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The Coming (Cancel) Culture War
The Republican plan to make 2022 about wokeness run amok is less stupid (and even more cynical) than it sounds
The battle lines have been drawn. Democrats are running on an agenda of steady leadership, vaccinating people, distributing $1400 relief checks, and rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Republicans are talking about Dr. Seuss, complaining about the “wokeness” of Major League Baseball, and Trumping up cancel culture controversies. Ignoring policy and obsessing about seemingly trite cultural issues is all the rage in the Republican Party.
The Cancel Culture crusade is not just the province of the blowhards on Fox News. The Republican Party leadership is making it a central part of their strategy. Representative Jim Banks, the chair of the Republican Study Committee, recently wrote a memo where he argues that the GOP should make “anti-wokeness” a pillar of the platform:
Wokeness was cooked up by college professors, then boosted by corporations, which is why it’s now an official part of the Democrat Party platform. Nothing better encapsulates Democrats’ elitism and classism than their turn towards “wokeness.” Wokeness and identity politics aren’t pro-Hispanic, pro-African American or pro-LQBTQ; they’re anti-American, anti-women, and most of all, anti-working class.
Yesterday, Minority Leader McConnell took a break from a career of shilling for corporations to release a bizarre statement attacking the private sector for “taking cues from the outrage industrial complex” and “frantic left-wing signaling.” The genesis of McConnell’s transparently phony outrage was major corporations like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines publicly opposing a McConnell-backed effort to make it harder for people to vote in Georgia.
This dynamic started during the passage of the incredibly popular American Rescue Act. As columnist Matt Bai wrote in the Washington Post:
While Congress was debating a nearly $2 trillion spending package, the Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), was actually doing a dramatic reading of Green Eggs and Ham for his social media accounts.
By traditional definitions of politics, this should be a rout for the Democrats. Every Republican recently voted against a bill with 70 percent support. They ignore the pandemic and pretend something called “cancel culture” is an existential threat to the republic.
The collective Republican brain has been so pickled by Fox News's stupidity that they often stumble into self-defeating buffoonery.
This is not one of those times.
Many Democrats — myself included — have mocked Republicans for focusing on trivialities during such a serious time. But there is a strategic logic to shifting the political battlefield from the economy to a cultural clash, as well as polling evidence that this shift packs more political power than many assume.
Heading into 2022, I would rather be the party passing the broadly popular agenda than the one trying to distract from that popular agenda. But the (cancel) culture wars aren’t going anywhere. Democrats must understand what the Republicans are doing and develop a plan to fight back.
What is “Cancel Culture?”
“Cancel culture” is a lot like “fake news” — a term so amorphous that it means everything and nothing simultaneously. Conservatives treat “cancel culture” as a catch-all response to any disagreement with their position or offense taken by racist, misogynistic, or other bigoted actions. Conservative media types love to call any disagreement with their opinions an example of “cancel culture.” Now, of course, we know these people haven’t been canceled because they still have very large public platforms. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — a Democrat — proved the absurdity of the entire enterprise when he called efforts to push him from office after a series of sexual misconduct allegations “cancel culture.”
The term has been a primary Republican talking point for years now. It is a regular feature of Trump's tweets and speeches, but “cancel culture” hasn’t taken hold with the American public. A January Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that only 52 percent of Americans have heard the term “cancel culture.”
“Cancel culture” is a clumsy and overly malleable term. Still, it is designed to embody the core idea of conservatism since the onset of the Civil Rights Era: America is changing in ways that are bad for the political and cultural power that white Christians believe is their birthright. “Make America Great Again” is a particularly unsubtle call to return to a bygone era where threats to the power of white people, and white men, in particular, were nonexistent.
The central strategic imperative of Republicans is scaring the living shit out of white people. America is always changing. Politics has always been a battle of framing that change. Elections hinge on whether the fear of an unknown future eclipses dissatisfaction with a known present. Because of the omnipresent dominance of social media, the pace of that change has seemed faster —and scarier — in the last decade or so. Republicans have weaponized this fear with relentless precision.
Mr./Mrs. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss B-side books have power when viewed through this context. They are totems of childhood in a different era. If Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss can be canceled, so can you.
I should pause for a moment to point out that Dr. Seuss's books are not being banned, and Mr. Potato Head isn’t being canceled. The facts do not support the Right-Wing hysteria from Fox News, Facebook, or the House floor. If you have the time, energy, or masochistic instincts to dig further into this topic, Vox has a great explanation about what is happening with Dr. Seuss.
There are legitimate concerns about the power of Big Tech and others to censor certain voices. There have been some ham-handed efforts to deal with complex historical figures, like the effort by the San Francisco School Board to rename schools named after Abraham Lincoln. In some corners, there is an unwillingness to listen to dissenting points of view. My old boss, Barack Obama, talked about these challenges often in his presidency.
However, Republicans aren’t trying to have a serious conversation about censorship and changing mores. They are complaining about “cancel culture” and escaping into their ideologically homogenous bubbles whenever anyone presents them with “facts,” “science,” and “math.” Republicans are grievance-trolling for political gain, which is how they end up talking about the branding decisions of the Potato Head enterprise.
The Political Logic Behind Cancel Culture Politics
There is no doubt that a lot of what drives the Right-Wing’s focus on “cancel culture” is a sincere annoyance at the consequences of being a racist asshole in public. But there is a political logic underlying all of the carping, complaining, and crocodile tears.
First, as I have written about before, social issues unite Republicans, while economic issues divide them. This is particularly true right now. Half of Trump voters support Biden’s American Rescue Plan. More than 40 percent support a $15 minimum wage. There is an inherent and potentially irreconcilable tension for a Republican Party with a populist, working-class base and a pro-corporation and Wall Street agenda. A recent Pew poll demonstrates this Republican challenge: 63 percent of lower-income Republicans support the American Rescue Plan, and one-in-four lower-income Republicans believe the package’s spending is too little. Given this information, the decision by Fox News and other conservative media to focus on cultural controversies makes a lot of sense.
It's also worth noting that the focus on Dr. Seuss worked. A Morning Consult poll shows just how much the Seuss story resonated with Republican voters. The Right was able to distract their voters from the American Rescue Plan and focus their attention on a less internally divisive “issue.”
This finding is a testament to the power of the issue and massive indictment of America’s information ecosystem. Dr. Seuss’s books weren’t banned. It’s a completely fake issue driven by blow-dried blowhards on cable and MAGA grifters on Facebook. Yet, it received as much attention as the passage of a historic piece of legislation that will put checks in people’s bank accounts and shots in their arms.
There is a sense among many Democrats that these cultural issues are just red meat to jack up Republican turnout. “Cancel culture” BS serves that purpose, but the political impact is much broader. CNN polling guru, Harry Enten, has a fascinating analysis that shows that the power of the “cancel culture” issue is broader than the Republican base. Harry cites evidence from the American National Elections Studies' pre-election survey, which includes a question about political correctness.
Respondents were asked whether they thought people needed to change the way they talked to fit with the times or whether this movement had gone too far, and people were too easily offended. People being too easily offended won by a 53% to 46% margin over people needing to change the way they spoke.
Keep in mind, the voters in this sample claimed they had either voted or would vote for Biden over Donald Trump by a 53% to 42% margin. This poll gives you an idea of how much more popular the opposition of “cancel culture” and political correctness is than the baseline Republican presidential performance.
The Republicans are not yet maximizing the opportunity before them. Their tone is hysterical. Their choice of topics is nonsensical. Their chief messengers have the charisma of algae. However, their best chance of success in 2022 and beyond is to use their substantial media advantage to shift the focus from a likely booming, post-pandemic economy to racially divisive battles of political correctness.
To Ignore or Not Ignore
John Anzalone is Joe Biden’s pollster, a role he also played during both of Barack Obama’s campaigns. He is one of the best strategists in the party, with a long history of electing Democrats in tough states. When the Dr. Seuss issue erupted a few weeks ago, Anzalone talked to Politico about President Biden’s plan to ignore the “cancel culture” attacks from the Republicans:
I don't think there is any danger in ignoring a debate on Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss … The Republicans are in danger of ignoring getting COVID vaccine distribution money to states, funding to schools to reopen, and checks in the pockets of struggling Americans.
I (unsurprisingly) agree with Anzalone. Beyond fixing the economy and vaccinating as many Americans as possible, the best thing Joe Biden can do to help Democrats who are up for election is to keep his approval rating as high as possible. Not participating in debates over children’s books and toys is the right move.
However, Biden can avoid these fights in ways that are impossible for other Democrats. Firstly, the subtext of every Republican “cancel culture” attack is race, gender, and coastal elitism. Because Joe Biden is an older, white man, he can ignore these issues in ways that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others cannot.
The candidates up for election in 2022 do not have the luxury of simply turning the other cheek. Armchair political strategists will take to Twitter to counsel candidates on ignoring the cultural wedge issues and focusing on kitchen-table issues. Others will push for Democrats to have a “Sister Souljah moment” with “cancel culture.” This advice is absurd and evidence of why these strategists are sitting in armchairs in the first place. This is not advice that works in the real world. When a reporter, voter, or debate moderator asks about something like the Dr. Seuss controversy, a candidate cannot pretend the question wasn’t asked or default into rote talking points that make them sound as robotically dense as Marco Rubio. Anyone running in 2022 will need to find a way to navigate the cultural attacks that will dominate Fox News, Facebook, and Republican ads.
Playing vs. Calling out the Game
The cultural wedge issues that dominate cable and social media present a “pick your poison” situation for candidates. Address them and get sucked down into a rabbit hole of stupidity. Ignore them and allow the Republicans to define the political playing field. However, there is another way. Barack Obama used to always tell us that in situations like these, “you don’t play the game, you call out the game.” In other words, tell the voters exactly what the Republicans are trying to do, who benefits (their corporate and special interest donors), and who suffers (the voter).
Here’s one version of a sample message that calls out the game:
Republicans are spending all of their time talking Dr. Seuss and Potato Head toys, because they want to divide and distract from their unpopular, special interest message. While Democrats have been putting money in people’s pockets and shots in their arms, Republicans have been fighting to prevent Americans from getting a pay raise and pushing to cut taxes for multi-millionaires.
The key is to take the issue the Republicans want to raise and pivot back to the core economic issues. Republicans are raising these cultural topics to unite their party and divide ours. Therefore, we must aggressively move the conversation back to the economic issues that unite our party and divide theirs.
As time goes on, the Republicans may stumble onto a better formulation for their “cancel culture” message or find a less ridiculous example to hang their (cat in a) hat. Either way, the underlying issue isn’t going anywhere, and Democrats need to be ready.