When former White House press secretary and longtime political operative Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her much-expected bid for the Arkansas governorship her father held for 11 years, what do you suppose she talked about doing in her fine corner of the heartland? Maybe improving the schools? Promoting economic development? Modernizing state agencies? Building some roads? These are all kinds of messaging Republicans have traditionally found acceptable in state government, as opposed to Democratic agenda items like expanding health-care coverage and fighting poverty and protecting the environment and so forth.
Here’s her “elevator pitch” to Arkansans:
With the radical left now in control of Washington, your governor is your last line of defense. As governor, I will defend your right to be free of socialism and tyranny. Your Second Amendment right to keep your family safe and your freedom of speech and religious liberty. Our state needs a leader with the courage to do what’s right, not what’s politically correct or convenient.
She also modestly claimed that in the White House she “took on he radical left, the media, and their cancel culture … and won!” As governor, she promised to “be your voice, and never let them silence you!”
This is Arkansas we are talking about, where it’s hard to imagine socialism is in the works, or lying liberal media dominating news and views, or woke cancel-culture commissars stalking the earth searching for good decent Christians to “silence.” But without question, Sanders is a savvy pol. So the strange gospel she is preaching could well be the coming thing in Republican politics everywhere.
And indeed, it’s hard to miss the incessant chattering of late in GOP circles about “cancel culture,” the apparent evil spawn of yesterday’s “political correctness.” Some observers think it’s a fad, or perhaps a temporary distraction for a political party that just lost a national election and then a congressional battle over public-health and economic policy, and has no particular policy legacy beyond culture-laden topics like border control after four years of narcissistic rule by Donald Trump. But there’s another possibility raised by FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. in a perceptive essay:
[There is no] exact definition of what constitutes being “canceled” or a victim of “cancel culture.” However, despite their vagueness, you now see conservative activists and Republican politicians constantly using these terms. That’s because that vagueness is a feature, not a bug. Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.
Bacon believes anti-wokeness is mostly a repackaged and usefully non-specific version of the GOP’s longstanding efforts to co-opt and promote backlash politics: white backlash to Black political advancement, and conservative backlash to cultural changes sweeping away the patriarchal society many remember and others fantasize to bring back in the guise of “American greatness.” It has the great advantage, he believes, of avoiding the crudeness of Trump’s appeals to racism and nativism, while exploiting Democratic divisions over speech-code excesses and other “woke” practices that aren’t compatible with traditional liberalism.
All that’s true, but I would add another factor that makes “anti-wokeness” political catnip for today’s Republicans: It allows them and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as aggressive culture warriors seeking to defend their privileges and reverse social change. It expands their marginalized opponents into phantasmagoric monsters with the power to terrorize the people that God (the God of the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, when life was purer and simpler) put in charge of earthly affairs. And it politicizes every perceived offense to traditional culture and religion in an unconscious parody of the very over-sensitivity it attributes to the “woke.”
There is great power in the ability to convince conservative Evangelicals that having to co-exist with LGBTQ folk and with assorted unbelievers is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution and interferes with their ability to practice their faith; that very perspective gets them halfway to the polling places on Election Day, and ready to perceive conspiratorial fraud whenever their champions lose. It is, as Bacon indicates, a natural follow-on to the politics of the 45th president, whether or not he’s still in the middle of the fray himself.
We’ve come a long way since the not-so-distant time when conservatism was understood as a three-legged stool resting on the views of economic free-marketeers, national security-focused anti-communists, and cultural traditionalists. Republicans by and large still favor economic policies favorable to corporations and hostile to their workers and a gigantic national security state bristling with weaponry. But it’s clear now the cultural leg of the stool is the most durable for the simple reason that culture-war appeals are deeper than the wallet and more viscerally immediate than overseas enemies and distant threats.
Worst of all, an anti-woke identity for Republicans projects extremism onto the opposition in a way that abets their own extremism, as Bacon notes:
[T]his anti-woke posture gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to incite violence and encourage overturning the election results. If Republicans suppress Democratic votes or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government.
No wonder many notable old-school conservatives are so furious with what’s happened to the conservative party. It looks like the GOP’s devil’s bargain with Donald Trump wasn’t just a one-off bid to maintain power via a populist message aimed at the descendants of yesterday’s “Reagan Democrats.” It hasn’t just disguised or displaced their old principles; it may have damaged them beyond recognition. If “cancel culture” is really what conservatives in places like Arkansas care about most, America may have entered the dangerous landscape of civil war in which both sides view the world in fundamentally incompatible ways, and politics swallows everything.