On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, I awoke to the realization that my syllabus tasked me with addressing Andrew Jackson and his appeals to populism on a day on which Donald Trump could confirm victory in the presidential election. That Trump’s win signaled something about the American electorate was a scary prospect for some of my students, and for myself, not because it meant the advance of traditional conservative ideals like limited government, but because it also seemed to advance the racism, bigotry, and misogyny Trump displayed throughout his campaign. At the very least, voters motivated primarily by other political considerations accepted those attitudes; at worst, those attitudes were a driving force in his victory.
A year later, I’m addressing Jacksonian democracy the day after an off-year election in which energized Virginians turned out in the highest numbers in 20 years to vote on candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state delegates (school boards and county supervisors, too). Political newcomers contested Republican-held seats in the state assembly, though more Democrats went uncontested; Democrats won the statewide offices, and made significant gains in the legislature. But more significant than party affiliation is who some of those candidates are, and what they may represent. Justin Fairfax, the new lieutenant-governor elect, is the first African American to win statewide office in Virginia since 1989. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, defeated the incumbent Bob Marshall (ironically, the author of an anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill). Historic electoral victories–by women, people of color, homosexual, and transgender candidates–dotted the country. The progress and acceptance those elections signal, to me, is every bit as significant as the political ideologies of the candidates themselves. Combined with turnout, races like these may tell us more about an energized American electorate than 2016’s elections did.