Democrats were always going to struggle in the 2022 midterm elections, given historical trends and the already extremely narrow party majorities in Congress. Add to that rampant inflation and brutal warfare in Europe and things start to look particularly bleak.
But that doesn’t mean that all of the party’s misfortunes are circumstantial. Some are self-inflicted — particularly when it comes to the culture war issues that increasingly dominate American politics.
In recent years, Republicans have become adept at leveraging their own extremism on these issues for electoral gain. The game goes like this: implant a right-wing position that encourages the GOP base, thereby ensuring high voter turnout in the upcoming election; rely on progressive activists to respond with their own form of mirror image of left-wing maximalism and on Democratic leaders to embrace this message as their own; using these words and deeds both to justify the right’s original impulse toward extremism and to paint the Republican Party as the nation’s sole defender of common sense against an insidious form of progressive ideology.
Then rinse and repeat.
If Democrats are to avoid annihilation in 2022 and possibly 2024 as well, they must stop responding to right-wing extremism with their own counter-extremism.
Take abortion. As I recently noted, Republicans in states across the country are busy passing extraordinarily restrictive laws against women’s reproductive rights and giving enforcement powers to individuals. These “bounty hunter” provisions, which allow people to sue those who provide (or help someone else provide) abortions, allow these states to circumvent judicial review and avoid imposed injunctions. by the federal courts. (If states do not directly enforce the laws, no one has standing to seek relief from the penalties they impose.)
Polls show constantly that nearly 60% of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. This means that a very solid majority should be sympathetic to a message like this: By passing laws like these, Republicans are proving to be radicals far out of step with the American mainstream. Some restrictions on abortion should be allowed, but outright bans are draconian, and efforts to circumvent judicial review are un-American in intent and downright authoritarian in effect. And after? The death penalty for women who abort, as some Republicans have proposed?
The point of such a response would be to portray the Democrats as the reasonable party advocating moderation and decency in the face of a mad attack on the rights and freedoms of the female half of the population.
Instead, at the end of February, 48 Democrats voted in favor of a bill – the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) – which would enshrine the right to abortion during the nine months of pregnancy nationwide and potentially overturn parental consent laws in 37 states. A solid majority may think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but support for late post-viability abortions is much lowerand the most recent Gallup poll to ask about parental consent laws (as of 2011) found 71% support for them.
This means that the Democrats have somehow managed to place themselves on the negative side of public opinion on an issue where they should easily be able to present their opponents as extremists. It might delight single-issue activists and the party’s more ideologically progressive donors, but it could well prove to be election poison in November and beyond.
A similar dynamic is playing out around Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law earlier this week. LGBT activists have had considerable success in persuading reporters and Democratic officials to label the legislation a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and portraying it as driven by anti-gay and anti-transgender animosity, which could to be both true and effective. message for Democrats, at least in some parts of the country.
There are legitimate reasons to fear that the law, which appears to have been drafted in intentionally vague language, could be interpreted as authorizing sweeping restrictions on what teachers at all levels can say about sexuality and gender in schools. schools. Yet the passage of the bill that received the most media attention is the one who forbids “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through third grade. This gives the impression that Democratic opposition to the bill is driven by a desire to teach young children subjects that most parents are likely to consider, reasonably enough, inappropriate for them. (Polls on the bill have been all over the map.)
How come Democrats ended up, implicitly, championing the position that public schools should be free to teach children under 8 about sexual orientation and gender identity? In the wake of controversy over the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools and residual animosity against teachers’ unions for demanding pandemic-related school closures, this position could ultimately blow up against the Democrats.
And not without reason. Trying at the state level to regulate the details of public school curricula and restrict what teachers can say in the classroom is a bad idea. Saying that could give Democrats leverage to oppose bills like the one DeSantis championed in Florida while rallying the U.S. majority to their side. But only if coupled with a defense of giving local school boards the power to make those decisions themselves. Taking the opposite view – that parents should have no say in what their children are taught and implying that teachers and administrators should be empowered to introduce young children to sexuality and gender issues – is a politically toxic position that could only appeal to a progressive activist. .
In political terms, the culture war is a battle of definitions: which party is narrowly extremist and bigoted? And who stands with America’s conflicted majority? By repeatedly taking the Republican bait, the Democrats are depriving themselves of a chance to win by refusing to confirm the caricature of the right on their position. We are not the extremes! They are!
The only way for liberals to win the radical right culture war game is to not play.