culture war

The Right Would Rather Debate Kids’ Books Than Biden’s Bills

First they came for Dr. Seuss’s most racist books and I said nothing, because Dr. Seuss wrote plenty of books that are not racist. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Democratic Party is on the cusp of passing a nearly $2 trillion economic package that will expand Obamacare, increase the generosity of food stamps, and establish an unconditional entitlement to cash welfare for all U.S. parents.

And Republicans are talking about Dr. Seuss.

On Tuesday, the estate of the beloved children’s book author announced that it would cease all publication and licensing of six Dr. Seuss books that contain racist caricatures of African and Asian people. The titles in question are among the least popular of Theodor Geisel’s works. At least, they were among his least popular before conservatives learned that liberals considered them racist: In the days since Dr. Seuss Enterprises “canceled” And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, the price of a hardcover copy has shot up faster than a GameStop share in January, as Republicans across the country threw whimsically racist children’s books onto their piles of My Pillows and Goya Beans. 

To be sure, the American right isn’t wholly consumed with frivolous culture-war spats about Dr. Seuss’s lesser works; it’s also made time to defend the masculinity of Mr. Potato Head. Last month, Hasbro announced plans to drop the “Mr.” from the toy’s branding so as to (somehow) advance gender equality. Although Hasbro’s plans did not involve discontinuing the sale of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head dolls, Republicans nevertheless condemned the woke mob for denying cisgender boys their God-given right to decapitate a heteronormative potato-human hybrid. “The whole concept of the Mr. Potato Head was you could move the parts around,” Republican Matt Gaetz said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. “Mr. Potato Head was America’s first transgender doll and even he got canceled.” (Of course, as Gaetz’s remark indicates, the right is less concerned with safeguarding the availability of male potato heads than it is with wrapping expressions of contempt for transgender people in a thin scrim of laments for a free and open discourse.)

These controversies have not been peripheral concerns for red America in recent days. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, Dr. Seuss was the top story on Fox News Tuesday, even as the director of the FBI testified about the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Fox gave Mr. Potato Head an order of magnitude more coverage than the COVID relief bill this week.

Graphic: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer/The Washington Post

This bizarre set of priorities is not confined to right-wing media. On the House floored this week, Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy warned Americans, “First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss and now they want to tell us what to say.” (The subject officially being debated was a voting-rights bill.)

There’s nothing new about the American right mistaking banalities for evil (before the totalitarian threat was Dr. Seuss Estates, it was the libs who stole Christmas). But in the Biden era, conservative outrage seems detached from the realm of actual politics to an unprecedented degree.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans drummed up all manner of hallucinatory scandals. But the bulk of these had some relationship (however strained) to matters of public policy. The tea party rebellion was rooted in outrage over the perceived generosity of Democratic support for underwater homeowners.Death panels” were a demagogic lie about Obama’s plans for health-care policy. Even the unhinged xenophobia about Obama’s ancestry and citizenship often wrapped itself in a policy critique; Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America argued that the president was a Third Worldist who was trying to disempower the United States by condemning it to fiscal ruin through high deficit spending.

Republican members of Congress have certainly demagogued aspects of the Biden relief bill. But as Fox News’ coverage indicates, the Democratic administration’s actual legislative priorities animate the conservative faithful far less than the branding choices of toy companies.

The causes of the right’s growing disinterest in public policy aren’t hard to discern. The conservative movement’s wonks have lost all the major economic arguments in the U.S. over the past decade. The fiscal crisis that deficit and inflation hawks spent years prophesying never materialized. Donald Trump and Jerome Powell turned loose fiscal and monetary policy into objects of bipartisan consensus. The CARES Act alerted the American public to their government’s capacity to make their lives easier through direct cash support. And it also left Republicans less equipped to proclaim a principled opposition to large deficit-financed pandemic relief packages as such. Although, hypocrisy is surely constraining the GOP’s attacks on the Biden plan less than its sheer popularity: In Morning Consult’s latest poll, 71 percent of Americans support the stimulus package, even when it is explicitly described as a Democratic initiative.

But there is another reason why conservatives are devoting less bandwidth to the tyranny of Democratic government than to that of “woke” capital: It’s hard to get conservative voters that worked up about an old white guy trying to send them checks. As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel noted in his dispatch from CPAC 2021:

Displays of anti-Biden sentiment were fairly rare, as the new president had not attained the boogeyman status of former president Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who galvanized the right.

“I can’t give the Biden stuff away,” said David Solomon, a “MAGA” merchandise seller whose post-election shirt designs included Biden with a Hitler-style mustache and the message “Not My Dictator.”

Many GOP voters experienced President Obama’s very existence as a threat to their (conscious or unconscious) conceptions of American identity and social order. The image of Biden in the White House has a far less visceral impact on the psyche of this subset of red America.

However one explains the triumph of policy nihilism within the Republican tent, it has significant implications for the future of our politics. The GOP infamously declined to even draft a 2020 platform, while the party’s nominee campaigned almost entirely on negative promises: If reelected, Trump would not abolish the police, establish socialism, or order new COVID lockdowns. What the Republican Party would do with federal power was much less clear, all the more so given the failure of the last unified GOP government to advance any major legislation beyond tax cuts.

There is some intellectual ferment in conservative policy circles; Mitt Romney’s recent child allowance is one promising example. But few of the think-tank set’s heterodox ideas have gained traction in a Republican caucus more interested in demonstrating its contempt for public health and fealty to Donald Trump than in articulating a conservative vision for shared prosperity.

For now, Biden has comported himself a conscientious objector in most of the right’s culture wars, with the White House declining to take a vocal position on Mr. Potato Head’s gender identity or whether a children’s book company should be allowed to stop publishing titles it regards as offensive. As a result, the political universes occupied by highly engaged Democratic and Republican partisans are less overlapping than ever before. Twelve years ago, team blue saw Obamacare as a plan to expand health-insurance coverage, while team red saw it as a plot to euthanize the elderly; but all could agree that it was the defining political issue of the day. Now, Democrats defend Biden’s fiscal policies, while Republicans decry the president’s (nonexistent) decision to “outlaw Dr. Seuss.” Oh, the places we may go!

The Right Would Rather Debate Kids’ Books Than Biden’s Bills