Last Friday, Republicans from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County gathered for their monthly First Friday meeting at the Woodgrill Buffet. The featured speaker was Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) who is facing a Democratic challenger (April Moore from Shenandoah County) in November. Given the make up of the district he represents, that election is not expected to be terribly close.
Instead of spending much time talking about his race, he mentioned how Republicans across the state need to work to ensure that the GOP continues to hold the Virginia Senate. Presently, the Republicans enjoy a 21-19 majority in that body and all 40 seats are up for election this November. Most of the seats are either uncontested or heavily favored for one party or the other. However, Senator Obenshain identified three seats that could tip the balance of power: The 21st in the Roanoke area, the 10th in parts of Richmond and the surrounding counties, and the 29th in Prince William County, Manassas, and Manassas Park. If the GOP wins just one of these contests, then, assuming no surprises, the party will retain control of the Virginia Senate.
Senator Obenshain then went on to explain that it would be terrible if Democrats won the Senate for then they would control the various senate committees. As one example, he mentioned the agriculture committee, currently headed by Senator Emmett Hanger of Augusta County. Should the Democrats win, he declared that Senator Chap Petersen of Fairfax City would be the new head. He didn’t really explain why that would be such a bad thing other than these points: Petersen isn’t from the Shenandoah Valley, he is a Democrat, and he is from Fairfax. Oh the horror of allowing a northern Virginia Democrat (one who opposed the 2013 Republican Transportation Tax hike) to lead the agriculture committee! However, besides the overarching rallying cry to beat the Democrats, there wasn’t much in the way of policy differentiation discussed.
The next morning, as I reflected on the previous day, I was reminded of a Shakespearean play and, assuming you have any familiarity with the subject, read the title of this article, or, more likely, saw the film with Leonardo DiCaprio, you’ve figured out that that play was Romeo & Juliet. In case you don’t remember the plot from high school English, in this story there are two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. We are told from the prologue that they are “both alike in dignity” and that they have some “ancient grudge” against each other that is never really explored or explained in the work. As such, the reader has no real idea if either family is motivated by some important ideal other than gaining power over the other. Was there any reason for the hatred? It is quite likely that none of the characters in the play truly comprehend the point of the struggle either. Nevertheless, the Montagues, Capulets, and their assorted friends and allies sacrifice quite a lot as they do battle against each other.
Unfortunately, Verona becomes a much worse place for the average citizen as a result of this constant feuding between the two families. As Prince Escalus, the leader of the town, states in Act I, Scene I, “Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, by thee, old Capulet, and Montague, have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets; and made Verona’s ancient citizens cast-by their grave beseeming ornaments, to wield old partisans, in hands as old, cankered with peace, to part your cankered hate”.
In Act III, Scene I, Tybalt Capulet challenges Romeo Montague to a duel due to a perceived insult against his family. However, by this point Romeo is smitten by Juliet Capulet, sees no reason to quarrel further, and so refuses to fight her kinsman. Romeo’s friend Mercutio, although not aligned with either house by blood, considers it dishonorable for Romeo to refuse the challenge. Romeo attempts to stop the scuffle that follows, but is unsuccessful as Tybalt slays Mercutio. Although he sought peace, this act rouses Romeo to fight and kill Tybalt. As Mercutio dies, he curses not only the Capulets who directly cause his demise, but the Montagues as well.
After Romeo is ordered into exile as a result of his deed, Capulet attempts to marry his daughter to one of the leading political figures of the town, despite her protests to the contrary. Neither, Juliet’s mother nor her father care about her wishes. Only at the end of the play, when Capulet’s daughter and Montague’s son have fallen, do the two families finally agree to end their seemingly pointless feud.
Could this story from the 1590s mirror our political situation today? Have many of the Republican and Democrats, much like the Montagues and Capulets, forgotten why they first fought each other, only continuing the battle in order to accumulate power for themselves and their party? Are the two factions primarily motivated by conservative and liberal values or are these issues merely used as window dressing to convince the grassroots into following them in whatever crusade the leaders deem necessary? Do the powers that be consider our wishes and desires irrelevant, much like Romeo and Juliet were treated in their world? If, like Mercutio, you made a supreme sacrifice in the service of a house, would your deed be honored? Or would you be viewed as a relatively worthless pawn offered on the altar of power? Perhaps, in his final moments, Mercutio finally realized the folly of the discord between the Montagues and Capulets and how meaningless his death was which was why he declared “a plague on both your houses”. Could the same thought be applied to our two major political parties, too?
To help answer this question, on Saturday a former chairman of the Harrisonburg Republican Party shared this image of a t-shirt on Facebook. What do you think his opinion is on the subject?