So this is what it feels like to live in a lab experiment. As a native Virginian, I’ve watched my state come full circle. The last time Democrats enjoyed the amount of power in the Old Dominion that they won on Tuesday, I was entering middle school in Fairfax County.
In 1993 the governor was a Democrat, one of two U.S. senators was a Democrat, Democrats held 7 of 11 House seats, and Democrats controlled both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. Next year, the governor will be a Democrat, both U.S. senators will be Democrats, Democrats will hold 7 of 11 House seats, and Democrats will control both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. Hardly anything has changed. Except for the Commonwealth itself.
President Trump so dominates the popular imagination that every election result is described in relation to his job approval and conduct in office. Trump is unpopular in Virginia, and suburban voters are eager to rebuke him at the polls. But the story of this particular Democratic winning streak is less about Trump than it is about long-running demographic and cultural transformation. He catalyzed changes decades in the making.
The former capital of the Confederacy is now a hub of highly educated professionals, immigrants, and liberals whose values are contrary to those of an increasingly downscale, religious, and rural GOP. Democrats continue to benefit from the shift in the college-educated population toward progressivism. Not only are Republicans increasingly bereft of a language in which to talk to these voters. They may be incapable of doing so. The two sides occupy different realities.
Virginia has followed broader trends of enrichment, immigration, and densification. John Warner’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1978 was an early sign of the Republican revival in the South. The election of 1993, which brought George Allen to the governor’s mansion, was a preview of the Republican Revolution the following year. In 2000, Allen joined Warner in the Senate.
For the next year, the governor and both U.S. senators were Republicans. Then Mark Warner won the governor’s mansion, then Jim Webb defeated Allen, then Warner replaced Warner (confusing, I know), and except for a brief appearance by Governor Bob McDonnell, Democrats have held all statewide offices since.
Over the last 29 years, Virginia has become wealthier, more diverse, and more crowded. The population has grown by 42 percent, from 6 million in 1990 to 8.5 million. Population density has increased by 38 percent, from 156 people per square mile to 215. Mean travel time to work has increased from 24 minutes to 28 minutes. The median home price (in 2018 dollars) has gone from $169,000 to $256,000. Density equals Democrats.
The number of Virginians born overseas has skyrocketed from 5 percent to 12 percent. The Hispanic population has gone from 3 percent to 10 percent. The Asian community has grown from 2 percent to 7 percent. In 1990, 7 percent of people 5 years and older spoke a language other than English at home. In 2018 the number was 16 percent.
If educational attainment is a proxy for class, Virginia has undergone bourgeoisification. The number of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher has shot up from 25 percent of the state to 38 percent. As baccalaureates multiplied, they swapped partisan affiliation. Many of the Yuppies of the 80s, Bobos of the 90s, and Security Moms of the ’00s now march in the Resistance.
Nationwide, “In 1994, 39 percent of those with a four-year college degree (no postgraduate experience) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party and 54 percent associated with the Republican Party,” according to the Pew Research Center. “In 2017, those figures were exactly reversed.” Last year, college graduates favored Senator Kaine over challenger Cory Stewart by 20 points.
All of these developments are more pronounced in the most important part of the state: northern Virginia. Fairfax County has grown from 800,000 people to 1.1 million. The percentage of foreign-born residents has gone from 16 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2018. The number of Hispanics has more than doubled from 6 percent to 16 percent. The number of Asians has almost tripled from 8 percent to 20 percent.
Slightly less than half of Fairfax County residents held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1990. Now that number is 61 percent. The median home price has gone from $225,000 to $535,000. In 1992, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot won a combined 58 percent in Fairfax. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 64 percent of the vote.
When I was growing up, Loudoun County was considered a rural area disconnected from the rhythms of the Beltway. In the years since, its population has exploded from 86,000 people to 407,000. The percentage of foreign-born residents has gone from 6 percent to 24 percent. A county population that was 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian is 14 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian. The percentage of the county with a bachelor’s degree or higher has gone from 33 percent to 60 percent. Loudoun is the richest county in America. Fairfax is second. In 1992, Bill Clinton won 35 percent of the vote in Loudoun County. Twenty-four years later, his wife won 55 percent.
As Virginia has moved into the Democratic column, the state Republican Party has become more populist, more nationalist, and more culturally conservative. The dwindling number of Republicans who spoke the language of suburbia could not escape their party’s national reputation for hostility to immigrants and opposition to progressive ideals. A similar process occurred in states like California, Colorado, and Nevada. It may also be underway in Arizona and Texas (!).
Virginia became a blue state as the world celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The political development of the Commonwealth is emblematic of America in the post-Cold War world. The Republican Party found it no longer could count on unwavering support from the upscale college-educated white voters who once made up its base. The cultural churn produced by a migrant-driven, globalized, information-based economy gave suburban America a different population, with a different structure of values, which looks upon social conservatives as ambassadors from Mars.
The GOP has a path to the presidency and to congressional majorities. But it does not go through my old Virginia home.