How Democrats can win the culture wars
Tuesday's election, which was shockingly bad for Democrats even in an off-year, was a pandemic election. Sure, at first glance, it may not seem that way. CNN exit polling shows that "coronavirus" ranked third after "economy/jobs" and "education" as issues voters cared most about in the Virginia gubernatorial election. But that's likely because of partisanship — Republicans don't like admitting the virus is real, Democrats don't like admitting things aren't going great right now — than anything else. As others have persuasively argued, "economy" and "schools" are proxy issues for the pandemic.
That's why it's so frustrating that President Joe Biden dragged his heels for months on vaccine mandates. Way back in March, careful observers of the right wing media — including myself — were sounding the alarm about the Fox News/GOP plan to sabotage Biden's pandemic response by convincing their followers not to vaccinate. But rather than respond aggressively with vaccine mandates, the Biden administration told themselves that "persuasion" was the best way forward. It was obvious they were afraid of poking the culture war bear and didn't want to give Republicans an issue to tantrum over.
Once the Biden camp realized — as they had been warned, repeatedly, for months — that "persuading" people who hate them to vaccinate was never going to happen, it was too late. Biden announced the work requirements in September, and even then, he was too timid to impose the necessary vaccine mandates on travel. The actual deadline for the requirements wasn't announced until after the election, and it's ridiculously far out — January 4, after the coronavirus will get to feast on Trumpers spreading it over the holidays. The backlash wasn't avoided, as Fox News doesn't need actual mandates to exist to be yelling about mandates. The voters Democrats needed to win, however, were demoralized and beaten down by the pandemic and its impacts, Unsurprisingly, they weren't motivated to turn out at the polls in the numbers needed to defeat Republicans.
There's a lesson here, for those who want to learn it: Trying to tiptoe around the culture war dragon is never going to work. Dragons must be defeated in their caves, before they get out and start to fly. If Biden had just taken the fight to the right last spring, by announcing mandates and letting them cry it out back then, the issue would be over by now. More importantly, there's a strong chance that the pandemic would be largely defeated, giving Democrats a victory to champion in campaigns, rather than what they had, which was a whole lot of nothing.
I'm hardly the first person to point out that the Democratic belief that culture wars can be ignored until they go away is pure wishful thinking. Brian Beutler of Crooked Media has been beating this drum for awhile now, repeatedly declaring, "Don't hide from the culture wars, win them." As he argued in March, "the GOP has recognized something Democrats struggle to grasp: That politics is a multifront war where cultural propaganda and tribal loyalty matter at least as much as policy ideas." Democrats who try to ignore right wing culture war provocations in hopes of rising above end up embodying that famous cartoon of a dog in a burning building whispering "this is fine" to himself. Ed Kilgore of New York magazine also issued this warning to Democrats almost four months before the election: "Democrats do not have the power to keep 'ideological polarization' from happening on cultural issues," for the very simple reason that "Republicans are going to talk about them incessantly." He goes on to explain that when "Democrats fall silent, Republicans will be free to define Democrats as they wish."
We see how this played out clearly in Virginia. Republicans were telegraphing this "critical race theory" gambit way back in 2020, as the performative school board tantrums started last spring. As many people pointed out, actual critical race theory is not taught in schools. It's clearly code for an effort to censor books and bully educators from teaching historical truths about slavery and Jim Crow — or to teach "both sides" of the Holocaust. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe had all year to define Youngkin as a book-burner. But he didn't prep anti-censorship talking points and instead fumbled the issue with his "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach" gaffe.
It was only after that misstep that the campaign appeared to realize, oh yeah, book banners aren't popular and we should do more to reframe this fight over books as a matter of censorship, not "parent's rights." In late October, with only a couple of weeks to go ahead of the election, the McAuliffe campaign started handing out copies of Toni Morrison's "Beloved," which was a book that Youngkin's supporters were targeting for censorship. It was a smart move, but it was way too late. Youngkin had already defined the issue on "parent's rights" terms and not as a censorship issue. Republicans had already successfully attached it to a lot of unrelated parental frustrations with school closures and other such concerns.
The temptation to ignore culture war issues is understandable. Republicans float this nonsense in order to distract from their wildly unpopular policy ideas, especially on economic issues. So it makes a certain amount of logical sense to try to change the subject back to stuff that Democrats want to talk about, and dismiss GOP culture war nonsense as antics. In some cases, that's even the right call! "Let's go Brandon" is a dumb troll that will die swiftly if there's a collective agreement among liberals to not care about it. But, as a general rule, the smarter move is to anticipate this stuff — which isn't hard, since Fox News and right-wing talk radio is forever beta-testing culture war provocations — and get ahead of it.
The reason ignoring this stuff, even when it's obvious noise and theatrics, doesn't work is that it's often touching on real issues. "Critical race theory in public schools" is made-up nonsense and the people tantruming at school boards are embarrassing fools. Still, it worked both by stirring up the racism of the Trump base, as well as feeding the overall sense of discontent other voters feel about the state of education. The vaccine resistance movement feels irrational to liberals — who would reject a lifesaving vaccine? — but for conservatives, it's an opportunity to showcase how serious they are about rejecting the legitimacy of a Democratic president. As with the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, this behavior has to be understood not as "stupid," but as evidence that right wing anger and entitlement has been dialed up to the point where they'll put their own lives on the line to win.
These issues, like the state of democracy and white supremacy, are real issues, not "distractions," even if the GOP strategy in pushing their agenda is to act like a bunch of yokels. Indeed, Republicans put on the jackass act precisely because they know it will cause that "these people aren't serious" reaction among Democrats. It allows Republicans to tickle the public's worst impulses without getting swift blowback from Democrats.
Fighting back on the culture war isn't in opposition to standing up for good policy. Talented politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachussetts demonstrate how to link progressive ideas about race and gender to progressive policy items like better health care and affordable child care. Instead of ignoring culture war issues, Democrats need to reframe them on their terms. It won't always be easy — the policing discourse is a legitimate tangle of competing concerns — but on the whole, it's important to put up the fight. Because the only other alternative is laying down and letting right wing culture warriors walk all over Democrats.
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