We Will Never Avoid "Culture Wars". Ever.
So, stop trying to ignore them.
[For those who want to listen to this on-the-go, the audio version should be up on Apple’s podcast website soon. You can also listen here.]
Let’s start here.
You opened this for the same reason most others did: putting aside your own feelings on “culture wars”, you’re just plain confused and even worried after Virginia, and a lot of smart people are making arguments that contradict each other and you don’t know who to believe.
Whatever you are—Democrat, Independent, liberal, progressive, leftist, moderate, anti-Trump conservative—you opened this because you correctly judged we are at a crossroads in the Democratic Party and even if you don’t like Democrats, you sure as hell aren’t going to support Trump’s Republican Party.
So, you’re hoping that the very open debate over “culture wars”, and whether or not Democrats should run away or engage on them, will somehow smartly resolve itself in the collective before Midterms escalate after the holidays.
Hell, maybe you hate all discussion of so-called “culture wars” anyway, and you’re wondering why in the hell those of us who talk about them so often won’t just wake up and realize Democrats only need a broad economic strategy like the good ole Clinton White House days of yore.
And maybe—just maybe—you’re the rare person reading this who can’t stand Republicans for all the obvious reasons of corruption and treason but low-key, deep down, you really don’t understand what you derisively refer to in private (or public) as “wokeness”.
You don’t get this whole transgender thing, you disagree that anti-racism should be taught in schools, and you’re just plain sick of “political correctness” run amok, at least in your mind.
Here’s my attempt at good faith before I continue, with, admittedly, a fair amount of my own suspension of disbelief:
Regardless of where you personally fall on so-called “wokeness”, I’m going to assume that your main critique is electoral: you truly believe that Democrats will fail if they continue to engage with the GOP on “culture wars”.
You’re not a bad person, and you’re not a bigot. You just think Democrats are completely disconnected with the electorate.
You are “all for equality” but equality is a luxury concept in a moment when American democracy is at stake and we’re at risk of losing everything.
Did I hit every note?
Okay, with that, let’s imagine a scenario in which the leadership of the Democratic Party wakes up tomorrow and says: Damn, the “anti-woke” crowd is right. We have to stop lecturing America on identity and get back exclusively to kitchen table issues.
So, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi miraculously convince everyone that Democrats need to stop talking about anti-racism education and trans kids in sports and only campaign on broad economic policies.
You’re so relieved!
Finally, you think, Democrats got their heads out of their asses and remembered that winning elections is what’s most important, not defending Drag Queen Story Hour and The 1619 Project.
You watch in delight as Democratic candidates nationwide focus primarily on the economy and education and remove their pronouns from their Twitter bio.
For a moment, all seems right. The Democratic Party has sliced out that tumor in the public discourse and gotten back to what really matters, you think.
Within 48 hours, probably fewer, the conservative media machine takes note of the miracle that has occurred, convenes behind closed doors for a quick strategy session, and then introduces a new “culture war” (or reheated in a microwave, rather) that is almost innovative in its bad faith.
It could be anything. I’ll just pick something out of the air that’s completely absurd on its face but has just enough oxygen to resonate because of its broad understanding and the way it harkens back to “family values”.
They decide—and again, this is just one of many, many potential examples—that it’s a toxic sign of “wokeness” for women to keep their maiden name, legally and publicly, after getting married.
You see it first on social media while scrolling because some garden variety rightwing propaganda site has written it up, and you don’t really pay any attention. Because who cares? It’s ridiculous.
Then, Ben Shapiro does whatever the hell his corporate benefactors pay him to do and makes a viral video on it. That trends on Twitter and Facebook.
Josh Hawley then makes it part of his whole bizarre “masculinity is under attack” nonsense.
Fox News picks it up and starts running a loop of segments asking why Democrats hate men so much. They call it “The War on Men” — no, in fact, they say it’s a “War on Boys”.
Democrats hate boys, you see. Nancy Pelosi believes masculinity is inherently evil and will ban women from taking their husband’s last name because feminism is about hating boys.
Ted Cruz tweets something like: “The Woke Democrats want to pass legislation that would force all women to revert back to their birth name, but you have to respect the made-up names of transgenders!”
Before you know it, this is everywhere. The narrative is that the GOP are the only ones standing between the right of a woman to choose her own name and the male-bashing Democrats who hate your boys.
Democrats, true to their word, try to avoid this. They keep the focus on a broad economic vision and say nothing in response to this bullshit.
But it leaves a vacuum, which many conservatives are all too happy to exploit.
Speaker Pelosi is asked about this on a Sunday news show, and she demurs, refusing to take the bait and trying to pivot back to the Democrats’ new message of broad economic policies that help all Americans.
That clip goes viral as conservative media asks: Why is Nancy Pelosi afraid to admit that she wants to make maiden names the law of the land?
You realize this shit isn’t going away because at Thanksgiving, your racist uncle, who normally harps on BLM or immigration, makes it clear to all present that if the Democrats try to change his wife’s name, there will be hell to pay because this is why the Second Amendment exists.
Despite a compelling economic vision, Congressional Democrats drop five points in generic ballot polling in less than a month over this completely fabricated issue and begin panicking.
It’s now metastasized to CNN segments with focus groups of white suburban women who say things like “the Democrats can’t force me to change my name” and “what does this communicate to boys” and it isn’t revealed until much later that these focus groups are mostly composed of conservative white women with ties to conservative advocacy organizations. But the segment has already gone viral, and it doesn’t matter.
You’re stunned and at a loss of what to do next. Because on every level, this issue is completely nonsensical. You know there are prominent conservative women who keep their own last names and you know there are prominent progressive women who take their husband’s last name and you know there are same-sex married couples who do both.
And you point this out to your racist uncle and your next-door neighbor who brings it up randomly and your moderate coworker who otherwise has a steady head on their shoulders but for some strange damn reason, falls for this hook, line, and sinker.
Charlotte, you might be thinking, this is a ridiculous hypothetical. This would never happen. People aren’t this clownish.
Let me ask you something: 20 months ago, if someone had told you that a deadly virus would soon rip through the nation and the world and millions of otherwise reasonable people in the United States would honestly make the argument that the most vulnerable must be sacrificed for the good of the economy or that videos would go viral of anti-vaxxers parading themselves through Target in an “unmasked protest” or that a reporter with White House credentials would claim that there’s a “satanic tracker” in a life-saving vaccine or that Big Bird would be criticized as a “communist” for making children a little less afraid of that life-saving vaccination, would you have told them that’s a ridiculous hypothetical?
Of course you would have told them that. I would have told them that.
And we would have been wrong.
“Culture wars” are not static. A “culture war” is whatever the hell you want it to be, and the GOP has mastered the process of shifting the public discourse overnight to make anything a “culture war”.
This year, alone, there have been attempts by conservative media to fabricate outrage on everything from Dr. Seuss to Mr. Potato Head, and broader media responds not by contextualizing how this is ridiculous but having a “both sides” conversation on how these “culture wars” started.
Here’s the cold truth, folks, and you need to get used to this: we will never get away from “culture wars”. They have always been—and always will be—part of the political bloodstream.
The Republican Party has openly slandered Active Duty service members like Gen. Milley and now-retired Col. Vindman. They looked the other way when multiple news outlets confirmed reporting that Trump called American war dead “losers and suckers”.
And that’s our military, the most trusted institution and most respected profession in the country.
Nothing is sacred, and everything—I mean everything—is just one news cycle away from being weaponized into a “culture war” by the Republican Party.
The people whom you're afraid to engage on trans rights and systemic racism and misogyny, because you've been led to believe these are distracting "culture wars" that will hurt Democrats, have spent this week attacking Big Bird for making kids feel safe getting a COVID shot.
This is what they do. These people attacking trans children and wondering aloud if kids should learn about racism early (never mind that children of color experience racism very early) and on and on aren't trying to have a good faith concern addressed.
Controversy is the point.
It's on all Democratic leaders to wake up and stop being scared of their own shadow.
While the people decrying "wokeness" exercise direct censorship and propaganda and viciously attack marginalized communities, some Democrats seem hellbent on pandering to them.
And these Democrats do that under the incredibly misguided belief that treating trans people and BIPOC and other marginalized folks as a distraction from winning elections will somehow clear the way for broad policy discussions that Democrats can win. Talk about naïve.
I want to be clear about something here: I completely agree that the main message of the Democratic Party should be a vision of specific policies that help all Americans, especially in protecting the working class. Go broad and go big. I’m all for it.
I completely supported the infrastructure bill and praised its passage. I think it’s a significant achievement by Pres. Biden and Speaker Pelosi.
This isn’t about that. It’s about the inherent folly of believing that if Democrats just ignore all debates on LGBTQ rights and racial equality and abortion access, etc., that it’ll be more than enough to win elections solely on the strength of bold kitchen table policy pitches to voters.
Here’s another good faith gesture on my part: at the moment, I’m intentionally declining to bring up at length that all those issues I just mentioned are, in fact, kitchen table issues to marginalized communities.
For example, in most of the country, LGBTQ people can still be denied housing—like renting an apartment or buying a home—solely because they’re LGBTQ. I would say that’s a pretty big kitchen table issue.
And those “Clinton White House days of yore”? They weren’t great for everyone, particularly impoverished people of color and LGBTQ folks who were sacrificed on the altar of a broad economic strategy that, despite its success, white Americans almost immediately forgot because Al Gore just wasn’t exciting enough and George W. Bush seemed like he’d be fun to talk with over a beer.
But I’m going to set that aside for now because I realize that for many people reading this, in their heart of hearts, when they hear “kitchen table issues”, they take it to mean courting white suburban and working class voters in households, not what it would mean for ALL Americans to have safe and prosperous livelihoods.
Here’s the good news: we don’t have to choose.
It's not trans folks or Big Bird or whatever the hell else that's keeping Democrats from winning. Democrats are keeping Democrats from winning when they cower before bullying and forget why they're Democrats in the first place: to fight for people.
Terry McAuliffe didn’t lose in Virginia because of trans kids or CRT. He lost because he completely failed to have a central message other than “I’m not like Trump and my opponent is exactly like Trump”.
Youngkin talked about education (however much in bad faith) and McAuliffe talked about Trump.
And the folks of Virginia really wanted someone to talk about education, however imperfectly.
Even if McAuliffe had made his whole campaign about, say, raising the minimum wage in the state to $15/hr — if he had made just that issue his whole central message, it alone would have been enough to defeat Youngkin.
Don’t believe me?
While McAuliffe was getting roundly beaten because he had no compelling central message other than "I'm against Trump", Virginia State Delegate Danica Roem won her third consecutive election as a nationally known openly-trans woman in a historically GOP district.
Before her election in 2017, that district had gone for the GOP every cycle since 1992. Roem was 8 years-old the last time that seat had been held by a Democrat.
Mr. Auliffe, a white cis, straight male and former governor (which equals a vote-getting machine, we were told) was outperformed by Delegate Roem in numerous conservative precincts. Why? Because he didn't convince voters he cares about them, and she's obsessed with the struggles of her constituents.
Ms. Roem would constantly pivot back to everyday constituent concerns, so much so that her opponent—just like the two Republicans she beat before him—simply could not break through with messaging, even when he desperately engaged in transphobic attacks.
We don’t have to choose. The Democratic Party can have that broad economic message while also refusing to accept the hateful nonsense the GOP shamelessly pushes to divide us and exploit our good faith.
But what will never work is burying our heads in the sand and believing that if we just ignore these “culture wars”, they’ll go away.
That’s never gonna happen. They’ll just find something else, as they always do.
Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is Charlotte’s Web Thoughts, my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.
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Very convincing send it to Maureen Dowd. Referring to “Wokeness Derailed the Democrats” better yet you should get a guest opinion piece on NYT.
You are 💯 on this!