Elections past and elections yet to come in Virginia
Voters on line in Fairfax, Virginia. | Andrew Harnik/AP

In state after state, in all the major cities and all areas where African Americans and most other minorities are a large portion of the electorate, the people chose the Biden-Harris ticket.

In those same states, rural and small town white voters went for Trump-Pence.

In my own state of Virginia, for example, this tendency was very prominent.  Biden won by huge margins in the Washington DC suburbs and most exurbs,  and in many of the counties and independent cities in the Southeastern part of the state, where there is a large African-American population:  Norfolk,  Hampton, Portsmouth, and environs

Biden also won in the metropolitan area of Richmond, the state capital.  His largest margin was in the city of Petersburg, south of Richmond.  The city’s population of 31, 567 is 80 percent African-American, and Biden got 88 percent of the vote compared to 11.2 percent for Trump.  In Charlottesville, population about 47,000, where in August 2017 the notorious Unite the Right rally and riot took place, Biden got 85.9 percent of the vote to Trump’s 12.8 percent.  Charlottesville is only about 20 percent African American, but it is also the home of the University of Virginia with a relatively high educational level.

For the most part, the vote for the U.S. Senate and for Virginia’s eleven seats in the House of Representatives followed the same pattern.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner was reelected, and none of the House seats, whether currently held by Republicans or Democrats, were flipped.   Democrats had feared that two of their House members, Elaine Luria in the Second Congressional District and Abigail Spanberger in the 7th, would lose, but in the end, they squeaked through.  In the Fifth Congressional District, the Republican Party fielded a right-wing religious extremist, Bob Good, against the Democrats’ Dr. Cameron Webb, an African American physician and faculty member at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was thought that Webb might win, in part because of Good’s off-putting extremism and in part because the two major cities in the district, Charlottesville and Danville down on the North Carolina border, which is a fifty percent African American city, are heavily Democratic. But those two population centers could not cancel out the large conservative rural vote, so Mr. Good gets to thump his Bible in the House chamber.

There were local elections in some places. Big news came out of the city of Portsmouth in Southeastern Virginia, a 56 percent African-American city long dominated by right-wing white politicians.  Earlier this year, Portsmouth was in the news when the police chief tried to convict a number of prominent African American politicians and activists, and several whites, of felonies related to the tearing down of a Confederate monument.  Among the accused was State Sen. Louise Lucas, who had been playing a leading role in the legislative fight to end police brutality in the state.  Had she been convicted, she would have been deprived of her Senate seat, a setback in the fight against police abuses in Virginia.  But on Election Day, Portsmouth voters threw out most of the conservative whites on the city council and replaced them with African-Americans.  They also elected an African-American mayor,  Shannon Glover.  Charges against Senator Lucas have been dropped and the police chief has been fired.

But one tendency from the past persists in Virginia.  Once again, Trump and the Republicans won by overwhelming margins in some of the poorest counties in the state.  These are Appalachian counties hard hit by the decline of coal mining and by the opioid crisis.  Beyond Appalachia, and beyond Virginia, this pattern is pervasive in the rural and small-town South, and not only in the South.

Why do very poor working-class white people vote for their worst enemies on election day?  Yes, racism is a factor, because it predisposes them to listen to racist demagogues like Trump and his ilk.   But to attribute such self-defeating behavior simply to racism begs the question of where that racism comes from and why and how does it perpetuate itself?  Those of us who think of ourselves as Marxist analysts and socialist activists have a duty to provide both a more satisfactory analysis of the problem, and, above all, to come up with a strategy for dealing with it.

In talking to people in Appalachian communities one finds variable opinions, even among whites.  Certainly, very conservative views are often encountered, but there are also people who remember that the region has a radical history, especially of mining communities’ struggles against the coal bosses.

I would like to suggest that for work with populations like this, outreach to youth is key.  I have not seen any statistics, but I have at least the impression that younger working-class people in these impoverished mostly white communities are much more amenable to progressive and even socialist ideas than are their elders.

In Virginia, there are state elections in 2021—for governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, and all one hundred seats in the House of Delegates, which is the lower house of the General Assembly (state legislature).  Currently, the Democratic Party holds all three executive positions and has slim majorities in both the House of Delegates (55-45) and the state Senate (21-19).  The current governor is Ralph Northam, a centrist Democrat.  But Virginia law does not allow him to run for reelection, and both Democratic and Republican candidates are lining up to replace him.

In the gubernatorial race and probably others, there will be primary fights as well.  Immediately after the election,  Congresswoman Spanberger issued a strong criticism of the left wing of her own party, which she blamed for some of the losses the Democrats suffered in the House of Representatives.  There was immediate pushback from the Democratic Party’s left wing.  The left wing of the Democratic Party has, in recent years, established a strong presence in the Northern part of the state, including especially in the suburbs of Washington D.C.  However, this tendency has not yet manifested itself as strongly in other areas of the state, where more conservative Democratic Party politicians tend to prevail.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.