The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP’s repugnant midterm strategy requires a tough Democratic response

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has introduced a new “Parents' Bill of Rights.” (Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg)

As Democrats ponder their recent electoral drubbing, they seem divided into two camps. Both concern how to respond to GOP culture-warmongering, which will be in full saturation mode through 2022 and beyond.

Some are screaming for a purge of “wokeness.” Others insist Democrats must respond with carefully focus-grouped displays of concern about the authentic voter angst that GOP culture-warring successfully exploits.

But you rarely hear Democrats talking about how to put Republicans on the defensive on these issues. What about making Republicans pay a political price for these ugly tactics, the deeper aims for this country they embody and the degradations they’re inflicting on our national life?

With Republicans vowing to make “parents’ rights” central in 2022, NBC News reports that some Democrats worry the party has no response. The GOP win in Virginia turned partly on a campaign against critical race theory (CRT), leading Republicans to make this their playbook.

Those worried Democrats say the party was out of touch with White voters’ concerns about wokeness invading school curriculums. They alienated Whites by dismissing GOP attacks on CRT as “racist.”

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But this cramped diagnosis seems to offer only the option of a course correction that placates White voter concerns through defensive maneuvering, whether by refraining from casting GOP rhetoric as racist, or by addressing worries about curriculums by, say, calling out their wokeness infestation.

What if Democrats address such worries while also offering a comprehensive denunciation of the broad right-wing anti-wokeism campaign?

This would point out that parts of that movement are trying to shut down efforts to think critically about how racial disparities really function. It would point out that they are trying to discourage a full accounting of how the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and racism baked into law continue to operate as barriers to opportunity in the present.

Of course, anti-CRT Republicans have cleverly obscured all that. Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin managed to recast his vow to end CRT in schools as a grand gesture of unity that will nobly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

But Youngkin also spent time on Fox News energizing the GOP base with the lie that the Justice Department persecuted parents, when it sought to protect educators from threats of violence, in essence siding with the mob.

Many other Republicans have pushed that line. Doesn’t this provide an opening to argue forcefully that Republicans are cynically and recklessly introducing civic conflict, chaos and even threats of violence into kids’ learning environments?

Or take Youngkin’s vow to ban CRT, which examines how racial disparities persist in legal structures. That sounded unifying, when Youngkin packaged it with pious assurances that of course kids must be taught the full truth about our past.

But in practice, efforts by GOP legislatures to ban CRT could chill the teaching of that full truth. Some bar the teaching of the “concepts” that members of one race are “inherently oppressive” or should feel “discomfort” or “guilt,” or even concepts that provoke “division.”

That squirrelly wording could lead teachers to fear assigning historical readings that inspire such feelings. Or it could allow foes to charge that this or that way of recounting history itself creates heretical impressions of race-based patterns of oppression. Indeed, as David French points out, anti-woke warriors are already filing complaints against teachers on exactly these bases.

Kim Anderson, the executive director of the National Education Association, says many teachers are experiencing these laws in exactly this way.

“Educators understand that the motivation behind these laws is an attempt to suppress the telling of America’s full history,” Anderson told me, though she says it’s failing.

Anderson says this opens the door to a response: arguing for a full accounting of the American past, and targeting such laws as “divisive ploys” designed to chill that.

“By huge margins, parents want an honest and accurate reflection of American history taught in K-12 schools,” Anderson told me.

This can coexist with an acknowledgment that the anti-CRT campaign harnessed genuine frustrations around public education on many fronts. It can coexist with an admission that various “wokeness” tendencies have displayed plenty of terrible and nakedly illiberal excesses.

Indeed, the whole suggestion that there’s some kind of monolith of wokeness is deeply flawed. In Virginia, some instruction materials protested by parents do commit serious missteps, such as suggesting Whites are uniformly privileged without noting the disadvantages faced by many.

But the discussions of “equity” in those materials have been badly twisted: They are sometimes merely efforts to articulate the truism that the ideal of “equality of opportunity” is compromised by people’s vastly unequal starting positions, and to tease out the role of racism past and present in that.

That intellectual exercise is exactly what those who caricature such discussions as a slippery slope to Stalinism want to discourage.

As Brian Beutler argues, we need a balancing test. With bad actors marshaling anti-wokeism to discourage critical thinking about race and the U.S. past, we must counter leftist illiberal excesses while also forcefully calling out sinister right-wing motives.

Fortunately, some Democrats agree. Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, vows to avoid the pitfall of non-engagement we saw in Virginia.

“We have learned from the lies and distortions of the last election,” Maloney told me, noting that Democrats will “say what we stand for,” which is “building a society where everyone is treated equally and fairly, and learning from our past.”

Democrats will argue that “children need to learn their history — all of it — without censorship or politics limiting what they can learn,” Maloney said.

“We shouldn’t talk like eggheads,” Maloney continued. “But I’m not going to accept the false choice that because people can exploit a concern for racial justice and twist it into something they call ‘wokeness,’ that we should stop fighting for it.”