Dan Pfieffer, a former senior aide to President Barack Obama and current podcast co-host, shared some interesting data in a recent newsletter. If you had the vague sense that the incredibly stupid story of the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss was basically all conservatives were talking about for much of last month, well, you were right. According to a poll, 77 percent of Republican voters reported hearing “a lot” or “some” news about Dr. Seuss’s estate pulling a few of his books from circulation for including racist imagery. Media Matters research shows that Fox spent a full hour on the story one day in March, compared to a bit less than a half-hour on Covid-19 vaccine news.
Pfeiffer points out, correctly, that the Seuss obsession, like any “culture war” story manufactured by the right-wing media, served a purpose: It prevented conservatives from noticing (or at least thinking too much about) the popular things Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have done and proposed to do. He makes the somewhat nuanced point that while it is politically savvy for President Biden to ignore whatever the right’s latest pet story is completely, other Democrats must find a way to engage with and defuse these mostly bogus narratives that the right concocts and turns into national “news.”
But one thing should be remembered about the Seuss ruckus, now that the right has largely moved on to other obsessions: Nothing truly bad happened as a result of it.
People who talk about politics for a living often describe Republicans waging or stoking “culture wars,” drawing a distinction between “culture issues” and, presumably, the actual substance of politics: economics and policy and so on. To state the obvious, there is no clean division between “culture war” issues and “economic issues”—all culture war politics is really about who has power and autonomy in a society. When Republicans attempt to restrict access to abortion, for instance, we are seeing a culture war play out, with real economic consequences for real people.
But while finding the line between “cultural issues” and everything else is impossible, there is perhaps a discernible distinction between actual matters of substance and weightless distractions.
Here are some actual culture war policies Republicans have pursued this year in places where they hold power: As part of a (logically incoherent but ideologically consistent) war on the concepts of “wokeness” and “cancel culture,” the Iowa legislature considered bills banning certain curricula at public institutions of higher learning, and the Florida GOP has passed a bill that will require schools to catalog the political leanings of students and faculty and allow students to record their professors secretly to collect evidence of any supposed suppression of “disagreeable or offensive” speech. (In war, one must sometimes create a chilling effect to fight a chilling effect.)
As part of the right’s ongoing work on the culture issue of gender identity and expression, multiple states have passed bills directly targeting trans youths over the past few months. A bill in North Carolina would require state employees to monitor children for signs of “symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity,” or “a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent” with the child’s assigned sex, and inform children’s parents of any deviations from gender conformity.
These actions are direct responses to the sorts of inane arguments and claims we hear every day from people on the right (and the center). They represent an attempt to turn complaining about “wokeness,” or “just asking questions” about trans issues, into public policy. The Dr. Seuss stuff, in comparison, was harmless. By focusing so single-mindedly on something so inconsequential, the right-wing media apparatus simply succeeded for a time in preventing conservatives from paying any attention to actual politics.
For many years now, when we talked about conservative culture war we were actually talking about Republicans attacking same-sex marriage, or Black people voting, or trans people existing. The right-wingers with the largest platforms are still interested in those subjects, of course, but they also know that there is a substantial portion of their audience that wishes to get mad about disclaimers shown before episodes of The Muppet Show. We should be glad to see them lean in to that anger: The most harmless direction to aim the right-wing grievance cannon is directly at corporate America and the culture industries.
It’s genuinely funny to hear Mitch McConnell warn corporations to stay out of politics; it’s also obvious there’s nothing he would or could do to genuinely “punish” them. A Gutfeld! guest complaining about Major League Baseball is preferable to some other right-wing “culture warrior” strongly implying that it would be a good thing if an abortion provider were murdered. These particular culture war targets show the extent to which conservatives have disappeared into their own messaging rabbit holes. Why not let them have their fun?
The right’s seeming conversion to an all-posting, no-governing movement will not be good for American governance, but it at least distracts Republican officials from active maladministration. The Texas Senate passed a bill yesterday that will require all professional sports teams to play the national anthem before games, prompting critics to note that the part-time legislature could have spent that precious time focusing on any of Texas’s actual problems. But Texas Republicans created most of those problems. If they tried to “fix” them, they would probably make them worse, or just make new problems. Every legislative minute spent on mindless symbolism is a minute not spent on policy with actual, material consequences.
The more absurd—and invulnerable—the target of right-wing culture war hysteria, the better for all involved. The cancellation of Dr. Seuss is almost the perfect example of this phenomenon, because its target cannot even be said to exist: The villain of the story was a sort of cultural atmosphere that prompted a dead author’s estate to make a publishing decision. The right-wing media whipping up conservatives to be mad at no one in particular is frankly the best possible result for a media infrastructure that otherwise exists to whip up conservative rage directed at real people who might suffer real consequences.
Perhaps liberals should, as Julián Castro adviser Sawyer Hackett jokingly suggested in March, actively create more completely bullshit culture war stories to distract the right from engaging in more substantive issues. If influencers devoted their platforms to finding new, innocuous things to cancel each week, just as grist for Fox & Friends, they might be doing this nation a great service. Some anonymous hero in corporate communications could prepare an announcement that the Vlasic Stork is being retired as a mascot because he’s an offensive Jewish caricature. Their compatriot in the entertainment industry might attach cultural sensitivity disclaimers to I Love Lucy episodes where Lucy sneaks into Ricky’s club to perform with his band and appropriates Cuban culture.
When conservatives are united in their anger at the estate of Dr. Seuss, the Coca-Cola Company, or Hasbro, they are not focusing their attention and rage on adjunct professors and trans kids. Let the war on “woke capital” rage on.