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How Virginia’s governor race became a fight over sanctuary cities — which Virginia doesn’t have

Welcome to the new American culture war.

Screenshot via Ed Gillespie for Governor campaign ad

Ralph Northam can’t please anybody.

The Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia has spent the past month of the campaign watching polls tighten as Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has attacked him for a vote in the state legislature against banning “sanctuary cities” in Virginia.

Northam is still leading in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s election, but it sure doesn’t feel like he is — for weeks, he has been a candidate on the defensive.

Gillespie has been airing ads saying Northam is exacerbating crime from international gangs like MS-13 with his vote — which appears to be making him squeamish. He denounced a Latino Victory Fund ad that depicted a pickup truck bearing a Confederate flag plowing into a group of children of color, causing the Howard Dean-founded progressive group Democracy for America to unendorse Northam on Tuessday, and the Bernie Sanders-affiliated group Our Revolution to denounce him.

“After seeing Northam play directly into the hands of Republicans’ racist anti-immigrant rhetoric on sanctuary cities, we refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist and even voter-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running,” the DFA statement read.

For the final days of the campaign, this is potentially disastrous. Off-year elections swing on enthusiasm, and these groups are among the most energized in the anti-Trump resistance.

It might seem like a weird hill for either side to die on. After all, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia to begin with — so the whole debate is entirely hypothetical.

Sanctuary cities aren’t potent because of their policy consequences. They’re potent because they have become a dog whistle that taps into the most powerful culture war in America — that between suburban and rural white Americans who feel that the culture and values of the America they grew up with are being undermined, and progressive cosmopolitans who feel that marginalized groups are being attacked and left vulnerable.

Politically, that culture war is being channeled into conflicts between Republican-dominated state legislatures and Democrat-dominated big-city governments. Using their state-level dominance to target any attempt at municipal progressivism, Republicans are learning — quickly — how to turn their culture war into enduring political victories.

Both sides feel that the America they love is under attack. And by trying to sue for peace in the culture war, Northam is succeeding only in convincing both sides that he doesn’t understand how high the stakes are.

Democratic Gov. Candidate Ralph Northam Attends Friday Prayers At VA Mosque Win McNamee/Getty Images

There aren’t “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — but they’re a perfect way to energize Republicans under Trump

It’s worth repeating: There are no “sanctuary cities” in Virginia that limit cooperation with federal immigration officials — the bill Northam voted against in February banned the future establishment of such cities.

Northam initially defended his vote against the bill by saying that he didn’t want to hypothetically ban something that didn’t exist. But it doesn’t matter to the Republicans hammering him over his vote — or, for that matter, the progressives now disgusted with his compromise.

That’s because the policy behind “sanctuary cities” is a lot more modest than either side is willing to admit — and both sides have an incentive to play up its symbolic importance rather than the actual impact it has on immigration enforcement.

There have been a few rounds of squabbling over the extent to which local governments should be required to help federal immigration agents. And in every round, localities that choose to limit their involvement with federal immigration enforcement have risked the label of “sanctuary cities” — a phrase which carries the totally misleading implication that local governments are shielding immigrants from deportation.

In the current iteration of the “sanctuary city” debate, the label generally refers to any city that limits the circumstances under which it holds immigrants in jail for 48 hours after they’d initially be released, in order to give Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials a chance to pick them up.

Sanctuary cities can’t actually prevent ICE from tracking down those immigrants and arresting them once they’ve been released from prison. And in fact, under Trump, ICE has made a point of targeting immigrants in sanctuary cities for deportation — or at least has told the press it’s targeting such immigrants — as a way to communicate that no unauthorized immigrant is truly safe from the Trump administration.

Some critics of “sanctuary” policies point out that even if it’s still possible for ICE to track down immigrants after release from jail, it’s more difficult and dangerous to do so. But many critics — and supporters — simply take the word “sanctuary” at face value, and assume that sanctuary cities are those that protect immigrants from federal immigration enforcement.

It’s been a potent issue for politicians of both parties. When Kate Steinle was killed in 2015 by 54-year-old Garcia Zarate, an unauthorized immigrant, in San Francisco, the murder was immediately blamed on the city’s sanctuary policies (despite the fact that Zarate’s release was actually the result of a mix-up by the federal government). Steinle’s murder was used to particular effect by a surprisingly insurgent Republican presidential candidate who’d used immigration fears to surge in the polls: one Donald Trump.

When Trump was elected, the mayors of many American major cities joined the anti-Trump “resistance” by proudly declaring themselves sanctuary cities — as a way to reassure immigrant residents that they might not feel welcome in America writ large, but they would always be welcome in New York or Chicago. And Republicans, for their part, have been able to keep tapping into fears about criminal immigrants — even though their party is now responsible for enforcing the laws that are supposed to solve that problem — by fobbing off blame on the one level of government that Democrats still tend to control.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks On National Security In NYC
AG Jeff Sessions has led the Trump administration’s fight against sanctuary cities.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Attacks on “sanctuary cities” only work because many Americans are willing to believe cities are ungovernable hellholes

Logically, it shouldn’t be possible for the federal government to brag to the press about arresting immigrants in “sanctuary cities,” while campaigns like Gillespie’s imply that sanctuary cities are zones of criminal impunity where the federal government is unable to impose law and order.

But it is. Because the two messages are being sent to different groups — and the people hearing, and believing, the second message have no occasion to know the truth of the first.

In this respect, sanctuary cities are a homegrown equivalent of the myth of “no-go zones” in Europe: neighborhoods dominated by Muslim immigrants in which it’s unsafe for anyone of white European descent to even set foot.

There aren’t any no-go zones in Europe, but that hasn’t stopped conservative outlets like Fox News from talking about them. Some conservatives appear to believe that America has no-go zones of its own (including Roy Moore, the likely next senator from Alabama). But what’s more potent, in the American context, is the idea that Democratic local officials are attempting to undermine “real” America by sheltering masses of unauthorized immigrants and allowing them to terrorize Americans.

The idea of a space in your country that is densely populated by people who are like each other and not like you is an unsettling one to people who aren’t familiar with anything like that. So is the idea that people are living in your country who don’t fundamentally respect its values — a fear that some white Americans hold when it comes to Muslim immigrants’ devotion to Islam, and when it comes to concerns that unauthorized immigrants fundamentally disrespect the “rule of law” (which is what allows Republican politicians to use the transnational gang MS-13 to raise concerns about unauthorized immigrants more broadly).

Combine the two, and you have a concern that some of your country has been taken over by people who are hostile to it.

Thousands Join 'Defend DACA' March In Los Angeles David McNew/Getty Images

It would be impossible for such a fear to take root if conservative culture warriors didn’t already consider cities culturally suspect. But they do. For half a decade, since the beginning of white flight, cities have been seen as centers of crime; Americans tend to believe crime is going up throughout the country, but acknowledge it’s gone down in their own neighborhoods.

As white flight has guaranteed Democratic Party dominance of urban governance, conservatives have started to believe that Democrats are allowing cities to fail — or deliberately keeping them down to preserve their own political power. And as cities have grown and revitalized over the past two decades thanks to millennial gentrification — and become accordingly tolerant of LGBTQ Americans — it’s only strengthened the perception that cities are a place where traditional values don’t matter anymore.

Progressives feel diversity is under attack and want to hear Democrats defend it

On the other side of the culture war, of course, progressives hear such invocations of traditional American values as nostalgia for a time when white supremacy was unquestioned and midcentury sexual mores kept LGBTQ people from homemaking and kept women from doing anything else. They hear an attack not just on marginalized groups (and on individual human beings who are members of those groups) but on pluralism and diversity — things many progressives defend as “American values” in their own right.

The Democratic Party has long been wary of defending diversity in its own right — especially when it comes to racial justice. Democratic politicians tended to understand that some whites felt threatened by demographic change, and tried to chart a course by which they could praise diversity while reassuring its skeptics that it sympathized with their concerns.

But as the culture war has intensified, fewer and fewer progressives are interested in sympathizing with people whose views they see as attacks on the lives of marginalized Americans. Progressives have developed a distaste for tolerating the intolerant. And they have pushed Democrats to make it clear that they stand with their base — rather than trying to woo back a voting bloc that abandoned them a decade ago.

Speaking Engagement By Right-Wing Firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos Draws Protests At California State University David McNew/Getty Images

Many Democrats have adapted readily to the new landscape. Others haven’t; old habits die hard, and besides, it’s logical to assume that celebrating metropolis-style diversity might not play as well in states like Virginia that don’t have metropolises.

The groups that have abandoned Northam for abandoning sanctuary cities are the groups least likely to be persuaded by the idea that a Democrat in Virginia needs to be a moderate to win. But that doesn’t mean that idea is correct. The entire point of this culture war is that it’s national. Something ridiculous that happens on the campus of a college few Republicans have ever heard of can become the lead story on a Fox News broadcast; racist comments by a county commissioner in a place many Democrats couldn’t find on a map can dominate Raw Story. This is why Republicans can run against sanctuary cities in a state that has no sanctuary cities. This is why progressives can be upset when Democrats don’t defend sanctuary cities that do not, as yet, exist.

As long as Republicans control state legislatures, they have the upper hand on turning the culture war into policy

But even when policy is used as fodder in a culture war, it’s still policy. It still affects people’s lives. For Republicans (and many white progressives), passing state laws against sanctuary cities is simply an expression of values. But for unauthorized immigrants and those who live among them, who understand well what sanctuary cities can and can’t do, it’s the difference between a traffic stop and eventual deportation.

The problem arises when the only people who have power are people who see the issue as symbolic. That creates perverse incentives for politicians to create real problems for the disenfranchised as a way to show symbolic solidarity with the enfranchised.

Historians and criminologists have pointed out that this dynamic was a big factor in the rise of mass incarceration in the last quarter of the 20th century. As Jeffrey Adler put it in a review of William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, “White flight further distorted criminal justice, as political power followed the migrants to the suburbs, reducing the influence of inner-city residents.” “Tough on crime” politics were a performance for the suburbanites in which the urbanites were used as props.

After the 2010 election and census, Republicans have dominated state government in America. And they’ve created the conditions for the same dynamic that plagued metropolitan politics in the period Stuntz wrote about to become a fight between state and local governments.

Bans on “sanctuary cities” are just one way that state governments have sought to control what laws local governments pass in recent years. Republican state governments have also attempted to prevent cities from passing civil rights ordinances protecting trans people — the root of the fight over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” States have sought to keep cities from raising the minimum wage, and even from banning plastic shopping bags.

It’s possible to pass these laws because the state legislators (often adopting the views of their constituents) think that progressive local laws violate the state’s values. In other words, they think that progressive, diverse cities aren’t really part of the state. And when Republican dominance of state legislatures is unquestioned — and Democrats seeking statewide power are refusing to full-throatedly defend city values — they might, in terms of political clout, not be all that wrong.