Home ethics Ralph Northam’s Campaign Praises the “Virginia Way.” Here’s Why They’re Wrong.

Ralph Northam’s Campaign Praises the “Virginia Way.” Here’s Why They’re Wrong.


The Virginia Capitol, ground view.

While Democrats justifiably lament the rise of fake news, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam campaign’s latest press release concludes with a hosanna to a Virginia that never existed: “The Virginia Way may not please corporate interests, but it has worked well for Virginia.”

If we don’t understand what afflicts our government, we won’t be able to diagnose the problems and prescribe solutions.

The Virginia Way, has, of course, always benefited corporations and aristocrats above all. The theme of Governor McAuliffe’s administration is proudly doling out corporate goodies, and the Virginia legislature can best be thought of as a large-scale racketeering operation, where bribes in the form of campaign contributions purchase the reins of government:

  • Dominion Power’s business interests in raising electricity rates run directly counter to the citizenry’s interests in keeping rates low. Dominion is guaranteed a 10% return on investments by the taxpayer, as if every time you went to the store, you spent a hundred dollars, and the government gave you a hundred and ten. Dominion is the state’s largest campaign contributor (internal party transfers don’t count): therefore, they write the state’s energy policies.
  • Altria’s business interests in addicting customers to poison harms the addicts, their friends, and families, and we all pay the bill through Medicare, Medicaid, emergency rooms, and higher private insurance premiums. Altria is the state’s second-largest campaign contributor: therefore, they write the state’s tobacco policies.
  • Before Jonnie Williams gave cash to Bob McDonnell, they were strangers. Jonnie Williams insanely asked McDonnell to test his Anatabloc microwaved tobacco pills on state employees – and McDonnell followed through, though this has been underreported. This terrifying scheme was only prevented by the judgment of one person, the Secretary of Health, McDonnell’s employee.
  • The GO Virginia welfare program has removed any pretense of representative government: the legislature is giving tens of millions of dollars to major donors for them to do veritably whatever they want.
  • An audit of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership found that it has given away $400 million over the last ten years without any accountability or oversight, and even has given money to companies that did not exist.

Virginia is changing, but the political elites are still the descendants of the tobacco planters, the industrialists, and now, a government “of the businessmen, by the businessmen, for the businessmen.” This has never “worked well” for most Virginians, despite what the campaign says. According to independent experts, Virginia government is unique, but not in the ways noted by people taken in by “Virginia Way” mythology:

  • Virginia ranked fifteith out of the fifty-one states plus D.C. on the health of its democracy, with F grades on ballot accessibility and state government representation, and a D- on political corruption.
  • In 2013, the nonpartisan group Representation 2020 ranked Virginia dead last among the states in gender equity of elected officials.
  • “A 2012 survey by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity on honest government in the states gave Virginia grades of ‘F’ for legislative accountability and campaign financing. A lack of laws and effective regulation to keep legislators from using public funds for themselves, ineffective regulations about the gifts legislators get, their financial disclosures, the work legislators do when they leave office and granting jobs or favors to family or cronies help put Virginia near the bottom when it comes to the risk of corruption, as does the lack of any limits on campaign donations, the survey said.”
  • The State Integrity Investigation ranked Virginia forty-seventh out of fifty in its corruption risk report card, earning an overall grade of F.
  • When comparing the lowest-, average- and highest-paid workers, “Virginia is now the most unequal state in the country, and is more unequal than at any time on record.”

The bipartisan “fake history” of the Virginia Way is more pernicious than partisan fake news stories, because a fabricated history restricts the horizon of imagination of the small cadre of Virginians who run our state government. It affects what they think of our present society, the responsibilities of government, and the possibilities for public policy. If everything is fine, why change?

Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography, in his brilliant study on the history of Virginia government, wrote:

“Virginia’s political culture has almost always exhibited an inhospitality to changes because the people in charge contrived and protected institutions and practices that worked to their advantage. As a result the state’s constitutions and laws have created undemocratic institutions and practices that are also resistant to change. An unexamined reverence for the Spirit of Virginia [Virginia Way] that Douglas Southall Freeman, Virginius Dabney, and others propagated in the twentieth century allowed a mythic version of the past to constrict the range of options that the state’s political leaders contemplated. That reverence, more importantly, either blinded them and the larger public to the undemocratic features of their government or allowed them to ignore or accept those features as if they were part of the inevitable natural order of things. (p. 392, bolding added)

V. O. Key wrote in his masterpiece:

“Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves and their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government. The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to those of any other state of the present-day South. It is a political museum piece.” (p. 19)

State senator John Chichester, who served in the legislature for thirty years, concluded his essay on the Virginia Way:

“We can all think of crucial junctures in our history. And while by today’s standards, all of the original choices were not correct, they were ultimately corrected so that our way of life did not depart significantly from the traces in which we walk. We can take comfort in the lessons of Virginia history. At those crucial points in our journey, Virginia’s political leaders will reach deep and find fortitude and courage. They will coalesce and make that unpopular choice, if it truly is necessary to preserve the treasure that is our Commonwealth.”(p. 233)

There is a Schoolhouse Rock vision of government that claims it serves people, and there is the reality that government is for sale. There is a science fiction vision of capitalism in which the unfettered free market picks winners and losers, and there is actually-existing capitalism where wealthy interests make as much money as recklessly as possible during boom times, and Uncle Sam bails them out when they go bust.

Virginia politicians view wrongdoing, misjudgments, corruption, and contempt of democracy as aberrations from a self-referential enlightenment journey in which they are the heirs of Saint Jefferson. They ignore plain facts and evident consequences in service of a fraudulent ideology that, coincidentally, happens to benefit themselves and their donors primarily.


Jeff Thomas is the author of a book on the Virginia Way. Quotation marks were not used for quotes from his own book for the sake of clarity, but this essay was derived from it, and much of this essay pieces together direct quotations from various sections.


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