Tuesday felt like anything but an off-year election in the western mountain hamlets and far-flung D.C. exurbs of Virginia. Voters turned out for a 2021 gubernatorial race in unusually large numbers, and a surprisingly large number of Virginians said they were energized by the out-of-nowhere rise of the perceived issue of “critical race theory.”

(Lest we confuse actual critical race theory with what people are freaking out about, I’ll use quotes whenever I’m talking about the uninformed use of it.)

Exit polls in the bellwether state showed that victory for the Republican Glenn Youngkin was driven by a whopping 25% of voters who named “critical race theory” — which has become an inaccurate but catch-all phrase for how racism is taught in schools — as their No. 1 issue. This despite that fact that many of those voters didn’t have school-age kids, like retirees Bob and Judy Allen, who told USA Today they’d backed Youngkin because parents have a right to object to curriculum, with Judy Allen adding: “If my kids were to be educated right now, I wouldn’t put them in Fairfax County schools. I would probably homeschool them.”

It’s not clear how many 2021 voters knew a lot about current anti-racism education in schools beyond hearing the fright-toned invocation of “critical race theory” nightly on Fox News. A video went viral Tuesday of an older Virginia voter in an Air Force cap telling the political humor site The Good Liars that “getting back to basics” and “not teaching critical race theory” was his most important issue, adding “I’m not going to get into the specifics of it [CRT] because I don’t understand that much.” Ironically, that anonymous man is bonded in that ignorance with Fox News’ nightly race-baiter-in-chief, Tucker Carlson, who admitted on camera this week that “I’ve never figured out where ‘critical race theory’ is, to be totally honest, after a year of talking about it.”

That’s because the specifics of “critical race theory” — an idea about racism built into the legal structure of America that’s really only taught in law schools — aren’t as important as a moral panic about children being indoctrinated, which clearly moved voters in a year in which the GOP not only recaptured the governor’s mansion in Virginia but threw a scare into New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and swept Pennsylvania’s statewide judicial races.

In the aftermath of the 2021 election, one startling statistic — linked closely to success of the anti-”critical race theory” crusade — jumped off the page: A growing chasm between white women voters who hold college degrees and those who do not, which is increasingly starting to look like a political Grand Canyon.

The NBC News exit poll of voters in Virginia actually found that the dramatic shift of college-educated white woman toward the Democratic Party that accelerated in the Donald Trump era is continuing in 2021. Despite all the hoopla about education — not just the racism curriculum but the ongoing fallout over school lockdowns and mask and vaccine policies — this bloc continues to move leftward. The Democratic ex-governor Terry McAuliffe actually did better with white women college grads (62%) than President Biden had in 2020 (58%).

Some strategists have said that strengthening the so-called Biden coalition — white college-educated voters and non-white voters from all classes — is a key to Democrats retaining power. But it didn’t work for McAuliffe. Instead, there was a massive movement of white women without college degrees into the GOP column. While this key voting bloc was solid for Trump in 2020, at 56%, these voters went ga-ga for Youngkin in 2021, with an astounding 75%. And turnout was strongest in rural western Virginia where white people without college educations are dominant. In a tight race likely to be decided by less than 2 percentage points, McAuliffe might have won if he’d only done as well as Biden did with these voters.

The veteran political analyst and University of Virginia historian Larry Sabato, who had a front-row seat for the drama, told me “the ‘education issues’ pushed by Youngkin, which were really social and cultural issues that involved the schools, attracted some white non-college [educated] women” — although he was quick to add that off-year, out-of-power enthusiasm by Republican voters and apathy among key Democratic constituencies like younger and non-white voters were also big factors.

That’s true, and this follows entrenched historical patterns — but the speed with which woman clutching a college diploma are racing in the other direction from those who stopped their education at high school, or didn’t earn a four-year degree, is becoming the most striking split in modern American politics. Today, about half of white women have college degrees and about half don’t, so the voting gap has major consequences.

In many ways, today’s so-called culture war issues become a proxy for much deeper anxieties and resentments over who has social status in modern America, and why. Women who came of age on a college campus are familiar and supportive of education around fighting racism or LGBTQ issues (also a hot button in the Virginia race) and support diversity because it doesn’t really threaten their status, which they wield through their diploma in a society that hails itself (despite massive flaws and loopholes) as a meritocracy.

As Tuesday’s election results validated, women without college degrees see the world very differently. The anti-racism education that gets the scare-quotes treatment every night on Fox News or in the right-wing talk radio that blares from their car radio is perceived as turning even their own kids against what they worship as “a traditional way of life” — an America where status didn’t come from educational attainment but from the group entitlement of “whiteness,” or white supremacy. In Virginia, Team Youngkin pushed these buttons hard — his closing ad was a woman who’d been radicalized because her son had been assigned Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s anti-slavery Beloved in high school — and it worked. As long as white non-college women stay together as a 75% voting bloc, they will sit in the driver’s seat of American politics.

There were many political lessons here, including the fact that a decent number of these voters were clearly more repulsed by Trump himself — his crude misogyny sometimes cut through class barriers — than by the underlying cultural jihad of Trumpism. On what was a mediocre-to-bad night for the Democrats, the worst news for the party was the failure of a more-than-two-decades mission to win over white non-college women, whom were famously dubbed “waitress moms” in 2000 and pitched an agenda around economics.

But even if Democrats had gotten their act together and passed a package with universal pre-K, extended child tax credits, and four weeks of paid family leave, I doubt it would have moved the election needle that much, even as the ultimate “waitress mom” agenda (a now cringe-y term coined in the ‘90s as the alternative to “soccer mom”). Many of these voters would see those dollars going to The Other (arguably not wrong for Fox News-addled retirees) and not them. Many of those voters don’t even get mainstream news, especially in rural towns where newspapers have closed or been shrunk to near oblivion. Many of those voters see themselves less as members of the working class than as members of their Christian fundamentalist churches, where a poll just found about 60% don’t think Biden’s victory was legitimate.

If the American voter truly thought that education is a front-burner issue, we would have seen a robust debate in 2021 not over anti-racism instruction but over the Democrats’ failure to enact free public community college — which over time would reduce the education gap in U.S. politics because millions more could become better educated. I find it scandalous that while voters and the media were going gonzo over “critical race theory” that’s not actually being taught in grade schools, no attention was paid to California’s Long Beach City College allowing 70 students to live in their cars, because they can’t afford tuition and a roof over their heads at the same time.

The college/non-college divide in American politics will not only persist but get even worse as long as we shrug at a status quo that denies campus access or enforces debt peonage on millions of our young people. But as long as Republicans win elections as the party of the less educated, the GOP will surely do nothing to actually educate more voters. The real irony — no, tragedy — of Tuesday’s election is that less-educated voters cited education as their No. 1 issue in voting to ensure that their children and grandchildren will stay poorly educated.

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