Is the GOP’s focus on ‘cancel culture’ a winning strategy?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Not long ago, most Americans had likely never heard of so-called cancel culture. But recently, the phrase has become a focal point for Republican lawmakers and right-wing media in a way that has brought it to the center of the U.S. political conversation.

The definition of “cancel culture” is relatively fluid based on who’s using the term. When discussed by conservatives, it typically refers to the idea that any person or business that strays from a strict set of social rules might have their life ruined by an overzealous mob seeking to “cancel” them.

The dangers of cancel culture, if it even exists at all, have been debated endlessly by cultural critics over the past couple of years. What’s new is its emergence as a central peg of Republican political messaging in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency.

The theme of last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where former President Donald Trump made his first speech since leaving office, was “America Uncanceled.” In his remarks, Trump railed against Democrats’ “toxic cancel culture.” In the past few weeks, many GOP lawmakers and conservative media figures have spent significant time discussing Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and the Muppets — all of which, in their eyes, have been canceled. Rep. Jim Jordan — the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee — has called for congressional hearings on cancel culture, which he called “the number one issue for the country to address today.”

Why there’s debate

Whether you ascribe its emergence to sincere concerns about restrictions of speech or a cynical political strategy, the debate over cancel culture has undoubtedly become a major area of emphasis for conservatives.

In the eyes of some pundits, the GOP’s emphasis on cancel culture is a winning political strategy. They argue that cultural issues — like critiques of “political correctness” in the ’90s — have been a potent way of uniting the GOP base for decades. The tactic could be especially effective today, some say, because it gives Republicans space to push back on the left without centering the debate around Democrats’ legislative agenda — which includes a number of proposals that are popular with most voters.

Others say the GOP is making a major tactical error by spending so much time discussing things like children’s books while the country is in the midst of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis. They argue that, as much as cancel culture debates might inflame the GOP base, Republicans’ focus on cultural grievances makes them appear out of touch when it comes to the more tangible issues that motivate moderate and independent voters. Some make the case that Biden’s long history of moderation and his relatively nonconfrontational approach make it hard to paint him as a fanatical culture warrior.


Smart strategy

Cancel culture debates can help unify a fractured Republican Party

“It activates ... all of those fight-or-flight responses that we have when we hear ‘fear appeals.’ And it makes us attend to those messages. And, you know, people who run these media networks, they know that. They know that it’s something that makes their audience pay attention, and it unifies them because it makes it ‘us versus them.’” — Political rhetoric researcher Jennifer Mercieca to Texas Standard

Cancel culture is real and voters are angry about it

“One of the most significant reasons conservative populism began to rise in 2009 was that these people lacked a connection or commonality with our cultural curators, and they weren’t wrong. The people who run things in this country have little in common with the very people who use their products or watch their shows or attend their football or basketball games.” — Salena Zito, Washington Examiner

Cultural grievance has been a powerful political tool for the GOP for decades

“In a nutshell, you can’t have a white grievance party if your constituents aren’t grieving. Policy that keeps the rank and file in pain keeps them angry, and perversely that can help you at the ballot box by directing their anger at ‘made-up enemies’ who — so the story goes — are powered by Democrats who are out to ruin (cancel) American culture.” — Teri Kanefield, NBC News

Cultural debates appeal to a broader set of voters than many GOP policies

“They do it for a simple reason: It’s one of their best political plays. While Democrats may mock them, the fear of cancel culture and political correctness isn’t something that just animates the GOP’s base. It’s the rare issue that does so without alienating voters in the middle.” — Harry Enten, CNN

Whatever the reasons, cultural debates are motivating to voters

“Would I love to get back to talking about policy? Sure, but there is to some extent a need to recognize that that might not be what your voters want. The way that social media is structured, you get a payout for high emotion, for clickability. And your 40-point tax plan is not emotional or clickable.” — Conservative author Mary Katharine Ham to NPR

Focusing on cancel culture allows the GOP to avoid discussing unpopular policy stances

“This might seem silly — and it is. But Republicans and their media enablers use this sort of culture war grievance to avoid talking about real issues, including those they advocate for that are unpopular.” — Aaron Rupar, Vox

Losing Tactic

Cancel culture is a problem, but the GOP shouldn’t focus on it exclusively

“‘Cancel culture’ and ‘wokeism’ are worthy of concern. But conservatives should remember that simply being outraged by them and venting about them accomplish very little. The Right should direct its energy away from outrage about Dr. Seuss and towards crafting a positive, forward-looking policy agenda.” — Michael R. Strain, National Review

The share of voters motivated by cultural issues is shrinking rapidly

“The only good news is that this is a war of attrition. Republicans have been fighting against a tide of demographic changes throughout this battle; their voter pool is shrinking. ... If Democrats actually use the power gained through their dominance in the popular vote to change structures like the filibuster and the Electoral College, it’s all over for the GOP in its current incarnation.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

Cancel culture attacks fall flat when aimed at Biden

“It has been a fruitful formula for the GOP for decades. But what’s so striking about this moment is how ineffectual it has become. Why? Because Joe Biden is kryptonite to the culture war.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

Swing voters want real solutions to real problems, not fights about Dr. Seuss

“As easy as it is to rile up the base with culture-war red meat, over the long term, the lack of a core set of cogent policy ideas, as well as the disintegration of any traditional policymaking infrastructure, has hurt Republicans’ effort to appeal to a majority of the American public.” — Katelyn Burns, New Republic

Democrats can simply ignore cancel culture fights and pass their policy agenda

“What if while Republicans are busy trying to bait Democrats on culture war issues, those Democrats end up winning public opinion in a big way by refusing to play along, changing the subject, and actually making the lives of most Americans concretely better? If so, the culture-war play by the right could end up backfiring big time.” — Damon Linker, The Week

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