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Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy

This is the second in a two-part series on the ideas related to race, status and equality influencing the current political divides in America, you can find part 1 here.

“Woke” was originally a term used largely by Black people in activist circles, particularly after the rise of Black Lives Matter, to signify a consciousness around racial issues in America. The term is still sometimes used in that context. 

But in culture and politics today, the most prominent uses of “woke” are as a pejorative — Republicans attacking Democrats, more centrist Democrats attacking more liberal ones and supporters of the British monarchy using the term to criticize people more sympathetic to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Those critical of so-called woke ideas and people often invoke the idea that they are being “canceled” or a victim of “cancel culture.”

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As we explained in a piece earlier this week, ideas cast as woke are often coming from progressives and involve identity and race (like the notion that white people in America have privilege or that Black Americans should get reparations.) Cancel culture is broadly the idea that people advocating more liberal ideas, particularly around identity and race, have too much power and can publicly shame those who don’t agree with them, sometimes leading to those who don’t share these ideas being removed from their jobs or having their speaking invitations withdrawn (so “canceled.”)

A masked demonstrator at a protest on the Washington Mall waves a “Black Lives Matter” flag with the Reflecting Pool and Washington monument in the background

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But there is no agreed-upon definition of “woke” or a formal political organization or movement associated with it. Nor is there an exact definition of what constitutes being “canceled” or a victim of “cancel culture.” However, despite their vagueness, you now see conservative activists and Republican politicians constantly using these terms. That’s because that vagueness is a feature, not a bug. Casting a really wide range of ideas and policies as too woke and anyone who is critical of them as being canceled by out-of-control liberals is becoming an important strategy and tool on the right — in fact, this cancel culture/woke discourse could become the organizing idea of the post-Trump-presidency Republican Party.

There are at least five reasons why Republicans are likely to keep focusing on the woke and cancel culture over the next few years: 

First and perhaps most important, focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the GOP to execute, because in many ways it’s just a repackaging of the party’s long-standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms (“dog whistles”) to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters (mostly white) wary of cultural, demographic and racial change. 

In many ways, casting people on the left as too woke and eager to cancel their critics is just the present-day equivalent of attacks from the right against “outside agitators” (civil rights activists in 1960s), the “politically correct” (liberal college students in the 1980s and ’90s) and “activist judges” (liberal judges in the 2000s). Liberals pushing for, say, calling people by the pronoun they prefer or reparations for Black Americans serve as the present-day analogies to aggressive school integration programs and affirmative action. These are ideas that are easy for the GOP to run against, because they offer few direct benefits (the overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t transgender and/or Black) but some costs to the (white) majority of Americans. In many ways, we are just watching an old GOP strategy with new language and different issues.

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“If we compare the current situation to the ‘PC’ debate of the ’80s and ’90s, I see not only parallels but very much direct continuities and pretty much an identical conflict,” said Thomas Zimmer, a historian at Georgetown University who is writing a book on political divides in America. “Calling something ‘PC’ was an attempt to discredit the claims of traditionally marginalized groups for respect.”

As Seth Cotlar, an American history scholar at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, put it, “Anti-wokeism isn’t a response to anything new happening on the left so much as it is a continuation of a very old politics of reactionary backlash, especially white backlash.” 

Talking about identity and racial issues in vague terms like cancel culture and woke is particularly important right now for the GOP. In an increasingly diverse country across a number of dimensions (race, religion, sexual identity, etc.), Republicans need to make their cultural appeals to the party’s more conservative voters more subtext than text to avoid turning off too many Americans who wouldn’t want to vote for candidates or a party they perceive as bigoted. Also, talking about race and identity in this way could help the GOP break away from some of the more controversial elements of former President Donald Trump’s approach, particularly his rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims during his 2016 campaign, and therefore blunt the notion held by many Americans that the GOP is dominated by racists.

Republicans are already making this shift toward talking about cancel culture and wokeness instead of using rhetoric like Trump’s in 2016. Trump himself in 2020 focused less on attacking immigration broadly and Mexicans and Muslims in particular and instead talked more about culture and race in less controversial ways, such as attacking critical race theory and calling for “law and order.” Other Republicans are moving in this direction too. The recent conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee was dubbed by its organizers “America Uncanceled.” And former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked off her Arkansas gubernatorial campaign last month with a promise to fight cancel culture

“If you dare to think for yourself, dare to demand the Constitution be followed or dare to question a child choosing their own gender, you will be mocked and canceled,” Sen. Josh Hawley said in a recent fundraising message to his supporters. 

Second, this strategy unifies the GOP while dividing the Democrats, a very useful function in a two-party system in which the parties are in a zero-sum competition. As we wrote about this week, many ideas that are newly ascendant on the left, such as reducing funding for police, divide Democrats (more on that in a bit) but unify Republicans. Moreover, many of these ideas are opposed by a majority of the public. 

Republicans unite in opposing equality-focused positions

Share of people, by party and overall, who support each position according to polling

Significant obstacles for women compared to men 79% 26% 55%
There are more than two gender identities 52 24 40
A negative view of capitalism 44 20 33
Agree that “every billionaire is a policy failure” 29 20 11
It is “a lot more difficult” to be a Black person 74 9 44
Police funding should be reduced 41 8 25
Cash reparations for Black Americans 49 5 29
White people benefit “a great deal” from advantages Black people don’t have 59 5 34

Sources: Pew Research Center, PRRI, Gallup, YouGov

This unity is particularly important for Republicans right now. The Republican Party’s splits are arguably overstated, but there are real divisions

Third, this anti-woke posture provides something of a policy infrastructure for the GOP, aligning with the party’s existing priorities and introducing some new ones. 

Republicans totally control the government in many states and are often focused on issues such as tax cuts that may not galvanize the party’s core activists. But a lot of GOP officials at the state level are now rolling out policies that flow from this woke/cancel culture fight. These include limits on public schools’ use of the New York Times’ 1619 Project that chronicles the role of slavery in American history and the teaching of critical race theory at public colleges; the criminalization of tactics used by protesters last year after George Floyd was killed in police custody; provisions to make it easier to sue social media companies for removing people from their platforms, and proposals to allow state governments to cut funding from cities that reduce their police budgets.

Biden at a podium with his hands slightly raised. The presidential seal is over his head

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Fourth, this anti-woke posture gives conservative activists and Republican officials a way to excuse extreme behavior in the past and potentially rationalize such behavior in the future. Republicans are trying to recast the removal of Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to incite violence and encourage overturning the election results. If Republicans suppress Democratic votes or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government. The argument would be that Democrats would eliminate police departments and allow crime to surge if they have more power, so they must be stopped at all costs. Polls suggest a huge bloc of GOP voters is already open to such apocalyptic rhetoric

“The term woke has rapidly come to encompass everything and anything conservatives don’t like – anything and anyone they want to discredit,” said Zimmer. 

For example, here’s the text from a recent fundraising email from Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia: 

When I see the bills we’re voting on, I don’t understand why more “Conservative” Republicans do NOT join me:

– Cancelling Religious Freedom through the so-called “Equality” Act.
– Cancelling Election Security in HR1,
– Cancelling Gender,
– Cancelling our Sovereignty,
– Cancelling our 2nd Amendment Rights, and
– Defunding the Police.”

Most of what I described above is basically how this focus on the woke and cancel culture helps unify GOP elites with one another and to the party’s core voters. But there’s a fifth value to this approach: It could help the GOP win over some swing voters and/or people who usually don’t vote. 

Polls suggest that a lot of voters currently don’t know what cancel culture is — and that’s true even among Republicans, despite the party’s elites talking about cancel culture nonstop. But fighting the woke and cancel culture could become more familiar and important to voters outside of the GOP, particularly if some Democrats are raising the same concerns. And that is already happening to some extent. There is a real divide among Democratic elites, with more centrist Democrats arguing that some ideas and behavior on gender, identity and race in particular coming from the party’s left are going too far. Again, this is nothing new. Some centrist Democrats joined conservatives in previous eras who were worried about the civil rights movement, busing and identity politics

But this ideological split in the Democratic Party at the elite level could eventually trickle down to voters. Think about the so-called Reagan Democrats who started voting for GOP presidential candidates in the 1980s in part because they perceived the Democratic Party of that era as too tied to Black causes, or the bloc of Republicans who voted for Hillary Clinton and/or President Biden because they were wary of how Trump talked about racial issues. A perception that the Democratic Party is too woke that is amplified by prominent Republicans and some prominent Democrats could provide a rationale and a permission structure for those Democrats to back GOP candidates, particularly Republicans who don’t say racist things as Trump did. 

This may have happened in 2020, in fact. A ton of new voters turned out to back Trump and there was a major swing toward him among Latinos. It’s hard to pin down exactly why this happened, but some Democrats’ embrace of ideas like defunding the police and socialism likely played some role, combined with conservatives casting those stands as emblematic of the broader Democratic Party (even as Biden distanced himself from them). 

I’m not trying to predict anything here. I’m not sure Republicans will stay on this message of attacking the woke and cancel culture. Why not? Well, Trump is still the leader of the party and he might not be interested in staying on this or any consistent message. 

Perhaps voters will view attacking the woke and cancel culture as the latest round of partisan fights around identity and race. Those fights aren’t going that well for Republicans — Democrats have won more votes in recent national elections. Also, amid COVID-19 and other challenges, lots of voters, particularly those who don’t pay much attention to politics, might never really catch up to the woke and cancel culture discourse. 

But there are a lot of reasons to think the Republicans would benefit from continuing on this course — so it’s likely they will.

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Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.