, it was an issue because of progressive agendas like Critical Race Theory, and radical gender theory being force-fed to kids.
At a time when every Democrat from President Biden down is declaring the USA “systemically racist” only 5% of Virginia voters (20% of whom are Black) said racism was a problem. And at a time when the US president is sacrificing the US economy on the altar of climate change, only 7% thought climate change was an issue.
We can expect some of these themes to chime in the next Australian election. Scott Morrison may not want to get involved in culture wars, but culture is important, and not only does politics stand downstream of culture, but our culture stands downstream of US culture.
The paramount cultural issue for Youngkin was education, which is a traditionally progressive issue, but Youngkin ran it, along with bread and butter issues like law and order, cutting red tape and taxes, and stimulating business, and appears to have won the argument with voters.
The reason education wasn’t poison to him is that voters trust the left to spend more money on education, but if you turn the conversation to standards, then they are more supportive of the right. His opponent also made it an issue, declaring that concerns about CRT “were a racist dogwhistle”, that parents had no right to decide what their children were taught, and backed the gender fluid school bathrooms that led to an alleged anal rape of a school girl.
Critical Race Theory is particularly important in a cultural sense because it colocates race with ideology in a way that is offensive to all of the liberal Enlightenment norms that underpin our culture, and our material success.
If you’re a black who is a Republican (as Winsome Sears, the new Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, is), or Larry Elder, the Republican challenger for governor in California, then you aren’t actually black, you’re a white supremacist. Whiteness encompasses a list of what most of the world thinks of as useful characteristics like rational thinking and hard work.
This contradicts the orthodoxy enunciated by Martin Luther King Junior that it is the content of our character, not the colour of our skin that counts. It also contradicts the facts people see in the world around them – if only 5% think race is a serious election issue, then they don’t see racism baked-in to the world all around them.
Youngkin fought the cultural battle, but without emulating, or endorsing the WWE champion of political pugilism – Donald Trump. He was able to be combative without being boorish or arrogant, and as a result he did much better with key demographics than Trump did, but held onto ones that Trump had won. In particular, he did quite well with women, a group to whom education and children are particularly important.
If education is to be an issue in the next Australian election — and it should be, because the educational establishment here is copying that in the US and undermining the sinews of society — who will fight the fight?
It’s unlikely to be Scott Morrison, which brings me to Alan Tudge.
Tudge is the first education minister I can recall who has understood that education has to be about standards, and also world views. He is under-stated, like Youngkin, seems to embody the virtues of “whiteness” and is not afraid to push back against the establishment.
He’s rejected the draft Australian Curriculum and given the Australian Curriculum and Review Authority instructions to start over again. He’s zoned in on reading, writing and arithmetic as areas where we can demand much more from our children, and where we need to do much better.
But he has also spelt out that while schools should question things, they should overall impart understanding and context which support Australian culture.
He seems to understand that culture, and standard of living, cannot be separated, as most of us instinctively do. He’s also, in echoes of Youngkin’s views on CRT, suggested that the racist elements of the curriculum be removed – those parts which mandate that indigenous history has to be taught across all subjects.
This is an antipodean version of CRT which is doubly damaging because it teaches children about a culture that has limited bearing on their daily lives before they even have a functioning understanding of their own culture.
If schooling is not about European cultural values such as excellence, accuracy, testing, punctuality, then it is not fit for purpose in a world where some of the strongest proponents of those values come from Asia.
Morrison has a tin ear for culture, and has thrown away some of the ties to key voters that were in place with his new climate change stance. He needs to build back somewhere else if he wants a chance at a second miracle. Education is one possibility.
While Albanese will not want to go anywhere near it, his close allies in the various education unions, and academia, will not be able to stay away. With a potential fragmentation of the major party vote at the next election, particularly in Coalition seats (already begun in Warringah, Mayo, and Indi) and Labor seats (Melbourne, Clark) it may be that neither side gets enough seats in their own right. In which case what Albanese thinks may have to be viewed against what his real or de facto coalition partners, the Greens, think.
Parents know more about their child’s education now than they did before the pandemic, for the simple reason they have been supervising them as they learned remotely. They understand how much standards and curricula have deteriorated since their days at school.
This is an election where education, and educational standards might prove to be more important than ever, just as they have in Virginia. And an understated, but determined, minister, might be the best way to make it a winning one.
Because education is not just an election issue, it is, as the minister has said, a matter of national security. We cannot build a strong, pluralist, society, if our children lack intellectual rigour, are taught to judge people on group identity rather than character, and believe what we have built here is inferior to most of the rest of the world.
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