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The Misguided Idea That Democrats Need to Dumb Things Down

Arguments among themselves about concepts like “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are divisive and demonstrate racial insensitivity. A new generation of leaders should be allowed to define and use its own terms.

Political commentator James Carville speaking from a podium.
Political commentator James Carville.
(Chris Seward/MCT)
In the last election cycle, Democrats defied the odds when they won the White House and control of both chambers of Congress. If they are not careful, they could lose much of what they gained come the midterm elections of 2022, especially if they continue to engage in semantical arguments with Republicans and the moderate and right wings of their own party over concepts like “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

If you listen to moderates like former President Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville, Democrats are in need of a serious correction in messaging. In a Vox interview, Carville asserted that the party is being overly influenced by progressives who are providing conservatives with fodder as the Democratic left demands a “woke” culture and practices what he labels as “faculty lounge politics.” He proffers as proof the fact that in last year’s elections the Democrats held on to control of the House by only a slim margin and lost some down-ballot races at the state level.

I don’t believe those electoral outcomes were the result of what Carville calls “metropolitan, overeducated arrogance.” What he and others of his ilk fail to acknowledge is the unfair electoral advantages Republicans have because of gerrymandering, making it much easier for them to hold on to power and maybe even gain a seat or two. Republicans in states where they held majorities in 2011 drew legislative and congressional maps wherein it was nearly impossible for them to lose, and they can do more damage in this year’s round of redistricting.

Democratic down-ballot losses had nothing to do with “wokeness” or independents deciding to go for Trump and other Republicans because they feared what they viewed as radical concepts such as defunding of the police. There is no available data to substantiate these claims. Blaming the messaging of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Black Lives Matter advocates is too easy an excuse for Democrats who have failed, like Republicans when they were in power, to deliver on many key election promises like providing family-sustainable-wage jobs and real police, criminal justice and immigration reforms.

A key electoral shift on the plus side for Democrats in the 2020 election was that more educated voters moved to their party. Among those supporters were teachers and faculty members who do indeed visit faculty lounges from time to time and discuss politics with deference to the correct political meanings of concepts like institutional racism and the intersectionality of race, class, gender and political economy.

This shift seems to be lost on pundits like Carville who, by ridiculing educated voters as elites who look down on commoners, are buying into the same anti-intellectualism of which the Trumpsters are so fond. Further, when Carville urges Democrats to keep reminding voters that the Republican Party backed the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he is saying to them in essence to fight like your adversaries even though you just defeated them on your own terms using your own weaponry.

Thus far, President Biden is charting his own course and making good on big ticket campaign promises. To his credit, he seems to understand that his constituency is diverse, and although some don’t possess college degrees, most have common sense and comprehend what politicians are saying without having to be beaten over the head with bumper-sticker slogans flashing in neon lights.

The Carvilles of the political world represent a fading breed of center-right Democratic strategists who may have run their courses but don’t want to leave the bright lights of center stage. They are from an old school of thought that believes, in essence, that you have to dumb down everything so a not-so-smart public will get it. Remember Carville’s famous phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Finally, it seems to me that conservative and moderate Democrats hurt themselves when they continue to whine about Republicans redefining their terminology and concepts in such a toxic way. If they want to be successful in the field of messaging, Democrats must get out in front of their adversaries and define their own terms and educate their voters.

Take, for example, the term “wokeness.” Wikipedia has the meaning right when it defines “woke” as an “awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice.” Conservatives make light of this African American-conceived term much in the same way they laugh at the various spellings of Black names that Black parents give to their children. Carville’s attacks on “wokeness” do pretty much the same and should be called out for their racial insensitivity.

Republicans also perverted the meaning of “cancel culture,” a form of modern ostracism where online users ban or exclude someone from professional circles via social media. Recently, many leading Republicans mislabeled as “canceling” the efforts of Black religious leaders who are leading national boycotts against businesses that refused to speak out against state voter suppression bills. In reality, no one in America has done more to cancel, marginalize or exclude the cultures and contributions of African Americans and other communities of color than those who despise and vilify the term today.

Which brings me back to Carville and the concerns he expressed in Vox. Since none of them come from within the ranks of the Democratic Party leadership, his attacks on slogans like “defunding the police” and terms like “wokeness,” and his sneering references to “faculty lounge politics,” are attacks on progressives and young Blacks exercising their rights to free speech. This seems like an adulterated form of respectability politics that says to those vital constituents: “Give us your votes, then go away and keep your mouths shut.”

Many of the old guard, among whom I count myself and Carville, need to move aside and let this generation of leaders define themselves and their movements. My 29- and 42-year-old daughters live in a country that may not afford them the chances of being as financially secure as their parents were a generation earlier. This is not the America we should be handing down to them. More tragically, I fear my two daughters may not even come home one day because they could be shot down by the police, and this fear is not irrational. We have not done enough to guarantee that our children’s futures will be secure. Now it is their turn to save themselves and maybe in the process save us too — using whatever terms of speech work for them.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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