The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s strange ‘woke’ rant reveals a big GOP problem

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
4 min

While delivering the Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to link the 80-year-old Biden to a “woke” mob and bragged of banning “CRT” in her state. Sanders didn’t define either term. She used the initials “CRT” without spelling out “critical race theory,” apparently certain most Americans know what that means.

Watching Sanders toss around those extremely online terms — only months after her party badly underperformed in the midterm elections while campaigning against those very things — vividly demonstrates a problem for the GOP. Republicans are extremely skilled at grabbing attention, leveraging their formidable media apparatus to turn the spotlight on the manufactured controversy of the moment. But these days they are far less good at persuading the broader public.

Given a rare opportunity to communicate a conservative vision to the entire country, Sanders delivered a message that was, as Matthew Sheffield put it, “filled with far-right buzzwords that were likely incomprehensible to most Americans who had bothered to watch.”

Biden, said Sanders, is “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”

On Feb. 7, Arkansas Gov. Huckabee Sanders (R) said the Democrats had failed the public in her official Republican response to the State of the Union address. (Video: The Washington Post)

To be moved by that argument, you’d need to know that “wokeness” refers to a constellation of contested views about race, sex and transgender rights. You’d need to know it’s a ubiquitous right-wing media trope to scoff that liberals can’t define the term “woman.” You’d need to know why this is supposed to be terribly threatening.

This rhetoric did little for Republicans in 2022. The New York Times reports that virtually all GOP spending on ads mentioning critical race theory was spent during primaries, a tacit admission it had little general election potency.

Last September, a polling memo from the Republican National Committee admitted that focusing on CRT was only exciting the “base.” To move independents, the memo said, GOP candidates should emphasize “parental rights.” That, too, was misplaced confidence after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in 2021: Many Republicans did run on such issues in the midterms, but the party dramatically underperformed expectations — including among independents.

Cartoon by Ann Telnaes: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders does a Rubio

Yet, Republicans continue speaking mainly to their most committed supporters. More of this is coming: House Republicans are planning investigations of a menu of right-wing obsessions, from fantasies of conservative oppression by federal law enforcement to whether Twitter is conspiring to suppress the truth about Hunter Biden.

At a House hearing Tuesday, Republicans hammered border police officials with hallucinatory notions about immigration. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) pushed them to say many arriving unaccompanied minors are MS-13 gang members, and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) prodded one official to say his testimony was doctored to make it less negative about the border. The officials politely shot down both assertions.

Still, the claims went viral, demonstrating the GOP skill at harnessing agitprop to compete in our attention economy. But at the same time, House Republicans have failed to persuade the moderates in their own caucus to support the party’s extreme new border security bill. They can demagogue an issue brilliantly, but they can’t persuade the middle to support their policies.

There does seem to be a theory guiding these efforts, one developed during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Pour enough wild accusations and feigned outrage into the discourse and whip the base into a frenzy, and swing voters might develop general unease about the opposition and the country’s direction. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg calls this the right’s “negative sentiment machine.”

But how well has this worked for Republicans in recent cycles?

To be fair, all of us, liberals included, are prone to cherry-picking from electoral outcomes to convince ourselves that the public shares our cultural vision. We might be overreading how significant it is that Sanders failed the generally impossible task of delivering a cogent and effective State of the Union response, or what 2022 meant in terms of rejection of the right’s culture-warmongering. After all, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won a big reelection victory in November as the foremost culture warrior on the right and plainly intends to take his approach national in 2024.

Still, recent focus groups of Florida swing voters found that few could define the term “wokeness,” raising doubts about how important it was to DeSantis’s reelection. And again, similar GOP candidates lost in many places outside Florida.

Yet DeSantis’s victory appears to have instilled a touch of hubris among right-wingers about the national potential of his type of cultural politics. On Tuesday night, Sanders seemed deeply in the grip of that hubris.

But consider what happened that night. Biden talked about protecting Social Security and the need to continue creating the green and tech manufacturing jobs of the future, many for Americans without a college degree. Then Sanders fulminated about confusing acronyms.

Democrats should relish taking that contrast into 2024.