Monday, March 15, 2021

Can Republicans Win Back Congress Next Year by Running Against "Cancel Culture"? Sure They Can

There's a popular view of the last few weeks of American politics that goes something like this: Under Joe Biden's leadership, the Democratic Party is not only easing the current national crisis by handing out $1400 checks and distributing COVID vaccines to American citizens, but has also already enacted some of the most ambitious liberal policy change since the Great Society, making Biden a potentially transformational president after just two months in office. And what are Republicans doing while all this historical achievement is going on? Ranting and raving about "cancel culture."

This account isn't necessarily wrong as a simple description of recent events, though it's really too soon to evaluate the long-term importance of a American Rescue Plan Act that has been law for less than a week. As I recently remarked to Jeff Stein of the Washington Post, the lack of a sustained conservative attack on the bill eased the political pressure on moderate Democratic members of Congress who might otherwise have worried about its $1.9 trillion cost: "the case against Democrats [right now] is being made on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, not the debt." Leading conservative media voices and prominent Republican politicians alike have rallied to the defense of these pop-culture figures and other symbols of traditional Americana supposedly in danger of permanent suppression by the censorious left; Rep. Jim Jordan argued last month that "cancel culture . . . is the number one issue for the country to address today."

But the cancel-culture preoccupation isn't necessarily a mistake for Republicans—at least if their main objective is electoral success, not substantive influence. Polls have consistently shown that Biden's COVID response efforts gain wider popular approval than any other major policy or presidential quality. Meanwhile, as Harry Enten of CNN recently pointed out, the assertion that political correctness has "gone too far" receives broader agreement from the American public than the Republican Party's positions on many other political issues. Rather than trying to convince voters that legislation containing immediate four-figure cash payments for everyone in their family is actually a bad idea, it's strategically easier to simply move the partisan battle to more favorable terrain.

Democrats are hoping that the Republican politicians who opposed the Rescue Plan will be punished at the polls next year. But history suggests that voting in favor of an unpopular bill is more likely to inspire a backlash than voting against a popular bill—especially one that passed anyway. Members of congressional majorities often hope to be rewarded by the public for enacting the policies they like, but anger tends to be a much stronger political motivator than gratitude. And the margins of control in the House and Senate are so narrow that even a mostly content electorate that was not particularly outraged by the supposed extermination of certain favorite childhood possessions could still easily hand power back to the GOP in 2022.

The Republican pivot to "cancel culture" outrage may not matter much for the party's immediate electoral fortunes, and might even be a better strategic option for a midterm message than the alternatives. But it's much more noteworthy as a marker of what GOP sees itself as standing for these days. Since Obama's second term, Republicans have increasingly retreated from offering specific alternatives to Democratic domestic policies, and have invested much more energy in emphasizing symbolic cultural differences between the left and the right. Whether or not this shift influences the outcome of any particular election, it has very significant implications for the manner in which both parties govern when it is their turn to lead the country.