There are two conversations happening about freedom in America right now and they reveal a whole lot about the two versions of a country that currently feel very uneasily lashed together. Democrats are arguing that the ongoing project of GOP vote suppression—the passage of deliberately racist voting bills in red states, the gerrymandering and voter purges, the laughable Arizona “recount,” and the dogged opposition to voting rights legislation in the House and Senate—is not merely an act of minority rule by a party that is witnessing its own obsolescence. It’s also a prospective, sanitized attempt to do what the Capitol attacks of January failed to achieve: create state and federal legislatures that will set aside the results of the next election and declare the GOP the ruling party no matter who votes for what.
Republicans, on the other hand, are worried about being “canceled,” whatever that phrase has come to mean. The I’m Canceled/You’re Canceled energy in the party is so strong now that it almost (sorry) cancels itself out. Joni Ernst calling out GOP House leadership for the plan to oust Liz Cheney this week because, “you know, cancel culture is cancel culture no matter how you look at it,” is nearly as fun as Josh Hawley’s claim that Cheney wasn’t being canceled because, “She’s still going to be a member. … It’ll give her, certainly, a media platform. I don’t think it’s being canceled in terms of she’s being silenced. It’s a decision for the House caucus who represents them.” (Is this the same Hawley who was being “canceled” when his book contract was taken away? Why yes, yes it is.) The fact that all of the current Republican grievance can be distilled into some version of wailing about “woke cancel something something” certainly says something about the difference between actual governance and performance of governance.
But beyond the dueling narratives—wherein Democrats are fighting for citizens’ right to vote in America, and Republicans are fighting for the right to speak without criticism—there’s a deeper clash. Nobody believes that free speech and the government regulation of free speech are anything less than essential in a democratic society. But the truly Orwellian turns of the current GOP leadership discourse about the nature of language and truth and history suggest that so much of the hysteria about wokeness and cancel culture is less about who’s being told to stop talking than whose truths it is fine to suppress. The mere fact that Republicans have been willing to frame their opposition to protecting fair and universal suffrage in free speech terms gives away the game.
Maybe the best example of the intersection of the dueling values lies in the opposition to the corporate boycotts of the Georgia voting restrictions that were passed last month. Companies expressing opposition to a bill that would impede voter turnout for minorities under the banner of “election security” were subject to swift reprisals from states objecting to their “wokeness.” Red state politicians hustled to fundraise off cries of victimhood. Time and time again, suffering economic consequences is cast in terms of silencing, and more often than not, those whining the loudest about their voicelessness have the biggest megaphones. Nor is it a coincidence that the blitz to oppose the omnibus voting rights law, H.R.1—the “For the People Act”—and its Senate companion bill, S.1, sounds in the key of speech suppression. One of the cornerstone ideas pushed out to oppose voting rights reform is that the disclosure requirements in the new bill would “have a chilling effect” in today’s “blacklist culture,” by creating meaningful donor disclosure requirements. (Even the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized these disclosure provisions). The notion that donors will suffer cancellation and blacklisting by woke haters is salient to a large swath of America because “woke cancel something something” is somehow the main working theory of what ails us currently being pushed by the Republican Party and Fox News.
Maybe the abiding lesson in the case of Voting v. Speech, the 2021 edition, isn’t that the speech claims are trivial but that those trying to protect the right to vote are doing so on behalf of all Americans, across party, ideology, and race, whereas those making claims about who is being “canceled” are really only ever concerned about powerful Republicans and, in fact, only about powerful Republicans who are not named “Liz Cheney.” In other words, before we tumble too deeply into the false choice of privileging speech over voting, or succumb to the temptation to frame absolutely everything as a choice between being woke and being canceled, let’s recall that the party whining about being “canceled” (again, whatever that means) is also attempting to cancel the results of the 2020 election and therefore the actual votes of millions of people who voted in that election; to cancel political speech about the 2020 election results; to cancel the votes of millions of people who will vote in upcoming elections, by way of new vote suppression legislation; and to cancel speech and protest by ordinary citizens around the country by way of a raft of new anti-protest legislation. And all of this is being done by pushing provably false claims about a stolen election and illegal voting.
Put more bluntly, those Republicans laying claim to free speech rights are explicitly only interested in free speech for some, and in quashing speech for most. The Democrats laying claim to voting rights are explicitly asking for voting rights for all. (Unless you believe Ted Cruz’s laughably false claim that “the obvious and intended effect of this bill was to register millions of illegal immigrants.”) Actions taken to protect against cancel culture (whatever that is) are symbolic and self-serving. Actions taken to fight voter suppression are fundamentally democratic. Not every provision of the current voting reform bills is perfect, but to cast voting itself as anti-democratic is not just the stuff of Trump’s Big Lie, and of Jan. 6 itself, but the stuff of authoritarianism. Not every debate about wokeness and cancel culture is as fatuous and craven as those we’ve been hearing this past year. But if you’re hearing them deployed to either make it harder to vote, or to distract from efforts to make it harder to vote, you can be pretty certain that the thing most likely to be canceled next is democracy, not speech.