Editorial: Where do Virginia’s political winds blow next?

·3 min read

Getting an accurate fix on Virginia’s ideological center of gravity — someone recently labeled it the “sweet spot” — has long been a preoccupation of political participants, direct or otherwise.

Surely, we can figure ourselves out, right? Call it optimism.

This all falls into the category of “larger truths” and the search presupposes that such knowledge can be empowering, illuminating or something. At a minimum, it’s entertaining.

Which is not to discount the importance of the effort. How we think drives what we do and you can cite Nathanial Bacon on that score, who antedated the American Revolution by a century or so in his fight for democratic rule in Virginia over aristocratic tyranny.

But public thinking shifts always, as Bacon discovered, and which ideas command what majority at any given time will likely always an object of intense interest.

The latest entry at this game: the Wason Center for Civic Leadership, a Christopher Newport University affiliate, now entering its second decade of political probing, polling and prying.

The product is called the “2021 Virginia Ideology Report” and it bravely announces that, “Overall, Virginia voters are ideologically moderate, with a slightly conservative lean, while their policy positions are more in line with Democratic proposals.”

“This accords,” say the Wason folks, “with political science research showing that Americans tend to be symbolically conservative, but operationally liberal. In other words, residents of the U.S. tend to self-identify as conservative and espouse overall conservative values associated with liberty or the desire for smaller government, but when asked about specific policy proposals, they tend to be supportive of government efforts to address a range of societal ills.”

The operative phrase here is “when asked.”

Then people vote. Quietly. Alone. With accountability only to themselves. That by itself explains why survey preferences and voter choices frequently part company on election day.

Still, the Wason report has to be good news for Democrats, right? According to this survey, “on matters such as health care, immigration, the environment and the economy, Democrats may be better positioned with the electorate to achieve majority voter support.”

Could be. By general consensus — ye olde conventional wisdom — Virginia has tacked left of late, freeing itself to indulge in progressive enthusiasms, whereby state government becomes a more active and affirmative good for one thing or another. Better roads. Better schools. A more equitable and just commonwealth.

The key question is how much? How much in that direction has Virginia traveled? Because everyone grants that the presidency of Donald Trump accelerated the pace of political change.

The morning after the 2017 state legislative elections, for example, Virginia Democrats woke up to discover they had closed a distinctly wide gap in the House of Delegates and were nearly in the majority.

By the close of the 2019 election, Democrats were in charge and largely unbridled. Credit Trump for lighting the fuse. Time to fix some things, the Democrats declared and likewise proceeded to act.

But the Trump factor may be less compelling in 2021 (there are different schools of thought on that subject) and you sense a vague nervousness among Democrats that maybe, just maybe, the party overcooked its mandate, that voters thumbing their nose at Trump is not the same thing as handing out tickets to the revolution.

All this constitutes speculation, really. That’s what makes the Wason survey interesting, because it inserts data into otherwise highly subjective analysis.

Thus, the survey shows strong majorities of Virginians support Medicare-for-all, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States and greater investments in renewable energy.

That would, roughly, cast Virginia voters in a more liberal light.

But then, as a caveat, there are vessels and weathers. The vessels are the candidates themselves and the weathers are the circumstances in which those candidates must sail — all subject to well-funded reality-altering political marketing.

Such marketing seeks and seizes the voting public’s heart — its emotions — and data becomes, well, just data.

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