Virginia Republicans won equality vs. equity debate

November 3, 2021
It appears that Republican Winsome Sears was elected Tuesday as lieutenant governor of Virginia.

In the aftermath of the apparent Republican sweep of top elected offices in Virginia, I’m reading a lot of takes on what this means for President Joe Biden, who won the state by 10 percentage points, and his rival, 2020 loser Donald Trump. But don’t read too much into it – Virginia has a record of booting the party in the White House from the governorship, regardless of the personalities in Washington or on the ballot.

Instead, we should focus on three other lessons that have less to do with presidential and party rivalries and more to do with the direction of politics in general.

First, dismissing culture war issues as fake controversies ginned up to inflame the passions of hateful voters is a recipe for Democratic disaster. Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia governor’s race when he labeled parents’ concerns about critical race theory being taught in public schools as a “racist dog whistle.”

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To diffuse these issues, Democrats have to address them in good faith, not to attract hard-core racists, but to reassure the tens of thousands of Biden voters who switched sides that their misgivings would be given a fair hearing.

Second, the macro issue of the election is the tug of war between the ideal of equality – that all people should be treated as individuals regardless of group membership – and the ideal of equity – that individuals should be judged by group membership to achieve equal outcomes.

Before George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, there was broad consensus that a color-blind equality was our national goal. Now, and without much open debate, that has flipped to a race-conscious equity, at least in the rhetoric of the news media, Democrats and large corporations’ HR departments.

For such a fundamental change to be accepted, there has to be a discussion about it. Judging by the Virginia election results, moderate and independent voters are far from sold on the idea. We can expect coming elections all over the country to focus on equality versus equity as well.

Third, one outgrowth of the equality-versus-equity debate is that to win, Republicans will have to define themselves ever more strongly as the color-blind party of equality. 

That will work only if the party is more open to a diversity of candidates to carry the equality banner, as is the case in Virginia. It appears that voters on Tuesday elected a Black Republican, Jamaican immigrant, Winsome Sears, as their lieutenant governor and the Republican son of a Cuban immigrant, Jason Miyares, as attorney general. Equality can’t win if it has only white messengers.

In the wake of a big election, it is natural to focus on Biden and Trump, but it pays to remember the broader issues that will shape our politics at least as much as warring personalities.

David Mastio is an opinion writer for USA TODAY. 

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