The GOP's anti-woke cul-de-sac

While Republicans whine about "cancel culture," Democrats are sending Americans checks

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

As $1,400 stimulus checks from the sprawling American Rescue Plan start splashing bank accounts this week, prominent Republicans are doubling down on their misguided anti-wokeness message, crying "cancellation!" at the slightest criticism, and steering their party into a potentially disastrous cul-de-sac at the very moment the public is hungry for concrete action rather than theatrics. If they don't correct course by coming up with some kind of policy agenda to complement their shadow ministry of cultural grievance, Republicans may find themselves headed for a history-bucking repudiation in next year's midterm elections.

It's difficult to overstate the extent to which Republicans are wrong-footed on policy matters right now. The party's congressional caucus produced zero votes for a wildly popular relief bill that could define President Biden's first two years in office. Republicans' time-tested gambit of running up obscene deficits under GOP presidents only to immediately change into their austerity costumes when a Democrat assumes office does not appear to be working. Their most prominent attacks on the bill — for example, having Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton point out that the Boston Marathon Bomber will get a stimulus check (oh no!) — felt particularly hollow.

During the crafting of the American Rescue Plan, Republican moderates struck an absurd negotiating posture, offering a stimulus bill just one-third the size of the one Democrats wanted, a suggestion designed to be rejected. This meant that Democrats (who hold Congress and the presidency) were able to write a bill that not only should turbocharge the economy, but also makes good on popular policy promises like large checks for almost every American, direct cash payments to parents, and limits on out-of-pocket costs for health insurance premiums. Forwarding large sums of scratch directly to human beings during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis has turned out to be quite successful, economically and politically, and Republicans probably know that, had they crafted this very bill in October, they might still be in power.

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Like any enormous blunderbuss that staggers out of Congress strapped down with the priorities of 100 different politicians, Biden's recovery plan is not without its flaws. And if Democrats think they can just rest on their laurels and ride the bill to victory next year, they are tragically mistaken. But congressional Republicans seem, frankly, completely lost. After a decade of empty and ultimately unsuccessful bluster about replacing ObamaCare, and having realized their long-sought goals of reducing corporate taxes and staffing the federal judiciary with originalist zealots, they appear to be out of ideas, and content to let attention-starved goons like Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Sen. Ted Cruz serve as the public face of the party. The two of them, along with hordes of their colleagues, believe in the publicity-stunt-as-governance form of politics, and they are fixated on "cancellation" like it is an asteroid hurtling toward the planet rather than an obscure, defensive idea used by people whose views and behavior are out of sync with emerging cultural norms and who can't bear being criticized or challenged.

It's not just that leading Republicans are flogging tired culture-war tropes while their colleagues across the aisle just delivered an enormous economic stimulus bill. It's that, by and large, they are on the wrong side of public opinion about the social issues they're harping on about. One recent poll found that 52 percent of Americans had never even heard of "cancel culture," a painfully overused term that has come to mean everything and nothing at the same time. Imagine making a thing fewer than half of the American people are aware of the central plank of your party's plot to retake power in Washington. It would be like Democrats planning their next election campaign around some little-known academic concept like the "subaltern."

It may pain party strategists to admit, but the GOP is losing these social issue wars the same way that conservatives have ended up forfeiting pretty much every battle they have waged for the past 50 years. On issues affecting trans and non-binary Americans, for example, public opinion has moved in the direction of acceptance and equality. One 2019 poll found that 62 percent of Americans were more supportive of trans rights than they were five years ago. That is not a great hill for Republicans to die on.

This leaves right-wing culture warriors clinging to pretty flimsy lifeboats: Minor Dr. Seuss books going out of print, the misadventures of random school boards, the mortal threat of a New York Times Magazine project called the 1619 Project (now nearing its second birthday), the never-ending quest to find a professor or student organization on one of America's 4,000 or so college campuses doing something outrageous, elite journalists grumpily decamping to Substack to write the same column about cancel culture over and over again, and so on. The whole thing is an enormous and silly gamble that out-of-work suburban restaurant servers are going to care more about getting "cancelled" than about paying rent. Sure, some will, particularly the ones with enough self-loathing to glue themselves to Fox News every night. But many won't.

Of course, the midterm elections are a long time from now, and voters' memories are famously short. While the American Rescue Plan may produce low unemployment and a humming economy, that is no guarantee of victory for the president's party. Perhaps the economists who worry about too much stimulus leading to inflation will be proven right, which would be electorally disastrous for Democrats. But a lot of what the Democrats plan to do, from shoring up voting rights to raising the minimum wage, is pretty popular, so it's not clear where they will run so badly afoul of public opinion as to fundamentally change the political dynamic. The flip side of all of this is that the institutional GOP is committed to a lot of toxic policy positions and therefore it's not surprising Republicans think their path to victory runs through an Alamo-like defense of outdated children's literature.

The problem for Republicans isn't that they can't come back from their destructive posture on this one early piece of legislation. It's that former President Donald Trump left the whole party with a perpetual outrage motion machine in place of a policy agenda. The 2020 Republican National Convention didn't even bother producing a platform, announcing instead that "the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president's America-first agenda." During the campaign, Trump was incapable of communicating that agenda to the public, preferring instead to downplay the coronavirus pandemic and warn about the dangers of socialism. And Republicans coughed up the presidency and the Senate in short order.

Ultimately, GOP leaders have, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss himself, brains in their heads and feet in their shoes, and they can steer themselves in whatever direction they choose. If one of the places they want to go is back into power, they should probably offer the American people something other than incessant griping and self-pity, and embrace the changing world as it is.

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