Democrats Can’t Win the Culture War With Silence

A man holds a sign during a rally against “critical race theory” in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12. Photo: Andrew Caballero/AFP via Getty Images

Other than what to do about Joe Manchin and whether to ignore Donald Trump, the most heavily debated topic among Democrats at present is how to handle the cultural issues that are monopolizing Republican messaging in 2021.

One layer of this debate, put forward by my old friend Kevin Drum, is whether Democrats or Republicans are the “aggressors” in the culture wars. He thinks Democrats are, a conclusion that conservatives have gleefully seized upon in an effort to make themselves out as victims. I think some of the data points Drum uses to support this idea are suspect (the Bulwark’s Tim Miller has assembled a sound counterargument), but perhaps the more important issue is a secondary debate over the best strategy for Democrats if voters are actually receptive to Republican cultural attacks.

Democrats cannot (and clearly should not) just “move to the right” on racial-justice demands, crime policy, abortion, and the tangle of contrived controversies that are known as “wokeness.” That would split the party and alienate core constituencies whose enthusiasm is essential going forward. Avoiding the discussion of cultural issues entirely while staying “on message” with poll-tested economic appeals isn’t a viable alternative, either.

The most persuasive case for treating silence on cultural issues as golden is being made by data analyst David Shor, who believes Republican traction on such issues explains why Donald Trump and his party did better than expected last year. I won’t go through his math lesson on Trump’s performance among non-college-educated white and nonwhite voters, other than to say it leads to the conclusion he outlined earlier this year in an interview with my colleague Eric Levitz:

If we divide the electorate on self-described ideology, we lose — both because there are more conservatives than liberals and because conservatives are structurally overrepresented in the House, Senate, and Electoral College. So the way we get around that is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues. … Now, how we should campaign and what we should do once in office are different questions. Our immigration system is a humanitarian crisis, and we should do something about that. But the point of public communication should be to win votes. And the way that you do that is to not trigger ideological polarization.

With all due respect to Shor, Democrats do not have the power to keep “ideological polarization” from happening on cultural issues that he considers party weak points. Indeed, if they are Democratic weak points, Republicans are going to talk about them incessantly, and if Democrats fall silent, Republicans will be free to define Democrats as they wish. Silence is not golden, in other words; in politics, it’s often a big mistake.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask Hillary Clinton, who lost in 2016 in no small part because decades of conservative attacks on her personality and character that she never effectively addressed came to fruition that year in the ridiculous but crucial pseudo-scandal of “Hillary’s emails.” Ask John Kerry, whose campaign’s determination to stay on message in the face of the smears of his war record, launched by the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads in the late summer of 2004, let Republicans turn his biography upside down and arguably cost Democrats the presidency. Or ask Michael Dukakis, who relentlessly pursued a good-jobs-at-good-wages message in 1988, as George H.W. Bush’s campaign savaged him on his crime record as governor of Massachusetts. And as Crooked’s Brian Beutler reminds us, something similar happened in the 2014 midterm elections, when Democrats tried to ignore the conspiracy-theory-mongering and thinly veiled racism of Republican attacks on Obama by serving up tasty and poll-tested economic policy treats:

Dems entered the 2014 cycle with a head of steam from President Obama’s re-election; their advantage narrowed over the first half of 2013; exploded when Republicans shut down the government; reverted to the mean when the shutdown ended (exacerbated a bit by the failed launch of healthcare.gov); then basically nothing happened for a year until the month before the election when Republicans (led even then by Donald Trump) began a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that Obama would allow ISIS to bring Ebola into America across the southern border. They rode that lie to victory in the Senate, through the theft of the Scalia Supreme Court seat, and straight into the maw of Trump’s America. All the ups and downs of policy for two years, completely swamped by a late surge of culture-war nonsense.

And that was only a pale echo of what happened in 2010, when the tea-party movement — supposedly about fiscal discipline but actually a nasty attack pushing the notion that our nonwhite president was robbing white taxpayers to shower vast federal resources on undeserving nonwhite constituents — blew two years of major Democratic messaging on health care and the economy out of the water.

Beutler isn’t just right about the failure of change-the-subject Democratic politics in the past. He’s also right about the painful but necessary remedy for what Republicans are campaigning on right now:

I’d wager that the January 6 insurrection polls terribly basically everywhere and that discouraging young people from getting their COVID-19 shots is only popular in the fringiest of communities. 

For Republicans to suffer politically for embracing these things, though, Democrats have to make them. To treat these liabilities less as side shows than as the actual thematic center of the election. To stop hiding from the culture wars and actually win them.

It would take a little creative thinking, and a modest tolerance for getting down in the mud; but the goal should be to make Republicans pay a price for venturing down the road to cultishness and political violence directly, rather than through a parallel referendum on health care or the minimum wage.

Exactly how to do that is a separate conversation (Beutler suggests, for example, a campaign to honor the health-care providers going door-to-door to save lives with COVID-19 vaccinations who Republicans are attacking as brownshirts). But the key point is to contest Republican smears, instead of looking like you are afraid to discuss them because they are true. Bill Clinton was an effective media-era politician in part because he understood Democrats had to address their perceived weaknesses. You don’t have to agree with exactly how he responded on this or that issue see how his determination to counterattack drove Republicans crazy. “He’s stealing our issues!” they’d cry. And his success showed how ridiculous the very idea of “issue ownership” was.

A political party that doesn’t have something to say about every issue is one that is going to be repeatedly making unforced errors. Of course Democrats should talk regularly and compellingly about their popular economic policy proposals and the good they are already doing. But getting voters to focus on them may mean neutralizing the bogus cultural issues Republicans want to talk about. And you cannot do that with silence.

Democrats Can’t Win the Culture War With Silence