How Republicans Weaponized Cancel Culture

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S1: Over the last 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 became headline news, at least on one channel, FOX.

S2: Let’s talk about Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss, the Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss. Dr..

S1: In case you weren’t following this story, here’s how it went down, the estate of Dr. Seuss said it would no longer be selling six of the 40 plus children’s books authored by Susan. We’re not talking about Cat in the Hat or Redfish Bluefish, but more obscure titles like the very first book published under Susan’s name. The estate offered very simple reasoning here, saying these books portray people in ways that are hurtful or wrong. If you flip open the books, illustrations of Asian characters in particular look like crude racial stereotypes anyway on Fox News. What happened here could be summed up with one word

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S2: canceled because some of his books contained racist imagery. Its like Dr. Seuss magic. One doesn’t exist. Put the brakes on. People are too scared. They they don’t want to be involved in all of this. So they’d rather just cancel it all. And listen,

S3: gotta stand for something.

S1: Well, if you listen to this show, you probably have a different take on all this. You probably agree with Dan Pfeiffer from over Pod Save America.

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S3: This is not the banning of books. This is not cancel culture however you define it. It 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.

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S1: But Dan set up and paid attention when this so-called cancelling started taking root with Republican politicians. Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a dramatic reading of green eggs and ham. Senator Ted Cruz offered to sign Dr. Seuss his books and send them to constituents as long as they donated 60 bucks to his campaign war chest.

S3: The Republicans do not make these decisions, and I wrap Fox News into that as the primary messaging vehicle of the Republican Party. These things are not just sort of drawn out of thin air or just like what feels good in the moment. There is a reason behind it.

S1: So it’s distraction, but distraction with a purpose.

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S3: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

S1: Today on the show, if you’re rolling your eyes at the Republican back and forth over cancel culture, Dan wants you to know these kinds of rallying cries work and Democrats, they can’t afford to ignore them much longer. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before we talk about how Democrats should respond to these attacks on console culture or the weakness divide, there are a couple of things that Dan thinks are important to know. First off, attacking console culture is basically an evolution of a strategy that’s been in the Republican playbook for a long time. It’s another way of saying you refuse to be politically correct. Second of all, console culture is an ideal boogeyman because it means different things to different people. If I had to ask you to define weakness or console culture, like, could you do it?

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S3: No cancer cultures a little bit like fake news. It’s a term that means everything and nothing is just sort of shouted out there as a signal to certain elements of voters. It if you say that the souce family choosing to not publish some books is cancer culture, then you have no idea what that means.

S1: Hmm. I mean, Perry Bacon Jr. at 538 basically talked about how this is a feature, not a bug, because it allows so many things to just get swept into this big umbrella. And yeah, you’re just talking about everything and nothing at the same time. But you’re very angry about it.

S3: Yes. You’re yelling it’s the key feature. You must yell about it. You can’t talk about it. 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 cancer culture is, you know, as broadly defined by the Republicans is part of that.

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S1: A writer in New York magazine made this point that I thought was really good, that Kinsel culture, it allows Republicans and their supporters to pose as innocent victims of persecution rather than culture warriors themselves who are trying to change something. They’re the ones who are having change inflicted on them and now they have to defend themselves.

S3: I think that’s exactly right. Victimization has been at the core of conservatism for a very long time. And there’s always some, despite the fact that they have have every advantage in terms of political power in this day from the left, from this country, from the Electoral College to the Senate. They’re always the victims, right? It is the victim of change, you know, is Donald Trump. Billionaire United States was a victim. Every day he woke up and this is this is all part of it allows you to say that others, quote unquote, others, which is a combination of nefarious forces, of black people, brown people, young people, Hollywood elites, college professors are coming for you and you’re, you know, traditionally American culture that you’re going to be a victim of this change. The Republicans are going to try to stop. This would make America great again. Means right is it’s freedom to say what you want, do what you want and be in power, not have to worry about other people.

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S1: Another reason cancel culture is such an effective rallying cry is that 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 fifteen dollar 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. And there’s something else focusing on council culture exploits a Democratic weak point.

S3: Democrats are always going to be more divided than Republicans because the very nature of the sort of districts that we have to win, the states 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 AFC. We need everything in between. So there’s always going to be more debate between us. This is, I think, where much of the intellectual capital the Democratic Party needs to be is to find 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 over many years.

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S1: But why isn’t that happening? Like not the messaging so much? Because they feel like the economic messaging folks are on the same page. But I do see the characters pointing at each other and pushing back on each other, and it’s cool down a little bit since the election. People are, you know, back at work and doing their jobs. But like 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, you know, I 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 all that, I was like, you guys need to get your house in order. You know what I mean? If we’re going to be fighting, if you’re going to be fighting with each other, you’re never going to get going here. And that seems like a real weak. Next to me, a Democratic Party strategy right now or of the Democratic Party in general, and you’re an insider, so why isn’t this getting addressed?

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S3: Well, I think I think that there is yes, we can always do more to have unity. And these party debates are you know, I think they’re good to have out in the sunlight for people to see. But there are also times when maybe they can not necessarily in this situation where they can better be resolved with a conversation between two people that it was not mediated by Politico. But it’s also, I think, true that the division is gets one, maybe 10 percent of the problem. It gets one percent of the attention. And when you look at how the party has reacted over the first, it feels like 10 years. But the first couple of months of the Bush administration, we’ve been remarkably unified on a whole bunch of things. And it was just really impressive, considering the historically narrow margins in which we are dealing with in the House and in zero margin for error 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 I think the challenge we always have is the incentives for focusing on division are greater than the incentives for working on unity. The the press coverage is always when the man bites the dog, not when the dog bites the man. And this is how we sometimes end up in these situations.

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S1: I think there’s one more thing that’s that’s worth saying, which is that this idea of Kinsel culture, it’s not just a left wing thing. There are also right wing efforts to cancel the left wing ideas like you see this happening all over the country with local legislatures talking about like the 16 19 project, like what we’re going to teach our kids about race and the origins of this country. And so I just think it’s it’s valuable to look at this in this way because it makes it really clear to me that this is a battle over. On both sides, whose perspectives we value and why, and it’s not just left wing folks flying off the handle, it’s you know, this is a really subtle conversation about our culture and who we’re talking to and who America is for.

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S3: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And this is why it’s so important, I think has to be stipulated every single time 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. And yet the Republican focus on the 16 19 project is the perfect example. This has become a huge part of Republican politics over the last year. And if you when you step back, this is a focus on a series of articles, Pulitzer Prize winning, I believe, in The New York Times. But yet now we have laws being passed about it. We have people trying to put in the Republican platform. And it is, I guess, the way everything about this is Republicans for political reasons, right wing media figures, for both political reasons and economic reasons, go trolling for examples, real and fake, but most often fake to try to, as you say, to make themselves victims of something that is happening even when that something is not real is something they are also doing on their side

S1: after the break. Can the Democrats may cancel culture? A losing strategy? Do you see any Democrats out there right now who are responding to this council culture wackiness divide conversation in the right way?

S3: I think that’s hard to say. I think Joe Biden is doing the exact right way, which is for Joe Biden, the best thing he can do is not get pulled into these debates to ignore them and do focus on the things that are very popular. This proposition is really going to be tested as the twenty, twenty two campaign gets going. Why? Well, because, like, right now, 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 and 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, who is who is driving the conversation in your local media at your town halls to these topics, you’re going to have to find a way to respond.

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S1: And we’re going to 2022 midterm. So people are going to have to respond pretty soon.

S3: Yeah, this is coming very shortly. And I am in no way arguing that we should ignore cultural issues. Democrats should speak up against racism, misogyny. We should speak up against the array of incredibly bigoted bills that are being passed targeting the trans community with a particular focus on fats. We do all of those things, but we also need to move the conversation to places that unite us and divide them.

S1: So what does that look like if I’m a local politician in rural Pennsylvania?

S3: It is. I think this is the key thing here, and this is my advice here is based on how Barack Obama deal with some of these issues. It’s based on this document called the race class narrative, which gives messaging advice to Democrats who are facing, you know, very racist attacks against Republicans from Republicans. But the idea is you can’t ignore the issue you have to fix and you can’t buy the premise of the argument. Be like, yes, cancer culture is bad, but X, Y and Z, which you have to do, is explain why the opponent is bringing this up. So that would say something like, you know, Opponent X is talking about Dr. Seuss and potato heads and, you know, insert your right wing outrage to because they want to divide and distract you from their opposition to a fifteen dollars minimum wage. The fact that they if they are elected, they are going to give additional tax cuts to corporations to pay paid for by cuts in Medicare is to explain why they’re doing it. Because I think voters will get will understand that they have a much more sophisticated understanding of politics than when 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 have success in taking the issue, addressing it, and then pivoting to much more safe ground on the issues that animate your voters and divide their voters.

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S1: But this recommendation is easier said than done. Even President Obama himself has had a tough time navigating this terrain. A couple of years back, he made headlines when he seemed to poke fun at online social justice activists.

S4: Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the word wrong verb, or then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because you see how awoke I was. I called you up. You know, that’s not that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.

S1: And Dan says Democratic responses to the culture war can get a lot worse than that, because many political advisers, when they think about how to push back on issues of identity politics, they talk about having a sister soldier 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 then he made this infamous speech.

S3: I mean, I was in high school, but I can’t remember it in the in the historical rendering of it. But in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton was running for office and speaking at a the Rainbow Push conference, which is the organization started by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. One of the speakers at that conference was an activist and a rapper named Sister Souljah who 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 then and now.

S1: I think she’d been talking about the Rodney King riots.

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S3: It was in the context of Rodney King riot. And I don’t remember the exact quotes off the top of

S1: my head, I think she said. She said black people kill black people all the time, so why not have a week where we kill white people and who. It’s not an easy thing to hear. The full context was a little bit different than that. Yes.

S3: In that conference, Bill Clinton went out of his way to criticize Sister Souljah. When people say that if you

S2: took the words white and black and you reversed them, you might think David Duke

S3: was giving that speech. 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

S1: time, was is seen as good politics.

S3: It was seen as great politics at the time and has become this thing where people say all the time, when are you going to have your Sister Souljah moment? And when 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.

S1: But Sister Souljah herself, she saw Clinton’s comments for exactly what they were, a political tactic here. She is responding to that speech back in 1992.

S5: I do think that Governor Clinton was trying to get white support. I think that he was trying to portray himself as a more conservative character. I think it’s unfortunate that he cannot get white support by telling white people what he’s going to do for them.

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S3: 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 I think pretty cynical way. And I do not believe that moment is particularly well over time. But it is something that people has become this dynamic of sort of political punditry is when are you going to have your Sister Souljah moment? There was some talk about this when in the post George Floyd protest when, as you know, when is Joe Biden going to separate himself from, you know, some of the looting and rioting that was his Sister Souljah moment going to be? I think it’s a very bad way to look at politics. And I have been trying to I wrote about this in one of my books is to try to. Not reiterate that as this example of good politics and try to treat it for what it really was, which is, I think, victimizing someone within your party, even if just think about this way, this is an activist and rapper who was elevated by the media and then turned into this sort of historical sort of punch line by a presidential candidate. I think it’s pretty. It doesn’t feel it doesn’t feel very good when we talk about it now. But I think the conversation around a Sister Souljah moment has lost. That element of it just becomes this like brilliant political tactic without ever analyzing the cynicism of what underlies what actually happened there.

S1: Has your thinking on this culture stuff evolved like you’ve been in politics a long time? And I just wonder, it was interesting to me talking about the sister soldier stuff, because it just sounds like the party’s definitely evolved, but also potentially you yourself and you’re thinking about what the right response is here.

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S3: It has, you know, 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 very conservative voters and the, you know, all across this country.

S1: And so so he had to think about this stuff a lot.

S3: We had to think about it. And in some ways, I think it was thought at the time to be unique to Obama. How how does Obama do this? Because, you know, he was in very uncharted territory, running for president in 08 and then in that White House. But I think it’s bigger than that. And it’s very you know, the fact that Joe Biden had to deal with many of the same challenges and 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. There’s a woman running it. This this is the next generation of politics, I think. And I’ve learned a lot of lessons from this. I’m obviously still learning them. There are we don’t have the answers to all of this, but there is you know, the party has changed and but the Republican Party has changed, too. And we have to adjust our strategies for that.

S1: Dan Pfeiffer, thank you so much for joining me now.

S3: Thank you.

S1: Dan Pfeiffer is a co-host of Pot Save America and a former Obama White House staffer, and that is the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Daniel Yuet and Davis Land were led by Alicia McMurry and Alison Benedict and Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I will talk to you tomorrow.