Commonwealth Metamorphosis

Virginia Voting Trends | Cartoon | dnronline.comBy Frank Blechman

Virginia’s leaders have lately been basking in positive publicity for being “the first state in the South” to do this or that. First to end the death penalty. First to legalize recreational marijuana. First to end choke holds. First to create a voting rights act.

Each one of these is a remarkable achievement, and would be anywhere. The occurrence of all these changes at the same time, however, suggests that Virginia is no longer a “Southern” state at all. Historically, that makes sense.

250 years ago, Virginia was the largest and richest colony in British America. At the continental congresses, Virginia presented itself as a national intellectual leader, not a regional one. At the constitutional convention, Virginia again played the role of middleman, brokering deals between New Englanders and Southerners. This was true even though Pennsylvania considered itself the “keystone state,” with six states north of it and six southward.

160 years ago, with South Carolina and Mississippi leading the movement for secession, Virginia hung back, leaving only after South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana seceded, after those six states met with representatives from Texas in Montgomery, Alabama, to form the Confederate States of America. Virginia (along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) left the Union only after shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy as a gesture to keep Virginia in, not as a recognition of its strong commitment to the cause.

100 years ago, after World War I, the US expanded its military presence in Virginia, enlarging the Naval Base in Norfolk, and Army bases such as Fort A.P. Hill and Fort Lee, named for Confederate generals. That presence brought more Northerners into regions where few Yankees had been since the end of reconstruction.

The Newport News shipyard became the largest employer in the state. Virginia was the home to the Pentagon (Arlington), CIA headquarters (Langley), the Continental Army Command (Fort Monroe, Hampton), the Defense Logistics Command (Fort Eustis, Newport News), and the Tactical Air Command (Langley Field, Hampton). The Norfolk Naval Base became the largest in the world. The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) was also based at Langley field in Hampton.

During and after World War II, both military bases and defense contractors in the Commonwealth flourished. The Newport News shipyard became the largest employer in the state. Virginia was the home to the Pentagon (Arlington), CIA headquarters (Langley), the Continental Army Command (Fort Monroe, Hampton), the Defense Logistics Command (Fort Eustis, Newport News), and the Tactical Air Command (Langley Field, Hampton). The Norfolk Naval Base became the largest in the world. The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) was also based at Langley field in Hampton. All of these installations brought highly educated employees, few of whom had ties to the lost cause.

By 1970, these new immigrants were already changing the tone of politics in Virginia. The first beneficiaries were Republicans, who appealed to folks with no connections or affinities to “Southern” Democratic politics. Even though by 1972 many Republican party leaders in Virginia were former Democrats, the party could present itself as something new, a break from the approaches of the Byrd organization.

By 1990, particularly here in Northern Virginia, federal contractors (beltway bandits or parkway patriots, depending on your point of view) became a major engine of economic growth. Joined by ethnic diversity from Asia and Central America, these new populations were open to change, having already made major moves in their own lives, and with no sentimental attachments to “Old Virginny.” Since the 1990 census, it has been clear that Virginia was no longer economically based in (much less defined by) tobacco farming, coal mining, oysters, or Smithfield hams. AOL made NOVA a high-tech center, competing directly with Silicon Valley on the West Coast as the internet capital of America.

Terry McAuliffe’s election as governor in 2013 marked the statewide triumph of an unapologetic national liberal Democrat. The years since have seen a resurgence of the Democratic party, largely based in the “Urban Crescent” with its strong base of progressive sub-urban, well-educated, diverse families.

Terry McAuliffe’s election as governor in 2013 marked the statewide triumph of an unapologetic national liberal Democrat. The years since have seen a resurgence of the Democratic party, largely based in the “Urban Crescent” with its strong base of progressive sub-urban, well-educated, diverse families.

Although we don’t yet have 2020 census data, preliminary figures show that the political center of gravity in Virginia has shifted farther east and north. Virginia operates as a “mid-Atlantic” state, partnering with Maryland and DC far more often than as a Southern state working with North Carolina, Kentucky, or Tennessee. Confederate statues are coming down. Highways bearing names of civil war icons are being recast.

I suspect that it may be another generation before the Commonwealth or Virginia can firmly define its new identity. Parts of Virginia still fly the banners of rebellion. Rural life is still a treasured part of life here. Yet I am comfortable declaring that as a whole, we are not a “Southern state,” and have not been for quite a while.

 

 



Categories: EDUCATION, Immigration, Issues, Local, National, politics, State

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