The furor and faded promise surrounding Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology ushered in the unlikely populist.
VIRGINIA—To cruise around I-66, that demanding highway that cuts Northern Virginia west from Washington nearly all the way to West Virginia, is to see nearly none of the signs of meltdown obvious elsewhere in North America.
There aren’t the Bidenvilles of Hollywood Boulevard. It’s defiantly harder to buy fentanyl here. The arrival of Google and Amazon buildings doesn’t seem obviously depressing. The further you drive West, there’s land—still a lot of it.
That was always the promise of the United States on the “sunset side of the mountain,” to crib from and twist from George W. Bush. Squint a little and imbibe some (Petit Verdot) in the town of Purcellville and one can still see the Jeffersonian dream. The wealthy and way-more-Yankee north of the state, where I spent my adolescence, may not have seamlessly blended into the rest of “the Commonwealth”—more like battered it into political submission—but the changing of the guard hardly caused a civil war, in this the cradle of the Confederacy.
This is not, generally speaking, the land you read more about. That is, the benighted Virginia provinces of the Trump-Sanders voters. On the contrary, literal O’Malley-McMullin voters may live here in NoVA. Had he not dropped out before the primary, I would be personally ashamed to learn about Pete Buttigieg’s performance in 2020.
This place has more in common with the alleged “hot zones” of the USA—the sunbelt megalopolis emerging from Tucson to Phoenix, whatever’s going on in Georgia, that “New South” Valhalla in the “Research Triangle”—than the forgotten lands of Ohio, weird parts of Orange County, and DeSantistan.
Generally speaking, Northern Virginia has been On Message. It has voted correctly for the next president of the United States, whether Republican or Democrat, every year the last quarter-century save 2016, that opera-bouffe and very real revolutionary moment. This land of Washington (and law partners) understands, if nothing else: power.
But if there’s a 1b priority, it’s this: education.
The state described above is hardly a Trumpian cauldron (though, drive southwest), yet its election last November of goofy, sincere, former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin may well be remembered as the beginning of the end of the Joe Biden years. As has been discussed, ad nauseam, critical race theory is real and its rejection delivered victory to the Republicans, even in a not-clear loser of globalization.
Nowhere was this failed “praxis” more evident than at my esteemed secondary school alma mater, the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. When I matriculated in 2005, they told you, “you were set for life.” They don’t say that at Yale anymore, let alone “T.J.”
Yet, the status of the place in the digital age has, weirdly, become a dual focus of alumni ennui and escalated political attention. Even as the credential has become relatively less valuable. When the powers that be tried to junk admission tests (ceding even more power to the “teachers”), Youngkin intervened and now too have the courts.
“Today’s decision reaffirms that TJ’s admissions should be based on merit,” the governor said in February, after federal courts ruled that Asian-Americans were getting short shrift in the new regime. “We thank the parents who stood up for their children. We will work everyday to ensure that every student across VA has a quality education so they can dream big dreams and be prepared for success in life.”
Anyone arguing this was a pen stroke of white supremacy has never sat in a carpool in the place: That high school is more Seoul than Stone Mountain, or whatever. Still, the explicit evisceration of any aims toward “merit” has proved a clarion call for anyone disgusted with the Democrats: a potential lynchpin issue that unites both the disenchanted lower and upper middle classes.
Politically speaking, that’s the hard stuff.
For those looking to capitalize or, you know, change the country, two avenues exist.
On the one hand, the vaunted, right-wing “baddie” majority on the Supreme Court could intervene and declare these sort of apartheid preferences null-and-void. It’s a popular issue. Affirmative action has been many things, but never democratic.
On the other hand, SCOTUS might take the route it’s favored since the Seventies: the off-ramp on whatever the culture war is. If so, that most personal issue, the children, will be litigated this decade and on at the ballot box. Eventually, all tides roll back.
In such a case, places like my high school might actually change the world.