Midterms are coming. In case that phrase doesn't already inspire enough dread, it looks like this particular round will be defined by an escalation of the already gross "woke wars" going on in the Democratic ranks.
A chorus of increasingly loud voices in the Democratic Party aren't focused on the threat of gerrymandering, voter suppression, or that whole thing where Republicans plan to simply void elections when they don't like the results. Dealing with that problem is hard and requires serious actions like ending the Senate filibuster. So instead, the ire is being turned on a soft and easy target to blame: the small number of people in the Democratic caucus who use politically correct terms like "Latinx" and "pregnant people."
In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein writes about centrist critics who argue that "Democrats have steered off track on cultural issues because the party is unduly influenced by the preferences of well-educated white liberals." (Its an argument that ignores that Black Lives Matter, the movement that most angers the cultural right, is spearheaded not by white liberals, but Black activists.) In a similar piece in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall notes the evidence that "working-class defections from the Democratic Party are driven more by cultural, racial and gender issues than by economics," and that many political strategists believe "Democrats should stand down on some of the more divisive cultural issues."
A particularly humorous example of the genre arrived this week from writer Zaid Jilani's newsletter, in which he chastised the AFL-CIO for sending out a tweet celebrating International Pronouns Day. "Most Americans are probably wondering what in the world International Pronoun Day has to do with wages, benefits, or conditions," he griped.
The tweet in question, as of this writing, has 32 retweets on it and 35 likes. And that really underscores the major flaw of this argument: It presumes that right-wing anger at the left is an authentic and unmediated direct reaction to anything real-life Democrats are saying and doing in the world. And the evidence for that presumption is weak indeed.
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None of this is to deny that the majority of white Americans, especially non-college-educated white Americans, are in a constant fit of outrage over "wokeness." I, too, have Facebook and two working eyeballs and can see that is true. But they're mostly not reacting to anything the Democrats are actually doing. No, mostly what gets white America going is bullshit, and lots and lots of it, being heaped out at an astounding rate from a well-funded GOP propaganda machine whose reach dramatically eclipses even the fondest dreams of any Democratic communications specialist. And that bullshit-generating engine doesn't need progressives to say a single, solitary word to keep their bullshit generation systems going. All progressives could shut up forever, and the right-wing noise machine wouldn't skip a beat.
Look, for instance, at what the two biggest news stories the shameless hucksters at Fox News are hyping right now: The Jussie Smollett guilty verdict and the arson of the Fox News Christmas tree. I would absolutely bet my life savings that both stories have a lot more Americans talking than the AFL-CIO's opinion on pronouns. And both are being hung by the propagandists around the necks of Democrats, even though Democrats have literally nothing to do with either crime.
Fox News is running with a bunch of "gotcha" attacks on prominent Democrats, such as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who initially supported Smollett in the days after he claimed, falsely, to be the victim of a hate crime. The bad faith of this is extreme, of course. Those folks are more properly understood as Smollett's victims because he took advantage of their generosity in order to perpetuate this hoax. But it doesn't matter to the liars of Fox News, because this one random man's bad actions are useful for perpetuating a hoax of their own: The claim that racism isn't real, and that it's just something Democrats make up to score political points.
The umbrage over Smollett's fake hate crime is particularly hypocritical, as Fox News is currently in the process of also falsifying a hate crime against themselves. The Christmas tree burning did happen, to be clear. But it is not a "hate crime," as multiple pundits at the network falsely claimed. (Which is a designation they refused to acknowledge for the Charleston church shooting.) And it certainly isn't comparable to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as one Fox News yapper dramatically declared. It appears it was committed by a mentally ill homeless man who blamed the arson on "mothers who rape their daughters." But that didn't slow down the faux outrage or efforts to pin the blame on Democrats.
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No doubt the right-wing propaganda machine went out of their way to make progressive Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota national figures, but it's naive to think that it's really due to anything either of those women say or do. It's because both are good-looking young women of color, and because Omar wears a head covering. Just the look of them sets off all sorts of ugly instincts in some white men, instincts that are tied up with, let's face it, a gross mix of racism and sexual desire that produces some really nasty emotional reactions. That stuff is way more powerful than words can ever be, and the GOP propaganda machine shamelessly exploits that.
The bleeding of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party has been going on for a long time — indeed, the decline started before Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were literally born — and unsurprisingly, the loss of those voters correlates strongly with the rise of right-wing media empires.
Which isn't to say that the audiences for the AM talkers and Fox News, much less the people who breathlessly share every bit of fake news generated by Russian bots they find on Facebook, are merely empty ciphers for this crap. There are very real changes going on in the United States. People of color are an ever-larger share of the population. Kids really are moving away from small towns and suburbs for college and never coming home. There's nothing that Democrats can or should do about that.
But the real problem here is a huge, well-funded machine on hand to tell aging white voters in rural and suburban areas that their resentment of these changes is justified, they are the real victims here, and they are right to be hiding in their homes, too afraid of the larger world to bother to get to know it.
Democrats can try to run away from the culture war all they like, but it won't work. It won't stop the two changes driving all of this white resentment. More importantly, it certainly won't stop the relentless churn of lies generated by Republican propagandists feeding people's worst instincts. Unfortunately, the only real way to deal with this culture war is to win it. Only by making a forceful case for progressive values and taking right-wing nonsense head-on is there any hope of defanging it.
We saw this most recently in Virginia, where a GOP hoax about "critical race theory" took over the gubernatorial race, helping GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin defeat McAuliffe. "Critical race theory," at least how Republicans use it, is just a nonsense scare term. But with only a little digging, it was easy to discover that the right-wing agenda underneath all the hype — removing all negative portrayals of slavery and Jim Crow from public schools — is utterly indefensible. Sure enough, once liberals in the state finally started to push back against the book burning posse, the right lost the argument and the left won. But by then, it was too late to save McAuliffe's campaign.
Looking further back, we saw the same thing with the debate over same-sex marriage. Republicans leveraged lies about "threats to traditional marriage" for years as a wedge issue against Democrats. But when Democrats stopped running from the issue and instead decided to fight back — and win — they defanged it completely. Now most Americans support same-sex marriage and Republicans basically gave up talking about it.
Bashing progressives and telling them to shut up is always a temptation, not because it works, but because it feels easy. It's certainly easier to tell progressives to shut up than, say, pass the Build Back Better plan so Democrats have something to run on, other than a bipartisan roads-and-bridges bill that Republicans can also take credit for. And it's a whole lot easier to tell progressives to shut up than it is to build up the kind of media empire that could compete effectively with right-wing propaganda.
But just because it's easy doesn't mean it's effective. Time spent on pursuing easy-but-useless strategies instead of rolling up sleeves and starting in on the harder-but-more-effective solutions is just time wasted.
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