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Avoiding Unpopular Issues Doesn’t Make Them Go Away

It’s politically savvy for Democrats to avoid wading into the “critical race theory” culture war. It’s also a dereliction of duty.

A rally against critical race theory in schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, in June

Only one side is officially fighting the culture war over “critical race theory.” Republican elected officials have not only denounced “critical race theory” but also introduced and passed legislation aimed at fighting its supposed spread. Well-funded and organized conservative activists and organizations are springing up to transform what was once an obscure academic theory into a fraught political issue in cities and states across the country. Drawing on the Tea Party’s playbook, they are organizing inchoate cultural panic into a sustained attack on Democratic governance.

Democrats, meanwhile, are mostly just pretending not to notice.

I don’t mean the Democrats who vote for or otherwise support the Democratic Party; many columnists and commentators, local officials, and academics are valiantly defending “critical race theory,” the actual legal and philosophical concept, as well as the anti-racist education and activism programs that the right is (intentionally and maliciously) redefining as “CRT.”

Democratic politicians, on the other hand, especially at the national level, have chosen to ignore the issue completely. For them, the entire moral panic may as well not be happening. Almost any explainer of how CRT came to be a national issue is notable for what it lacks: any quote from a prominent elected Democrat.

This is, most likely, by design. The right wants to highlight CRT, and Democratic elected officials are often told to avoid entering these debates. Joe Biden doesn’t take the bait on culture-war issues, and his party relentlessly focuses on its economic agenda and concrete proposals to improve voters’ lives. According to conventional wisdom, the smart move, nowadays, is to “talk about things that already have approval instead of trying to make unpopular things popular.” And, among people who’ve heard of it, “critical race theory” is pretty darn unpopular.

“Among people who’ve heard of it” is, actually, a pretty important distinction, and one that might point to some limits of the Democrats’ preferred messaging strategy: What if your opponents have the ability to create issues from thin air and make them unpopular?

According to one poll, nearly half of 2020 Trump voters claim to have heard “a lot” about critical race theory, as opposed to only a quarter of Biden voters. The Trump voters probably heard about it fairly recently. Mentions of “critical race” theory on Fox News have skyrocketed since the beginning of the year, practically doubling each month. An entire machinery of messaging, lobbying, and legislation has devoted its attention to making conservatives aware of the topic, with GOP activists posing as mere concerned parents on television and industry lobbyists like Berman and Company astroturfing local campaigns against it for more media coverage.

We’re essentially seeing a natural experiment in how conservative propaganda affects “public opinion,” in the absence of any organized liberal countermeasure, play out in real time.

“CRT,” as used by the right, doesn’t actually exist, or at least, it is a whole assortment of often only tenuously connected things related to American discussions of racism and history and education. If “CRT” remained just an airless moral panic, a gigantic right-wing tantrum over a bogeyman its irresponsible media created, a strategy of completely ignoring it might be justified. Democrats, understandably, don’t want to use their political capital to defend something that doesn’t exist and that conservatives simply invented to get mad at. But in declining to engage in this fight, they are also passing up an opportunity to defend real teachers, authors, and advocates targeted by the right’s latest witch hunt. And no matter how long Democrats try and avoid the fight, Republicans will continue declaring their actions to be yet another example of CRT. (Fourteen House Republicans just voted against making Juneteenth a national holiday.)

In practice, the anti-CRT campaign is an all-out assault on the free speech rights of teachers and educators, designed to ban honest discussions of race and American history in classrooms and colleges. The broadly written and intentionally slippery legislation becoming law in states like Texas will ultimately make teachers afraid of particular conversations and give conservatives more ways to threaten and punish educators and students for liberal advocacy or activism. That’s something the liberal political party should fight, not quietly ignore.