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The Democrats’ Cancel Culture Problem
Democrats must vocally confront the excesses of the online left and call people in — not out — or risk losing big in 2022 and beyond.
The New York Times ruffled more than a few feathers when it recently tried to have a serious conversation about cancel culture.
Especially on elite, left-wing Twitter, the backlash was swift and unforgiving. Tweet by Tweet, thread by thread, a sea of journalists, activists, and pundits picked apart the editorial. Their biggest point of contention? That cancel culture is not real. That it cannot be found. Period.
On a couple of its critics’ counts, the Times’ portrayal of the cancel culture debate is flawed (for example, the piece at one point seems to draw a false equivalence between speech problems on the left vs. those on the right). But the online left’s objection that cancel culture is nothing more than a figment of the conservative imaginaire — an apparition conjured up by the evil sorcerers at Fox News — is not only unfair but untrue.
As many have pointed out, with numerous examples, cancel culture is real. There are genuine instances of undue cancellation, such as the case of former Obama data wonk and prominent Democratic pollster David Shor.
In a 2020 piece in The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk captured Shor’s saga:
“Shor’s job was to think about how Democrats can win elections. When Omar Wasow, a professor at Princeton, published a paper in the country’s most prestigious political-science journal arguing that nonviolent civil-rights protests had, in the 1960s, been more politically effective than violent ones, Shor tweeted a simple summary of it to his followers.
Because the tweet coincided with the first mass protests over the killing of George Floyd, it generated some pushback. After a progressive activist accused Shor of ‘concern trolling for the purposes of increasing democratic turnout,’ a number of people on Twitter demanded that he lose his job. Less than a week after he tweeted the findings of Wasow, who is Black, Civis’s senior leadership, which is predominantly white, fired Shor.”
As Matt Yglesias and others have explained at length, the way Shor was treated was wrong, excessive, and counterproductive.
Such instances of undue cancellation by the far-left, even if they are relatively rare, scare people from speaking their minds for fear of an online pile-on (and, beyond that, tangible repercussions). In this sense, cancel culture can produce a palpable chilling effect on free speech. As we’ll explore below, it turns out that the overwhelming majority of Americans (across races and political ideologies) are worried about this chilling effect.
First, however, it’s important to note that challenges to speech on the right and the left are not equivalent. The speech problems on the right (which manifest this week, for example, in the passage of Florida’s hateful and backwards-looking “Don’t Say Gay” bill) are unquestionably morally problematic. On the other hand, the speech problems on the left (often grouped colloquially under the catch-all banner of “cancel culture”) are morally ambiguous and up for debate.
That difference in morality is small compared to the chasm in political impact. For Democrats, the issue of cancel culture is far more politically harmful than the issue of what Republicans are doing to censor marginalized viewpoints in legislatures across the country.
The political reality is that Democrats pay a bigger price than Republicans in the culture wars. If Democrats want to keep congress out of the hands of the post-Trump GOP, we must forcefully respond to the excesses of the online left and offer a better path forward.
More on the Democrats’ cancel culture problem (and possible solution) below, but first a few things our team was reading and thinking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Reed Karaim on whether or not the Democrats can recover enough support to stay in power, with important commentary from Third Way’s Rachel Reh:
“Twitter does not deliver electoral wins. President Biden, the most moderate candidate in the 2020 primary, is the one who earned the party's nomination and went on to defeat Trump. Moderates created and defended the congressional majorities, outperformed far-left candidates and represented the plurality of Biden voters. But it may not seem that way in a polarized media environment that rewards the loudest voices on both extremes with far more coverage than their actual numbers warrant.
Let's look at the facts: America is not a liberal country. We are a center-right country at best, and the Electoral College and the Senate tip the scales in Republicans' favor. If Democrats want to make progress, they've got to play the game. That means winning elections, compromising to get things done and meeting voters where they're at.”
2. Dan Balz in the Washington Post on Elaine Kamarck and William Galston’s argument that Democrats are engaged in a ‘new politics of evasion’ that could cost them in 2024:
“Democrats, they argue, must balance appeals to their base voters with a message that also appeals to enough working-class voters to win elections. In 2020, Biden was able to do that, but Galston and Kamarck argue that success ‘must not blind Democrats to the fact that these voters often have found Republicans’ cultural claims more persuasive than the Democrats’ economic arguments.’”
3. Simon Bazelon on how the most popular politicians are moderates, with an important note about moderates’ ability to cultivate distinct and independent brands:
“Overwhelmingly, the most popular governors tend to be moderates – and specifically, moderates who act as a counterbalance to their state’s more extreme legislatures. As for senators, look at the names at the top of the list. Manchin. Klobuchar. Jones. Tester. Collins. Warner. Again, they tend to be moderates by brand, who avoid taking radical stances on policy, and cultivate a reputation for independence by bucking their party at times.”
“Democratic donors are wasting this opportunity by pushing money at glamor races that will never be competitive.
It’s nice to dream about beating QAnon Space Laser Lady. It would be better to actually defeat Ken Calvert—a little-known Republican incumbent whose Southern California district Trump won with just 50 percent.
You save democracy with actual wins; not fantasies.”
Americans are worried about cancel culture’s chilling effect on speech
The online left often “debunks” the existence of cancel culture by arguing that true instances of cancellation are few and far between — and that, therefore, the issue is an exaggerated specter of our imagination.
Is it possible that the perceived threat of cancellation is exaggerated among most Americans? Perhaps, but that’s beside the point.
Genuine instances of cancellation might be relatively rare, but the far-left’s argument that such rarity renders concern for the issue illegitimate or overblown is a straw man. On college campuses, for example, there is a real chilling effect that results when people are afraid to speak up for fear of cancellation (if not now, someday in the future). Former ACLU president and current NYU Law School professor Nadine Strossen describes how she “constantly encounter[s] students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship.” There’s data to prove the chilling effect too: a 2021 survey conducted by Heterodox Academy found that 60% of college students are reluctant to discuss certain topics on campus.
But cancel culture manifests beyond colleges and universities, especially in Democratic circles (as in the case of David Shor). Voters recognize this, and they think it’s a problem.
The Times’ recent poll with Siena College found that the overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned about the chilling effect on speech: justified or unjustified, 84% think it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak their minds out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism. Contrary to what some on left-wing Twitter might argue, this is not solely an anxiety of the white and bigoted: 84% of Black respondents shared this concern, as did 86% of Latinos.
This puts the left-wing Twitterverse at odds with the overwhelming majority of Americans. Despite the online left’s insistence that cancel culture isn’t a real concern, it is clear that most voters are sensitive to the issue. As much as a small but vocal cohort of elite liberals argue otherwise, the Democratic Party would be making a grave mistake to follow their lead.
How should Democrats respond?
With this year’s midterms fast approaching, we as Democrats dismiss the issue of cancel culture at not only our own peril but the peril of our democracy.
Recent polling conducted by the DCCC confirms that Democrats are extremely vulnerable to GOP culture war attacks and are already entering the midterms at a disadvantage. The DCCC finds that Democratic candidates trail their Republican opponents by four points on a generic ballot of swing districts. If Democrats running in such districts ignore Republican attacks linking them to unpopular culture war stances (e.g. cancel culture) they fall a whopping 10 points further behind their opponents. Importantly, however, the polling demonstrates that Democrats can regain most of their lost ground if they forcefully rebuke such attacks.
It’s not only substantively wrong but a losing strategy to ignore a concern held by a significant segment of the electorate — and even more so to declare it illegitimate and unfounded. Remember how that went in Virginia last year?
Given the screamingly obvious challenges we face heading into November, Democrats must figure out how to relate to and even empathize with key constituencies of voters who we’re clearly struggling to connect with. The reality of our political moment is that we need to inspire some people who aren’t a part of our base to vote for and work with us if we’re going to defend our democracy from a radicalized GOP that is gearing up to overturn the next election.
To do this, those of us who call ourselves Democrats must forcefully confront cases of undue cancellation (like Shor’s), making it clear that we wholeheartedly reject the unproductive excesses of the online left. This doesn’t mean excusing bigotry, but it does mean welcoming and genuinely embracing diversity of perspective. It’s one thing to criticize outspoken bigots and lunatics, but it’s another to pounce harshly on everyone who disagrees with us.
In cases where people do cross the line into problematic territory? Perhaps we could heed the activist and scholar Loretta Ross’s advice: call those people in and educate them on their mistakes instead of calling them out. The best thing we can do to move our society forward is to allow people who make mistakes to learn from them and grow instead of instantly ostracizing them in the public square.
If the Democratic Party can be a big tent that makes it clear to people with different perspectives that they are welcome, we might just survive the coming storm. If not, we’ll pass control of Congress to Donald Trump’s authoritarian zombie GOP. Under Republican control, we’ll see less “cancel culture” and more actual censorship and suppression aimed at disenfranchising the most marginalized among us.
Too many Democrats want to be giving the lecture and calling out those who didn’t do their homework the right way. But we really need to be listening and calling people in if we’re going to save democracy.