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Virginia Politics: Winds of Change

ISSUE:  Spring 1966

It often surprises people “from away” to hear that many, many Virginians are truly proud of the modern politics of their Commonwealth. Books by New Englanders, studies by Middle Westerners, and even reports of State study commissions on higher education do not always prepare one for the pharisaic satisfaction that voting Virginians may express in the way the Commonwealth runs its politics in Richmond or obstructs the politics of others in Washington.

The political forces that dominate have the strength of almost unchallenged decades, because voting Virginians, proud of the status quo, have held that power belongs to those accustomed to exercise it. Pride in Virginia politics has been sincere, because there is a happy feeling that Virginia is not as other states.

The roots of pride like this run deep and rise from ground that interests political psychiatrists. They have traced the sinuous lines of modern Virginia politics back to its early deviations from Jeffersonian origins. They will continue to argue whether the deviationists have a right—other than geographical—to claim the Jeffersonian mantle, but in this year of decision-making, one need not dispute the origins. We may simply recall the pride which swelled up in the early days of Mr. Byrd Himself. This was a pride in which almost all politically active Virginians shared and they were very genuine about it.

My father and his friends worked hard in the campaign of 1925 to get Mr. Byrd elected Governor. My father seemed to us that year to put more devotion and dedication into the campaign than he normally did into the Episcopal Church— and for a good moral reason. In a nation in which the word politics had been deeply tarnished by scandal and decent people avoided the “filth and mire,” Virginia—especially after Mr. Byrd’s victory—seemed to have securely established itself above Boston and Chicago, above Texas and New York, and above all other parts of the country, where there had been shocking revelations of political misdoing. In contrast to the muck raked up elsewhere, Mr. Byrd, the young businessman, successful against adversity, scion of a family distinguished by three centuries of public service, was the proof of Virginia’s continued superiority and the symbol of what voting Virginians wanted. Although he happened to have been born in West Virginia, Virginians were pleased to point to him as Another Great Virginian, for all America to praise.

And pride overflowed into the North, where there was such delight in some quarters over his ideas of “pay-as-you-go” that a significant try was made to win for him the nomination for President at the Democratic Convention of 1932. I cheered him myself at an earlier Democratic meeting in Richmond that year, when the oratory of Mr. Carter Glass thrilled us all with a feeling of the superiority of Virginia Democrats. (For years thereafter one talked—as the autopsical strategists of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—of how close Harry Byrd came to getting the nomination at Chicago, when blocs of votes shifted between the main contenders and seemed for a moment to veer towards him. What would have happened had Mr. Byrd’s doctrine of “pay-as-you-go” been imprinted upon the United States instead of Mr. Roosevelt’s Keynesianism in the 1930’s? A bitter and nostalgic thought this must be for some particularly satisfied and secure persons, but what a shivering thought it can be for the rest of the nation and the rest of the world I)

Some find it hard to remember, but the Byrd regime attracted in its early days the attention of professors, who wrote with praise of the administrative efficiency they found in Virginia’s short-ballot system. Virginia was regarded as a model of politics and state Government—honest, well-organized, and paying as it went—serving the grandchildren by not saddling them with public debt, but not doing too much for their future education, parks, roads, social services, and hospitals.

As the euphoria continued, it was hard to challenge such a symbol and such Democratic pride. Conformity was demanded. Promising currents of liberalism were stifled or made to disappear. It was an offense against Virginia decorum to “stick your neck out” from the main stream of political thought. The stretched neck was really not only dangerous but also impolite, or unpatriotic, in the Virginia sense.

The most recent challenge, in the gubernatorial election of 1965, offered the usual example of how to deal with dissent. Opposition, which was conservative rather than liberal, was restrained to a low key. Whenever statistics were presented alleging Virginia’s lack of concern for public responsibilities and inadequate provision for education at any level, those who raised the critical voices were accused of not recognizing the good and the beauty in Virginia. They were chided for eschewing patriotic (Virginia sense) praise and mentioning, instead, such causes as mental health or elementary education.

The more persistent dissent of the intellectuals has been eloquent and articulate. Except at times such as in Colonel Francis Pickens Miller’s campaigns of 1949 and 1952, the liberal dissent has not been widely heard. Strong arguments have been made against the fiscal policy of pay-as-you-go, but the voting taxpayers are not yet convinced that the development of the nation, the state, and the community calls for borrowing on future prospect to provide the equipment of a modern society. They are yet to vote for the heavy investment in higher education that is needed for universities like the best in the United States and in other great nations.

Dissent and criticism have not flamed out into a great debate in Virginia. A restricted electorate has made the decisions. Less than 20 per cent of the inhabitants of voting age have been enough to give Virginia Democrats (capital D) their safe control over democracy (small d) in Virginia, where seldom so much as 35 per cent of the potential electorate uses the franchise. Marshall Fishwick cites a series of elections earlier in the century when only 11 per cent of the population of voting age took part, and 6 per cent made the decisions for Virginia Democracy. For such a low and safe target, serious or impassioned debate is not needed.

Many liberals have despaired. Promising talent has left Virginia. It has been too common to hear the word “liberal” derided. It has not been pleasant to accept defeat after defeat. In the objective atmosphere of London this winter, I heard a liberal Virginian say to a well-informed dinner-table: “Why bother? Virginia gets the Government and Senators it deserves. We have all worked hard for something different, but I can assure you it is not worthwhile.”

This voice of experience could be right, but I think not. It is true that the factors that work to keep things in the same current are strong: the pride in the early years of Mr. Byrd remains; relative prosperity has made for satisfaction with the present; and always underneath there is the atavistic determination, nourished by romantic memories of scores of

Virginia battlefields and the bitter years of Reconstruction, to “keep those people in Washington from telling us what to do.”


On the other hand, the power of the conservative factors is declining. Slowly, slowly, one has seen that modern growth needs public investment. Education limited by pay-as-you-go falls behind the systems of education that invest seriously in preparing the leaders of the future. Road systems shaped under the pressure of the needs of today and paid for from today’s readily disposable public funds do not encourage the industrial development of tomorrow. True enough in Virginia there has been decorum and honesty—even courtliness —in public life, and for these one can be duly thankful, but there can be little real ground for pride in a political outlook that ignores the tremendous pace of late twentieth-century growth and the expanding demands of the modern world.

The American prosperity, of which Virginia has had its share, has come despite the fact that for almost half a century, most of Virginia’s spokesmen in Washington have opposed again and again the economic measures upon which the development of the nation has been based. Virginia politicians will say that Virginia’s prosperity has been due to the hard work and frugality of Virginians themselves, but it is very clear to the historians of economic growth that since 1933 a national legislative program under all administrations, Republicans included, has had a profound effect upon the expansion and health of the American economy. Wistful Western Senators have been heard to say that Harry Byrd and Willis Robertson are lucky: they have been able to please some of their constituents by voting against liberal legislation in Washington, while at the same time they could see discontented constituents made happy by the benefits of legislation passed without their votes.

The atavistic resistance to Washington may be a declining factor. Misused Confederate flags do adorn many a fast and shiny automobile, but as population gains in mobility, regional feeling may become more picturesque than significant. Dispersal of factories means transfers of workers as well as executives. All classes are mobile. Families that used to live in New England now live in Richmond or Roanoke. Workers and executives from Ohio have followed their businesses to Richmond and Norfolk. Service families from forty-nine states become rooted in the neighborhood of the Hampton Roads defense facilities or in the sprawling suburbs that surround the Pentagon and its appendices. Unifying influences of travel and television are stronger than the centrifugal forces of regional newspapers or even local traditions in shaping cultural attitudes. Resistance to Washington once seemed a duty for all heirs of the Lost Cause. Love of the Old Cause had to be proved by justifying the old contentions, but in Year One of the Second Century after Appomattox, disdain for Washington has become less automatic.

More important than the decline of the old factors that kept Virginia on a course of stability and satisfaction is the great question mark of the new voters—will they vote? Will they vote for something different? The new voters obviously will include many Negroes and many other “disadvantaged” persons. Their numbers are large. The very vigor of Virginia politicians in fighting the voting laws suggests that they are not pleased to campaign before this enlarged electorate. If the ballot is nearer at hand for the hitherto silent 60-65 per cent of Virginians of voting age, will they quietly join the 20 per cent who have steadily provided the majorities for the dominant Democratic politicians or will they seek other representatives? If there were more confidence that the voters would fall in line with the dominant Democrats, would the politicians not have welcomed them gladly, instead of filing with the Supreme Court in December, 1965, a brief of picturesquely vehement arguments against the Voting Rights Act of 1905? The new voters have at least become a motive for worry. In Virginia the new federal law brings Democracy (large D) face to face with democracy (small d).


With the new voters, the significant issue today is not the past, but the future. Many of them will know little of the past, but the future crowds down rapidly. America’s fastest area of metropolitan growth in the 1960’s, Greater Washington, is swallowing the Northern counties of Virginia. America’s greatest megalopolis, that which extends South on the seaboard from Boston, tails out into Virginia. The logical area for its further expansion lies in Virginia. In the next twenty years the increase in population, which will be about 35 per cent for the entire nation, will be even greater in Virginia. (Governor Harrison, in his final report, said Virginia’s population was increasing by 100,000 per year—50 per cent above the national average.) Experts foresee the doubling of our Gross National Product by 1975. Even allowing for some inflation, this means that general private incomes will rise to levels of prosperity and affluence undreamed of in past civilizations. What then will be the picture of Virginia, which already is absorbing so much of the rolling expansion of population, Government, research, industry, and defense activity? Half-surrounding the nation’s capital and embracing already some of the most powerful and expensive elements of Government, Virginia will feel the pressure of growing affluence and the restlessness of a population that will be looking for new opportunities and demanding space for sports, for recreation, for education, and for investment. The suburban spread in the northern counties can be expected to double.

All these changes are not likely to take place at the easy pace of an earlier day. An economy tends to sustain and accelerate its growth in a sort of geometric progression. In the age of automation, construction is more rapid; factories and machines come more quickly into being; production and consumption outstrip predictions. Cities spread out from megalopolis in leap-frogging patterns.

To face such expansion, ordinary politics and ordinary politicians are not enough. Those who preach retrenchment in the conviction that depression is around the corner are likely to be left behind in the growing new world. Those who would be niggardly in expenditure for education and social improvement will count the cost of miserliness in later social explosion. Those who are content to see the spread of suburban ugliness without provision today for recreation and cultural outlet, without planning for better communities, will face the repeated crises of the many sicknesses of affluence. Those who have achieved budget surpluses in Richmond and voted against progressive legislation in Washington will find that problems ignored become problems magnified.

Many of Virginia’s younger political leaders understand this. The economists among them have a conception of the new economics that was already being taught by the Keynesians in the 1930’s, under the frowns of our older politicians and the scorn of our conservative newspapers. The younger politicians, who have thought in economic terms, have an idea of the policies that encourage national prosperity. Those who have seen the explosive quality of our suburban expansion recognize that there must be guidance and control. They know, too, that the art of planning today is developed to the level at which both the community and private enterprise will profit.


What seems to inhibit the younger politicians is the belief that change in the political currents in Virginia must not be too rapid. With a background of great pride in what Virginia has been and has done, it would be ungrateful to reject the old symbols. Although pride may be wearing thin, those who have been active in politics respect all those persons and standards that have made up Virginia politics for forty years. Even if the pride has recently been chiefly pride in Virginia’s restraining influence on Washington, it is a role that the active politicians will not abandon easily. The decorum in which politics has been exercised is decorum to be respected. It is unseemly in such circumstances to talk of upsetting established authorities.

Yet with all this, politicians know that the old antipathies which have been the exploitable stuff of their politics have now become less exploitable. New patterns of thought and of society have been accepted and established in the nation. Those ideas and policies that have won wide approval elsewhere will not be ignored by the new Virginia voters.

Keynesian economics has won, though the Virginia press may sometimes deride Lord Keynes’ apostles. The serious voter expects an adequate investment of public funds to sustain economic growth, to provide adequate roads and adequate education, and to cushion the fluctuations of the business cycle. Successful financiers and business men, as well as politicians of both national parties, have adopted a new economic outlook. One of Virginia’s most esteemed leaders, former Governor Colgate Darden, has clearly rejected pay-as-you-go. New voters in Virginia will some day do likewise.

Race becomes a less relevant issue, as the residue of Virginia’s massive resistance makes fodder only for neo-Nazis and Klansmen. Negroes begin to distinguish themselves in Virginia’s universities as they already have done in the Ivy League. A younger generation of Virginians, home from the services or from business and factories elsewhere, will pay less attention to the inheritance of past prejudice and admit the equal equality of all. Politicians of the old orthodoxy will find that race raises less heat at the polls.

Planning as a function of Government already seems less of an evil to voters, for in a fast-growing society we have planning commissions of all kinds. Private enterprise itself benefits from public planning in all its phases. Informed voters know that wise public planning still leaves decisionmaking to private businessmen.

Facing the new and democratic electorate, many Virginia Democrats are politely aware of the need for a shift in position—to get away from the old antipathies and the old issues and to engage the controversy on the newer ground of the vast future growth of the Nation and the State. Maneuvers have already been underway to make the shifts of position and persons within the strict rules of decorum and caution. The orthodox do not want to offend the respected ones. The dominant Democrats don’t want to be thought more radical than polite. Even newspapers that led the massive-resistance drive are finding ways to get into adjusted positions without having to admit past error. The hope of the political power is to become stronger on a broader base that will uphold the conservative framework of the Organization, take on the support of moderates, and not leave too much room for the liberals to make a case. The new, new voters are the prize that will be sought.

There is a confidence born of years in authority that a polite and decorous transition will produce a gentlemanly sort of change—a change which the more it changes will still remain the same thing. Voters will be reminded that political power is best entrusted to those who know how to use it. This is the way of success with a satisfied electorate.


How strong are the winds of change? There are many who are applying the dampers to keep all the airs muted. They may bow politely or bend enough to maintain their place. The new voters are the untested ones and they may seek the real changes that America as a nation has legislated. They may demand politicians with ideas no longer in conflict with those of the United States as a whole. In 1966 all signs indicate that the possibility is there: there are plenty of voters—not only the new voters, but also the older ones whose apathy has kept them from other elections and the voters who have become disenchanted with pay-as-you-go as a philosophy. All these have the power to make decisions that will change the political face of Virginia. Their votes will be cast unless the electorate is thwarted by boredom— cynical boredom over the absence of choice.

In 1966 the democratic (small d) voters can consider if conservative Democracy (large D) is what they want. They can consider that in the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society, almost all Virginia’s political voices in Washington consistently opposed their own party’s progressive legislation. Mr. Byrd said in August, 1951: “If I were asked today to name the New Deal measure that I favor, I could not name a single one.” In November, 1951, he said in Richmond that the Truman Democratic Party was a “greater menace to this country than Russia.”

Not since Mr. Carter Glass took a leading role in organizing the Federal Reserve System has one of Virginia’s political voices in Washington taken an initiative in an important new measure in our national Government. Changing times have demanded new measures and have inspired new ideas of what Government does. New laws have set the base and frame of progress and prosperity. More such measures will be needed to deal with the huge new problems of our Government and our Society in the days of affluence. It is doubtful that the expanding electorate will be satisfied to watch their spokesmen in Washington do nothing more creative than to try to keep the chains on the ankles of progress.

A generation of new leaders must see this. Will they be inhibited out of deference to the old chieftains, or out of respect for decorum, or for political antiquities and Lost Causes? Are they proud of the role that Virginia Chairmen of Congressional Committees play in putting up barriers to new measures? Or will initiative and leadership seem more important? Without vision, the people perish, says the Book of Proverbs. Solomon was not speaking of the backward look.

After the Debt Assumption controversy, the national capital was established on the Potomac in response to Virginia’s wishes. In the bargain that brought it to the Virginia boundary, the Virginians of the 1790’s thought they had made it easier for Virginia to exert an influence on the exercise of Government and the shaping of policy. Forty recent years of renouncing initiative and serving as brake-men would make it seem that Virginia’s politicians have passed up the opportunity that Mr. Jefferson won for them. Although a large proportion of the officers of our Federal Government live in Virginia, the state has small influence upon them. Virginia politicians and Virginia newspapers have earned such a reputation for opposing the programs of four decades in Washington that their voices are not heard. In politics, the boundary channel that divides Virginia from the District might as well be a western mountain range.

The inhabitants of Virginia are as vitally involved in the hopes and problems of the world of our future as any other group in our country. Virginia voices that represented the aspirations of all would be welcomed in the leadership of the national Congress. It will take the aroused voters to put them there.


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