RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.

 

Symbols matter... sometimes

Yesterday the VA House Democrats revealed their legislative priorities for the 2016 session, which starts tomorrow. The first question that Virginians may ask is: why bother?

Republicans hold what amounts to a super-majority in the House of Delegates, with 66 seats to the Dems' 34. That, combined with the fact that the GOP maintained their control of the VA Senate last year (thanks, Mike Bloomberg!) means that very little of these legislative priorities will ever see the light of day.

So why hold a news conference, complete with press release and video? In part, the answer is probably that you have to do SOMETHING if you're a political party in an actual functioning state government. (As opposed to say, New York, where the majority leader heads a long list of indictments and convictions.)

But there also are good reasons to engage in what might be called "symbolic" politics. In his 1964 classic, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, political scientist Murray Edelman famously laid out the benefits of to politicians of the more “expressive” dimensions of politics. Political officials can reward supporters with the policies they want, sure; but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, they can reward them with at least the appearance of action, or supportive language.

And that's all the Dems have to offer right now. But they have to offer something if they hope to get out of where they are - the seemingly permanent minority. In a state where Democrats are numerous enough to support state-wide election victors, but districts are gerrymandered to produce Republican majorities in the legislature, the Dems in the General Assembly have a lot of work to do to shore up their natural supporters and win over new ones.

It doesn't help that they seem in permanent disarray. They won the Governorship partially because a candidate with national name recognition carpet-bagged his way to the nomination and then was gifted with a slate of extremist Republican opponents (we miss you, Cooch!). Last year the House Democratic leader tried to resign, only taking the job back within 24 hours because apparently nobody else wanted to do it. (Even the national GOP could find a patsy to play Speaker of the House.)

But the hard work of winning over voters starts with telling a good story about who you are and what you believe in. The little chart of ideas the Dems trotted out yesterday is, unfortunately for them, no Contract with America, the document that Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans used to help win a historic turnaround in 1994. But it's probably better than nothing, and is at least trying to tell a story of a party looking out for the middle class. Still, they will need a lot more symbolism before they can get to the point where they can make actual, substantive policy changes.

Dems love "local control" (today)

Bloomberg wasn't on the ballot