Politics

How Democrats Can Win the Fight Over Cancel Culture

Joe Biden points while speaking from behind a podium in the Rose Garden of the White House.
President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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Over the past few weeks, how much have you been thinking about Dr. Seuss? Your answer to that question will reveal a lot about where you land politically and what kind of media you consume. Because back in March, Dr. Seuss made headlines—at least, on one channel: Fox News.

In case you weren’t follow this story, here’s what happened: The estate of Dr. Seuss said it would no longer be selling six of the 40-plus children’s books authored by Seuss. We’re not talking about Cat in the Hat or Red Fish, Blue Fish, but more obscure titles, like the first book published under Seuss’ name. The estate offered very simple reasoning here, saying, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” If you flip them open, illustrations of Asian characters in particular look like crude racial stereotypes.

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On Fox News, what happened here could be summed up in one word: canceled. If you read Slate, you probably have a different take on all this. You probably agree with Dan Pfeiffer, from over at Pod Save America. “This is not the banning of books. This is not cancel culture, however you define it,” he said. “This is the decision of the people who own the intellectual property to not continue to publish it. That is the sort of free-market capitalism that Republicans would generally celebrate.”

But Pfeiffer, who served in the Obama White House, sat up and paid attention when this so-called canceling started taking root with Republican politicians. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a dramatic reading of Green Eggs and Ham. Sen. Ted Cruz offered to sign Dr. Seuss’ books and send them to constituents if they donated $60 to his campaign war chest. “Republicans do not make these decisions out of thin air. There is a reason behind it,” Pfeiffer said.

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You may be rolling your eyes about all this back-and-forth over “cancel culture,” but a lot of the time, these rallying cries actually work for Republicans. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Pfeiffer about the Republicans’ strategy and why Democrats can’t afford to ignore it much longer. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: If I had to ask you to define wokeness or cancel culture, could you do it?

Dan Pfeiffer: No. Cancel culture is a little bit like fake news. It’s a term that means everything and nothing. It’s just shouted out there as a signal. If you say that the Suess family choosing to not publish some books is cancel culture, then you have no idea what that means.

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Perry Bacon Jr. at FiveThirtyEight talked about how this is a feature, not a bug, because it allows so many things to just get swept into this big umbrella. You’re talking about everything and nothing at the same time, but you’re very angry about it.

The key features is you must yell about it. You can’t talk about it, and you must scream at the top of your lungs, because what you’re trying to do is create this existential fear among your voters that America is changing and is changing in ways that are not good for you. And cancel culture is, as broadly defined by the Republicans, part of that.

A writer in New York magazine made this point that cancel culture allows Republicans and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than as culture warriors themselves.

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I think that’s exactly right. Victimization has been at the core of conservatism for a very long time. Despite the fact that they have every advantage in terms of political power in this nation, from the Electoral College to the Senate, they’re always the victims, right? Donald Trump, billionaire president of the United States, was a victim every day he woke up. And this is all part of it. It allows you to say that these “others”—which is a combination of nefarious forces, of Black people, brown people, young people, Hollywood elites, college professors—are coming for you and your “traditionally American culture.” You’re going to be a victim of this change that the Republicans are going to try to stop.

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And it gets Republican voters to focus on what unites them, not what divides them. Plenty of people who vote Republican are in favor of stimulus checks or a $15 minimum wage—issues Republican politicians have been ignoring. But Republican voters and politicians agree on the cultural stuff: a desire to slow down the rate of societal change, a yearning for an imagined American ideal. Focusing on “cancel culture” also exploits a Democratic weak point, right?

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Democrats are always going to be more divided than Republicans because the very nature of the districts and the states that we have to win to win political power requires us to appeal to a set of voters who are much more conservative than the median Democratic voter. And so we need Joe Manchin and we need AOC. We need everything in between. So there’s always going to be more debate between us. This is where much of the intellectual capital of the Democratic Party needs to be spent: finding ways to tell our economic message that are as compelling and interesting and evocative as the Republicans have been able to do with their cultural issues.

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But why isn’t that happening? It’s cooled down a little bit, but I look at that month of December where you had Conor Lamb, who is a Democrat representing a fairly conservative district in Pennsylvania, calling out how he had to talk about “defund the police.” And then you have AOC coming out and saying this is a racialized critique. And when I saw that, I was like, “You guys need to get your house in order.” If you’re going to be fighting with each other, you’re never going to get going here. And that seems like a real weakness to me of Democratic Party strategy right now. Why isn’t this getting addressed?

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We can always do more to have unity. And these party debates are good to have out in the sunlight for people to see. But there are also times when maybe they can better be resolved with a conversation between two people that was not mediated by Politico. But it’s also true that the division is maybe 10 percent of the problem, but it gets 100 percent of the attention. And when you look at how the party has reacted over the first couple of months of the Biden administration, we’ve been remarkably unified on a whole bunch of things, which is really impressive, considering the historically narrow margins we are dealing with in the House and in the Senate. That’s all going to be tested as time goes on. It always gets harder, not easier, the further you get from Inauguration Day. But the challenge we always have is the incentives for focusing on division are greater than the incentives for focusing on unity. And this is how we sometimes end up in these situations.

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This idea of cancel culture, it’s not just a left-wing thing. There are also right-wing efforts to “cancel” left-wing ideas. You see this happening all over the country with local legislatures talking about the 1619 Project. It’s valuable to look at this in this way because it makes it really clear to me that this is a battle over whose perspectives we value and why, and it’s not just left-wing folks flying off the handle. This is a really subtle conversation about our culture and who we’re talking to and who America’s for.

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That’s exactly right. And this is why it’s so important to recognize that the Republican argument here is very much in bad faith. They are not making defenses of the First Amendment or anything else. It is trying to protect themselves from being able to say what they want to say, even if it carries great offense, and protect themselves from alternative viewpoints. The Republican focus on the 1619 Project is the perfect example. This has become a huge part of Republican politics over the past year. This is a focus on a series of Pulitzer Prize–winning articles in the New York Times, yet now we have laws being passed about that. We have people trying to put it in the Republican platform. Republicans, for political reasons, and right-wing media figures, for political reasons and economic reasons, go trolling for examples, real and fake but most often fake, to try to make themselves the victims of something that is happening even when that something else is not real and something they are also doing on their side.

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Do you see any Democrats out there right now who are responding to this cancel culture/wokeness divide conversation in the right way?

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I think Joe Biden is doing it the exact right way, which is for Joe Biden, the best thing you can do is not get pulled into these debates—to ignore them and focus on the things that are very popular. But this proposition is really going to be tested as the 2022 campaign gets going.

Why?

When you are not in an active campaign, it’s very easy to just focus on the things you’re doing in Congress and the popular things that you have just passed—selling the American Rescue Plan and trying to pass the American Jobs Plan. But once you are running against a person who is attacking you on these points, you’re going to have to find a way to respond.

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I am in no way arguing that we should ignore cultural issues. Democrats should speak up against racism and misogyny. We should speak up against the array of incredibly bigoted bills that are being passed targeting the trans community. We should do all of those things. But we also need to move the conversation to places that unite us and divide them.

So what does that look like if I’m a local politician in rural Pennsylvania?

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The key thing here—and my advice is based on how Barack Obama dealt with some of these issues—is you can’t ignore the issue and you can’t buy the premise of the argument. What you have to do is explain why the opponent is bringing this up. So that would be saying something like “Opponent X is talking about Dr. Seuss, and Potato Heads, and insert your right-wing outrage du jour, because they want to divide and distract you from their opposition to a $15 minimum wage and the fact that they are going to give additional tax cuts to corporations to be paid for by cuts in Medicare.” Explain why they’re doing it, because I think voters will understand that. They have a much more sophisticated understanding of politics than we give them credit for. So if you actually can speak to the motivation behind the attack and what it’s trying to conceal, you will have your success in taking the issue, addressing it, and then pivoting to a much more safe ground on the issues that animate your voters and divide their voters.

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But sometimes that’s easier said than done. Even Obama himself had a tough time navigating this terrain. And the Democratic response to the culture war can get a lot worse than that. When many political advisers think about how to push back on issues of identity politics, they talk about having a “Sister Souljah” moment, which recalls this incident from back when Bill Clinton was first running for president. He wanted people to know he wouldn’t be in the pocket of Black activist groups. And he made this infamous speech. What happened there?

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In the 1992 presidential elections, Bill Clinton was running for office and speaking at a Rainbow Push conference, which is the organization started by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. One of the speakers at that conference was an activist and a rapper named Sister Souljah who had performed with Public Enemy and some other groups and had made a series of comments about white people and police officers that had gotten a ton of attention, certainly probably an undue amount of attention, which speaks to some pretty disturbing dynamics in American media.

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She’d been talking about the Rodney King riots. I think she said Black people kill Black people all the time, so why not have a week where we kill white people? And oof, it’s not an easy thing to hear, although the full context was a little bit different than that.

Yes, in that conference, Bill Clinton went out of his way to criticize Sister Souljah. The comments were very aggressive. It was seen at the time and aggressively pitched by the Clinton campaign as Bill Clinton showing that he would stand up to Black activists. Essentially, that he was different than previous Democratic presidential candidates.

At the time was it good politics?

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It was seen as great politics at the time and has become this thing people say all the time: “When are you going to have your Sister Souljah moment?” And what it came to mean is that you’re going to go someplace and separate yourself from a constituency in your party in order to appeal to middle-of-the-road swing voters.

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I think in hindsight, it is a pretty gross moment. There was no reason for a presidential candidate to make this thing an issue and do it in such a blatant and pretty cynical way. And I do not believe that moment has aged particularly well over time.

There was some talk about this during the post–George Floyd protests. “When is Joe Biden going to separate himself from some of the looting and rioting? And what’s his Sister Souljah moment?” I think it’s a very bad look at politics. And I have been trying to not reiterate that as this example of good politics, to try to treat it for what it really was, which is victimizing someone within your party. This is a little-known activist and rapper who was elevated by the media and then turned into this historical punchline by a presidential candidate. It doesn’t feel very good when we talk about it now.

Has your thinking on this culture stuff evolved?

It has. I think some of the core lessons for how you deal with these things are things that we learned from Barack Obama as you had a Black candidate with the middle name Hussein trying to win over conservative voters all across this country.

And so you had to think about this stuff a lot.

We had to think about it. And in some ways, it was thought at the time to be unique to Obama because he was in very uncharted territory. But I think it’s bigger than that. Joe Biden had to deal with many of the same challenges. And the fact that these issues had the same effect with voters with Biden on the ticket as they did with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton suggests that this is a much bigger thing that all Democrats have to deal with. It’s not something that is just specific to when there is a Black candidate on the ballot or there’s a woman running. This is the next generation of politics. And I have learned a lot of lessons and am obviously still learning them. We don’t have the answers to all of this, but the party has changed, and the Republican Party has changed, too. And we have to adjust our strategies for that.

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