The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surprisingly simple political calculus behind ‘cancel culture’

President Biden signs the American Rescue Plan in the Oval Office on Thursday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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In his first prime-time address last week, President Biden made an argument that, coming at another time, would have seemed hopelessly optimistic: Maybe Americans should see the federal government as a force for good.

For years, such a sentiment would have seemed like a political non-starter. While it wasn’t the case that Americans universally loathed the idea of government intervention, it was the case that most Americans generally saw the government as a nuisance more than a source of assistance.

After Biden’s speech, we pointed to polling that showed how that sentiment may have shifted. Fox News has been including a question about views of the government for a decade, with most respondents consistently saying that they’d rather tell the government to leave them alone than to lend them a hand. But that changed last year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with even Republicans suddenly indicating openness to government assistance.

Ipsos’s Clifford Young picked out similar polling in an article last week. Gallup has been asking Americans since 1992 whether they would be more likely to say that the government does too much that should be left to the private sector or to say that the government should do more to solve problems.

Since the early 1990s, there have been two moments in which more Americans held the latter position than the former: immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and August 2020.

What’s worth noting, though, is that while the shift to supporting an active government occurred last year, Gallup’s annual polling had been trending in that direction anyway. In 2015, Americans were 15 percentage points more likely to choose do less than do more. In 2016, it was 13 points. In 2017, nine points. 2018, six points. By 2019, the two positions were about equally held.

This is the broader context for the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion bill that Biden signed into law last week. The bill broadly addresses the economic damage done by the pandemic, including offering direct checks to tens of millions of Americans, bolstering the rollout of vaccines and testing and assisting state and local governments.

On Monday, Biden touted the success of the government in the moment.

“Last week, I said help is on the way. This week, I can report that it isn’t just on the way, it’s here, sooner than many ever thought possible,” Biden said from the White House. “Over the next 10 days, we’ll reach two goals, two giant goals. The first is 100 million shots in people’s arms will have been completed within the next 10 days. And 100 million checks in people’s pockets in the next 100 days. Shots in arms and money in pockets. That’s important.”

A pithy summary of the moment, certainly. But also a measure of how quickly the political victory in the relief bill was lodged.

In part, that’s because it didn’t face much political opposition. On cable news, for example, Fox News and Fox Business were often busier talking about culture war fights — Dr. Seuss’s books, Mr. Potato Head, etc. — than the bill being passed by the Democratic-led Congress.

It’s easy to overstate how obsessed the Fox networks were with those issues, but it is the case that over the past four weeks, Fox News has had more days on which it focused more on culture war fights than on the relief bill.

At CNN, Harry Enten has a theory why.

“While Democrats may mock them, the fear of cancel culture and political correctness isn’t something that just animates the GOP’s base,” he writes. “It’s the rare issue that does so without alienating voters in the middle.”

Enten cites a survey conducted before the 2020 election as part of the American National Elections Studies. It asked respondents whether they thought that changing times necessitated changes in language or whether concerns about how people spoke were an indicator that some people were too easily offended. Across the board, views on the subject were split — including among young people who vastly preferred Biden over Donald Trump in the election itself.

Compare that with the age difference on Gallup’s question about the role of government. Among those 55 and over, about as many people said government was doing too much as said that government should do more to help. Among those under the age of 35, “government should do more” was the preferred view by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. If you’re a party thinking about building for the future, “cancel culture” is a better bet right now — if not generally — than “the government shouldn’t send people checks.”

Fox News’s coverage isn’t dictated by what helps the Republicans. It is the case, though, that many of its opinion hosts are particularly attuned to the distinction above.

As conservative columnist Erick Erickson put it:

That’s the political bet.