A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

These are the words of Charles Dickens, written about Paris and London in the 19th century, but Europe is not the subject at hand.  Setting aside the perils that face the Euro Zone, there is a much more intriguing political drama unfolding.  It’s far closer to home, it’s far easier to relate to, and it’s perhaps far more difficult to truly understand.

The cities in question are Richmond, VA and Annapolis, MD, and the story is currently unfolding in their respective state houses.  On February 23rd of this year, Maryland’s Senate passed HB 438 [Full Text], a bill from the House of Delegates that changed the legal definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two individuals not otherwise prohibited.”  It was then passed on to Governor Martin O’Malley (D), who signed it into law on March 1st, making Maryland the 9th jurisdiction in the Union to recognize same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Alternate-Universe doorway that is the Potomac River, the Virginia Senate passed HB 462 [Full Text] on February 28th.  It was quickly signed into law by Governor Robert McDonnell (R), who had been providing the impetus for the bill from the start, on March 8th.  This law now requires that any woman seeking an abortion in the Commonwealth of Virginia be given an ultrasound prior to the procedure.  The final version of the bill wasn’t what he wanted, however.  The first version of the bill, which passed the House of Delegates on a party-line vote, would have required those same women to undergo a “Trans-vaginal” ultrasound, during which an approximately 8-inch “wand” is inserted… well, I think you can guess from the name.

To understand these disparate approaches to legislation on social issues, it helps to first understand the respective Governors.  O’Malley was elected in 2006, after a campaign predicated upon his record on education, crime, and balanced budgets as the Mayor of Baltimore.  McDonnell took office after the 2009 gubernatorial elections, during which he ran on a platform of economic growth and transportation, under the slogan “Bob’s 4 Jobs.”  Their actions in office, however, are far more telling about their agendas than the campaigns, as is often the case.  O’Malley signed the largest single round of tax increases in Maryland’s history to close a projected budget deficit of $1.7 billion dollars, authorized the use of speed cameras to increase revenue and established a $14 million campaign to raise awareness of children’s dental health.  With the budget well under control, he ran his reelection campaign on a social platform, promoting equal legal protection for illegal immigrants (which he dubbed “New Americans”) and the LGBT community.  McDonnell, on the other hand, issued an executive order a scant three weeks after his inauguration, which removed anti-discrimination protections from gay and lesbians within the Commonwealth.  He expressed support for HB 1, a bill which would have effectively banned all abortions, but after a large media backlash, directed Senate Republicans to table the bill.  He also cut $646 million from a proposed $11.4 billion budget for K-12 education, and issued $5 billion in transportation bonds which will be paid back from future general fund revenues.  These funds are virtually guaranteed to be offset by additional education cuts.  McDonnell’s official position on these bonds is that they will be paid with “future revenue growth.”  He has also been a champion for privatization in the Commonwealth, selling liquor stores to private entities, as well as outsourcing the state government’s IT requirements to Northrop Grumman, at an expense to the Commonwealth of $12 million to $15 million.  It is worth noting that Northrop Grumman donated $90,672 to Republican organizations during the 2009 elections, over half of which went directly to McDonnell’s campaign fund.

All of that information, though, does not adequately explain the cause of the political differences between these neighboring states, both of which are below the Mason-Dixon line, and which have shared similar population demographics on the basis of ethnic and national origin.  The roots of the differences rest in Catholicism, slavery and the elderly.  The Maryland colony was founded upon the premise of being a safe haven for England’s Roman Catholic minority in the New World.  After Virginia declared Anglicanism to be the official religion of the colony, many members of its Puritan population moved to neighboring Maryland for refuge.  Soon after, these Puritans revolted against the government of their new home, fighting off an army sent from England to retake the colony in 1654, and continued the ban until 1658.  Despite all of this, the Catholic population remained large in Maryland, but virtually non-existent in Virginia.

Fast-forward to the American Civil War.  Maryland’s Catholic population were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement within the state.  The political capital of these Catholic abolitionists was enough to keep Maryland from seceding from the Union.  The cultural rift that opened between the North and South during the pre-war and war years only widened during the Reconstruction era, when lingering resentment of the Federal Government and its then-progressive policies caused the Southern states to turn largely to socially conservative policies and limits to Federal power.

This staying power of this trend was evident with the use of the “Southern Strategy” in 1968, and the subsequent realigning of Republicans as the socially conservative party.  Then-candidate Richard Nixon listened to the advice of his political strategists, including Kevin Phillips, who said in a 1970 New York Times article:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats. “

This trend of pandering to latent racism gradually died out, as younger generations who had never known a segregationist civilization started to turn out at the polls.  The Republicans, therefore, were forced to find a new strategy for capitalizing on the Southern vote following the political rout that they suffered at the hands of Jimmy Carter in 1976.  They found just such a strategy in the politics of religion.  Republican strategists saw a significant potential for votes in the South in the – then largely apolitical – Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian churches.   The Republican party then set up a series of political seminars designed to train pastors and ministers to mobilize the members of their churches to vote for Republicans.  This strategy gave Ronald Reagan the margin that he needed to win in 1980, and set the stage for the partisan divide over reproductive rights, marriage equality, and even the very separation of Church and State upon which the structure of our government is built.

In light of the explosive population growth in Northern Virginia, however, this strategy alone does not explain why Virginia is on the conservative side of this divide.  Northern Virginia’s population growth has been fueled by migration from the Northern states in pursuit of high tech, largely defense-sector jobs in the greater DC metro area.  The population of Virginia, therefore, is now largely comprised of Northerners, recent immigrants and African Americans, three population groups which vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, yet its state government is controlled entirely by the Republicans.  The explanation lies, oddly enough, in the elderly.

The Federal Government’s elections are all held on even-numbered years, with two-year terms in the House, six-year terms in the Senate, and four-year terms in the White House.  The near-constant nature of Federal elections, combined with the lack of a Presidential election atop the ticket to generate enthusiasm, leads to “mid-cycle” elections having an extremely low turnout compared to years in which a Presidential election is to take place.  This situation is exacerbated by the structure of Virginia’s elections, which take place on odd-numbered years, giving voters a steady stream of campaign messages and electoral organization.

The result of low voter turnout has historically been a boon for conservatives in the United States, as the elderly and religious are the two groups most likely to get out the vote despite voter fatigue and low enthusiasm.  These two groups are, coincidentally, the most likely to support conservative candidates and ideas.

Thus, the deck is stacked in each state to keep political pressure moving towards the respective extremes of social policy.  In Maryland, where state elections are run concurrently with Federal elections, high voter turnout and a relatively high Catholic population – which, according to The Public Religion Research Institute supports gay and lesbian marriage or civil unions by 74% – pushed the General Assembly and the Governor to establish marriage equality.  In Virginia, low voter turnout and relatively high populations of Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians pushed the General Assembly and the Governor to establish new obstacles to abortion, despite extremely low support for these policies among the population-at-large.