Column: Virginia is Not For Belovers

With each election we learn much more about the voters than about the candidates. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin ran against Terry McAuliffe for governor, and Youngkin won by a comfortable margin over the former governor. Both candidates struck me as earnest and likable gentlemen. They both offered the usual promises that are generally impractical to act upon and are soon forgotten.

There has been much speculation regarding what helped Youngkin surge ahead of McAuliffe in the final days of the campaign. I listened to what both men offered as ‘talking points’ and watched their ads. As a physician often dealing with psychiatric issues and as a longtime resident of Massachusetts, I concluded that the vote in Virginia reflected severe anxiety. My time spent in Massachusetts is relevant because the Youngkin campaign mirrored the Willie Horton ads that proved highly effective in efforts to defeat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis when he ran for president.

Horton was a convicted murderer who received a weekend pass from prison as part of a program Dukakis supported. During his release from prison, he killed again. The Dukakis administration was portrayed in ads run during the presidential campaign as the agency responsible for the release of this dangerous, black man. The ads made it clear that the convict was African-American and that a governor who could not recognize the danger inherent in releasing this man was not suited for higher office.

The ad was described as a “dog whistle” strategy. Dog whistles emit sound at a frequency that humans do not hear but dogs do. The ad was an unapologetic effort to connect with the prejudice of people fearful of African-Americans. The fear-mongering worked. The distributors of the ad insisted it had nothing to do with racial prejudice. The ads made no mention of Horton’s race. They merely depicted an African-American man being released from prison. The imagery connected with widespread voter anxiety about politicians being too ‘liberal’ and not recognizing the people who posed a danger to law-abiding citizens. Dukakis lost.

As the Virginia race progressed, Youngkin distinguished himself from his opponent by railing against Critical Race Theory (CRT), an often maligned but rarely described approach to American history that identifies when, how, and why anti-Black, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant legislation became incorporated into the jurisprudence of the United States. Youngkin vowed that on his first day as governor he would ban the teaching of CRT from all schools in Virginia. The widely circulated but unsubstantiated inference was that CRT would make white children angry with their parents because of what legislators had done over the past 200 years. He failed to mention that CRT was not being taught in Virginia schools.

Youngkin’s strategists also released an ad featuring a concerned mother whose child had been obliged to read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Beloved” in his English class. The book is fiction but is based upon the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped with her children from a life of rape, beatings, and sexual exploitation only to be captured by slave hunters and forced to return to her “owners.” In her despair at being re-enslaved, she killed her children, rather than have them live as slaves.

The woman in the ad supporting Youngkin objected to her child’s being exposed to such distressing material and noted that Youngkin supported her position that parents should determine what was appropriate reading material for their children. This concerned parent failed to mention that her son was a senior in high school who had elected to take an Advanced Placement literature studies course in which ground-breaking novels were read and discussed. Again, there was the dog whistle phenomenon connecting with white parents who worried about white people being portrayed negatively by an African-American author writing about America’s original sin, slavery, and the unspeakable torment faced by enslaved black people.

The Horton ad and the “Beloved” ad both stirred anxiety. Both ads found their audiences, and the candidates promoting them both won. I am not suggesting this is a new or even recent strategy. Innuendo, backstabbing, and unmitigated slander have been part of American politics since Thomas Jefferson secretly leaked unflattering stories about George Washington to the press and John Adams tried to suppress negative commentary on his legislative agenda with the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Who runs states like Virginia that are larger and more populous than many of the countries in the world is serious business, and we should have accurate and extensive information on those who would rule those states. We should know what business interests and connections the candidates have. We should know to whom they owe money or favors. What fiction they want our children to read and what aspects of American history they want our children to learn about are inconsequential in comparison to their positions on healthcare, childcare, senior care, nepotism, gerrymandering, tax loopholes, policing, insurrection, and the multitude of other critical issues confronting our elected officials.

As a physician, my hope is that our state and national leaders learn from the successful healthcare systems in other parts of the world and immediately overhaul the blundering, bureaucratic behemoth that we have in place and build a viable and efficient healthcare system. While we pour limitless dollars into building multibillion dollar aircraft carriers, many of our cities and towns do not have clean drinking water. As we argue about how many bullets a gun clip should be allowed to hold, the cost of life-saving drugs is rising exponentially.

Certainly, all Americans, including Virginians, would agree that the health of our citizens and neighbors is more important than the reading list of which our government officials approve. Of course, if our children want to learn about the lives of enslaved people in nineteenth century America, they will certainly learn more by reading Morrison’s “Beloved” than by studying Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind.”

If they want to explore how American laws were written to perpetuate poverty for specific classes or races of people, they can start by looking up redlining on Google. Banning CRT is not a useful first step in healing America’s racial divides. We are in effect all in the same lifeboat called America. We need to coordinate our rowing, rather than stoking fear in our fellow rowers, if we hope to stay afloat and get anywhere.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.