On a recent Sunday at my Catholic parish in Chantilly, the pastor reminded parishioners that it was the last day for the “Personal Items Drive” to support the Madison Emergency Services Association (MESA), in Madison County, Virginia. A few weeks prior, a MESA representative spoke at Mass about how the donated items would be used for impoverished families in a rural Virginia county only a one hour drive from the parish. Many of the recipients of these goods are so poor they often can’t afford to pay their water bill, forcing children to shower at other families’ home prior to going to school. It was arresting to learn that kids so close to the affluent Virginia suburbs lacked access to such basic needs.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Madison County as the November midterm elections approach. One National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) advertisement attacking Jennifer Wexton, a Democratic candidate in Virginia’s 10th congressional district election, accuses the Virginia state senator of supporting policies that take money out of Northern Virginia to support places like Madison. It declares: “Richmond treats Northern Virginia like a giant ATM, forcing us to subsidize the rest of the state… Northern Virginia singled out for higher sales taxes, outrageous tolls on 66. More than anyone else we’ve been taxed, tolled.”
Northern Virginia does pay more — its property taxes are some of the highest in the state. The highest real estate taxes in the stateare in Manassas Park. According to one estimate, Northern Virginia gets back only 25 to 40 cents on the dollar in cash and state services. Yet as a native Northern Virginian — and a conservative — I say to the attack ad against Wexton, “so what?” Attacking a politician for supporting policies that seek to address significant wealth disparities is a part of the old Republican playbook that conservatives should be eager to jettison.
Income inequality is growing in Virginia, and most of the wealthiest Virginians live in the D.C. suburbs. The two counties in Virginia with the highest median income are Fairfax and Loudoun, with Prince William, Arlington, Fauquier, and Stafford all close behind. Moreover, the counties with the most problems — such as unemployment, opioid use, diabetes, crime, etc. — are in other parts of the state, either the more rural parts of the Commonwealth or poor cities like Petersburg. Indeed, Virginia, with only three other states, shares the title of commonwealth, which should mean its inhabitants are united for the common good of all its residents.
One of the few hopeful political developments of the 2016 elections was the heightened focus on blue-collar Americans who have been increasingly left behind by the nation’s globalized, technocratic economy. Smart conservative politicians played to those frustrations, and promised action to redress unemployment and income disparity. Communities across the South and flyover country have per capita contributed more soldiers to the US Armed Forces than any other part of the nation. Smart conservative politicians played to those sacrifices by promising a more realist, less interventionist foreign policy that would end the US military presence in conflicts that have dragged on for more than fifteen years.
A return to the Reagan-era political messaging of unfettered capitalism, libertarian autonomous individualism, and globalist foreign policy is not the way forward for conservatism. These ideologies have conserved little, while radically transforming American society. Far better is the kind of political partnership exemplified by Del. James W. “Will” Morefield (R-Tazewell) and Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg), whose “radical idea” was to offer tax breaks to employees of companies that create jobs in economically depressed localities. We need a conservative vision that preserves the traditions, cultures, and mores of local communities, rather than undermines them.
Conservatism needs politicians who recognize that policies that aggravate the economic differences between Loudoun and Madison County is not the way to “make America great again.” Rhetoric that evinces a lack of sympathy for impoverished Virginians only reinforces the image of heartlessness that Republicans need to eschew. If conservatives want to retain any influence in Virginia’s D.C. suburbs, a little more empathy for places like Madison — and a little less of Gordan Gekko's “greed is good” mantra — would be a good start.