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Opinion A surprising poll about GOP book bans should light a fire under Democrats

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

As Democrats debate the GOP’s all-culture-war-all-the-time campaign strategy, here’s a maxim worth remembering: If you’re wasting political bandwidth denying lies about yourselves, you’re losing.

A new CBS News poll offers data that should prod Democrats into rethinking these culture-war battles. It finds that surprisingly large majorities oppose banning books on history or race — and importantly, this is partly because teaching about our racial past makes students more understanding of others’ historical experiences.

The poll finds that 83 percent of Americans say books should never be banned for criticizing U.S. history; 85 percent oppose banning them for airing ideas you disagree with; and 87 percent oppose banning them for discussing race or depicting slavery.

What’s more, 76 percent of Americans say schools should be allowed to teach ideas and historical events that “might make some students uncomfortable.” And 68 percent say such teachings make people more understanding of what others went through, while 58 percent believe racism is still a serious problem today.

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Finally, 66 percent say public schools either teach too little about the history of Black Americans (42 percent) or teach the right amount (24 percent). Yet 59 percent say we’ve made “a lot of real progress getting rid of racial discrimination” since the 1960s.

This hints at a way forward for Democrats. Notably, large majorities think both that we’ve made a good deal of racial progress and that we should be forthrightly confronting hard racial truths about our past and present, even if it makes students uncomfortable.

That shouldn’t be too hard a balance to strike. But it’s exactly the balance that some Republicans who seek to restrict teaching about race seek to remove from the agenda entirely.

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Their rhetorical game works this way: If you focus too much on the persistence of racial disparities in the present, you’re denying the racial progress that has taken place. You’re telling children that race still matters. You’re not telling a positive or uplifting story about our country. You’re saying America is irredeemable. You’re trying to make children hate our country, each other and themselves.

But this polling suggests many Americans doesn’t necessarily see things this way. Place proper emphasis on the idea that racial progress has been made, and it’s fine to highlight the problems that remain, even if it creates feelings of discomfort. It’s possible to tell a story that is in some ways about progress but also doesn’t whitewash our past.

Republicans might respond that this poll doesn’t address some of their actual proposals. But some anti-wokeness warriors actually have sought book bans. And some of these GOP state laws and proposals prohibit teaching materials that merely “include” various “concepts” — such as the ideas that the United States is “irredeemably” racist or was “founded” as a “racist” nation, or ideas that merely cause “discomfort.”

It’s obvious that such vague drafting is the point. It’s meant to make teachers fear straying too far toward creating “discomfort” or telling children that race “still matters,” exposing them to censure or punishment, so they play down ways in which racial disparities do persist and matter.

Or take the “Don’t say gay” bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) supports in Florida. As Tim Miller notes, the vagueness is the point here as well: It could make school officials reluctant to engage with students who are “struggling with their own questions about sexuality or identity.”

Even if the “wokeness” discourse does contain excess and overreach, that can’t lead Democrats to shy away from calling out these laws. What this poll does tell us is that Republicans can be depicted as overreaching: There’s obviously widespread public discomfort with the idea of going too far in sanitizing the U.S. past — or the present.

Other polls point to this sweet spot. In Texas, one survey finds that only a small minority of respondents trust elected state leaders to decide what books belong in schools. And in Virginia, a new poll shows large majorities favor teaching how racism continues to impact U.S. society.

Yet as Ron Brownstein details, Democrats have been consumed with warnings from centrists that they must tiptoe around GOP attacks on these issues with extraordinary tentativeness. As a result, Brownstein notes, Democrats have not “devised an approach to resist them.”

The point is not that Democrats should embrace every display of wokeness that parades along. It’s arguably a solidly liberal approach to parse out what in the wokeness discourse is compatible with liberal commitments and what is not, and call out the latter as illiberal.

But that can’t be the end of the story. It can’t be right that Democrats should refrain from trying to win arguments over GOP efforts to foment an atmosphere of threats and violence in classrooms and whitewash the U.S. past.

As Brian Beutler notes, when Democrats internalize the idea that they can’t win arguments, that blinds them to existing political possibilities. Rather than constantly denying lies about their intentions in classrooms, Democrats should put Republicans in the position of having to deny truths about their actual intentions in them.

It would be more useful if centrist critics tried to pin down how Democrats can engage these debates in a politically productive way. No more issuing vague “Danger Ahead!” warnings that ultimately don’t provide real-world guidance, other than suggesting Democrats should in some sense run away from these arguments.