What's the matter with Virginia?

Department of complaints.
April 12 2010 6:53 PM

What's the Matter With Virginia?

Political backsliding in the Old Dominion.

Last year I moved to Alexandria, Va., after spending the better part of the previous three decades living in Washington, D.C. Like a lot of Washingtonians (and their ideological soul mates in suburban Maryland), I had long regarded the Old Dominion as alien territory. Jerry Falwell lived there, and the New Republic identified one of its wealthier suburbs as "GOPtopia." Virginia's capital, Richmond, had once been the capital of the Confederacy; more recently, the state had originated the doctrine of "massive resistance" to school integration after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Ed. Whenever I crossed the Potomac into Virginia, I observed in 2002, I ended up "driving in the wrong direction down a street named after some famous American traitor (there's a Lee Highway and a Jefferson Davis Highway)."

Come off it, my Virginia friends told me. Virginia is a more or less typical Mid-Atlantic state whose conservative rural population is outnumbered by liberals in the booming D.C. suburbs and in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia. Years before David Paterson * became New York governor and Deval Patrick became Massachusetts governor, Virginia's Douglas Wilder became the first African-American to be elected governor of any state. In the Senate, Virginia was represented by inoffensive centrist Republicans like John Warner and inoffensive centrist Democrats like Chuck Robb. Denzel Washington desegregated a high school football team there (remember the Titans!) and Steve Case made Virginia a hub of the tech industry. Immigration was transforming Northern Virginia, whose foreign-born population was nearly twice that, proportionally, of the United States as a whole. * Xenophobia was sufficiently taboo that Republican Sen. George Allen lost a re-election bid by addressing a person of Indian descent as "macaca," an ethnic slur more baffling than offensive. Neither red nor blue, Virginia was a "purple" state that in 2008 went for Barack Obama. Sure, the state's a little bit nuts about guns, but so is Vermont. As for that Confederate statue on Alexandria's Washington Street, wasn't there also one in front of the Rockville, Md., courthouse?

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Lately, though, I've started wondering whether I had it right the first time. My worries began this past fall when Republican Bob McDonnell managed to get himself elected governor despite having written a master's thesis that stated, "[E]very level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators." Not to worry, I was assured; since entering politics, McDonnell had learned to temper his reactionary impulses and work within the mainstream. Then McDonnell issued his famous proclamation declaring April "Confederate History Month" without mentioning that the Confederates fought to preserve slavery. Asked to explain why he didn't, McDonnell said, "Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Within hours, McDonnell had provoked such a furor that he was forced to apologize and rewrite the proclamation to declare slavery "an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights."

That wasn't Gov. McDonnell's first brush with controversy. In February, McDonnell issued an executive order banning discrimination in state government "on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities." Pointedly omitted was "sexual orientation," which McDonnell's two Democratic predecessors had included in similar directives (and whose inclusion McDonnell, as Virginia's attorney general, had once declared unconstitutional). McDonnell's revision emboldened the state's current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, to advise Virginia's public colleges and universities that "the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity,' 'gender expression,' or like classification, as a protected class within its non-discrimination policy." That, too, provoked a furor, and McDonnell reversed Cuccinelli via an "executive directive." It isn't clear Cuccinelli will abide by the directive, which lacks the force of law.

Cuccinelli is quite a piece of work himself. Elected, like McDonnell, in 2009, he said during his campaign that he and his wife, then pregnant with their seventh child, were contemplating not registering the baby with Social Security "because it is being used to track you." He's also played footsie with the birthers, who insist Barack Obama is not a native-born citizen. Did I mention that Cuccinelli filed a petition to block the Environmental Protection Agency's regulation of greenhouse gases ("based on unverifiable and unrepeatable so-called science") and that he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of health reform's "individual mandate" requiring all citizens to acquire health insurance?

The New York Times says Cuccinelli is "moving to the forefront of a conservative resurgence in Virginia," but "crackpot resurgence" would be more like it. Most conservatives of my acquaintance recognize that the Civil War had something to do with slavery; that discrimination based on sexual orientation is undesirable; that the Social Security Administration doesn't want to implant a transmitter into anybody's molars; that Barack Obama was born in the United States; and that climate change was not invented by capitalism's sworn enemies.

It would be comforting to conclude this is merely an instance of Virginia's good ole boys pushing back against the state's more cosmopolitan snobs, who can be counted on to push back in turn. But McDonnell and Cuccinelli both hail from Fairfax County, which lies in the northern, urban, affluent part of the state, the part that a senior adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign named Nancy Pfotenhauer insisted was not the "real Virginia." (Never mind that McCain himself grew up there.) Obama got 60 percent of the Fairfax County vote. In November, McDonnell carried it!

Maybe it's just the natural backsliding that sometimes occurs in swing states in reaction to whichever party happens to control the White House. Maybe the ghost of Harry Flood Byrd, the reactionary political boss who ran the state out of his back pocket for 40 years, has decided to take a stroll. Maybe John Edwards and Rielle Hunter are giving fornicators a bad name. Whatever the cause, I would like it to please stop, because I'm starting to feel that I moved here under false pretenses.

Correction, April 13, 2010: This article originally misspelled David Paterson's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)   Orginally this sentence failed to make clear that the comparison of foreign-born populations concerned proportion, not absolute numbers. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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