As Democrats begin the uphill climb to hold their majorities in the House and Senate next November, politicians and party strategists are admitting that their biggest challenge comes from within: “Woke” liberals demanding adherence to policies on crime, the environment and government spending that are simply not shared by a majority of the country.
“How do Democrats win in places like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Georgia?” asked former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges (D). “Focusing on how lives have improved since January of 2021. COVID rates are down and jobs are up. People are generally free to visit family and friends without restriction. The circus has left Washington and Biden has already cleaned up the mess. I’m not sure why Democratic candidates would stray from that message – particularly in purple states.”
Hodges’ comments are reflective of a broader acknowledgment – and concern – that talking about things like defunding the police or the “Green New Deal” or ending the detention of people coming across our southern border illegally are a recipe for political disaster in the 2022 midterm elections.
The current concern is perhaps best reflected in an essay by Kevin Drum, a former staffer for Washington Monthly magazine. Noting that liberals have been aggressively stoking the culture wars in recent years, Drum writes:
“Despite endless hopeful invocations of ‘but polls show that people like our positions,’ the truth is that the Democratic Party has been pulled far enough left that even lots of non-crazy people find us just plain scary – something that Fox News takes vigorous advantage of. From an electoral point of view, the story here is consistent: Democrats have stoked the culture wars by getting more extreme on social issues and Republicans have used this to successfully cleave away a segment of both the non-college white vote and, more recently, the non-college nonwhite vote.”
While Drum has been beating the, um, drum on this issue of late, it’s actually James Carville who was the first to warn Democrats that focusing on very liberal policies – and demanding that the general public pronounce support for those issues or run the risk of being labeled “intolerant” – is political poison for the party.
“Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it. It’s hard to talk to anybody today – and I talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party – who doesn’t say this. But they don’t want to say it out loud,” Carville, who made his name helping to elect Bill Clinton president, said in an interview with Vox this spring. Asked why his party won’t admit the wokeness problem, Carville responded bluntly: “Because they’ll get clobbered or canceled.”
There’s data to back up those concerns too.
In NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll conducted shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, a clear majority of people (52%) said they were “against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can’t say anymore.” Just 36% said that they were “in favor of the United States becoming more politically correct and like when people are being more sensitive in their comments about others.”
A May 2021 Pew poll showed that 57% of Americans believe that “people today are too easily offended by what others say” while just 40% agreed that “people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others.”
And even on specific issues, there’s some sentiment that people believe the so-called “woke mob” has gone too far. In an Axios-Ipsos poll from May, 70% of Americans opposed “the ‘defund the police’ movement” while just 27% supported it. A May Fox News poll showed that 47% of registered voters said the Biden administration is proposing too much of an increase in government spending, while 17% said not enough, and 33% chose just about the right amount.
Now, as Drum rightly notes, there are plenty of issues where the so-called “woke” policy has significant support. More than 6 in 10 (63%), for example, in a Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll from 2019, said the country needs a green new deal to help address climate change. But as CNN polling and election analytics editor Ariel Edwards-Levy rightly notes, most people don’t really know what is in the actual Green New Deal. So, the support for it is rightly read as general support for addressing climate change rather than backing any specific policies laid out in the Green New Deal.
Then there’s the political reality of all of this. Campaign politics tend to strip the nuance off issues, paring them back to the sort of lowest common denominator stuff that motivates people to vote (or, in some cases, not to vote.)
And it is on that front where the woke crowd truly endangers Democrats at the ballot box. Although the election is more than a year away, Republicans – led by former President Donald Trump – are already making clear that they intend to make it a referendum not as much on President Joe Biden and his policies but rather on political correctness, wokeness and “cancel culture.”
“We stand up to political correctness, and we reject the intolerance of left wing cancel culture,” Trump said in a speech over the weekend to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas. At another point in the address, he pledged: “We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.”
And predictably, Republican leaders have followed Trump’s lead. Following Major League Baseball’s decision to move this year’s All-Star Game out of Georgia after the state passed a restrictive voting bill, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said this: “The movement in this country about wokeness has got to stop.”
Of the All-Star Game decision, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was even more blunt: “From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government. Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
There’s no secret, then, about the ground on which Republicans want to fight the coming election. And Democrats, worried about alienating their liberal left base, are playing right into the GOP’s hands.
“If we learned anything from 2020, it was that growth with suburban voters – many former Republicans – carried Biden across the finish line,” said Hodges, the former South Carolina governor. “And these same voters will make the difference in competitive swing state elections. They want to hear how candidates will make their lives better; stray from that message and we risk Mitch McConnell becoming majority leader again.”
CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.