Critical Race Theory Is Dividing Democrats—and Rallying Republicans | Opinion

Those of us worried about the corrosive effects of cancel culture and critical race theory are often accused of obsessing over the culture wars at the expense of "real" issues. But new data suggests that the culture war is only going to rise in importance in future elections—to the benefit of Republicans. This is the gist of survey results contained in my new Manhattan Institute report, The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America.

Already, cancel culture and applied critical race theory (CRT) are leading priorities for Republican voters and a mid-ranking issue overall—in large part because they unite conservatives while dividing the Left; on one side you have cultural liberals, those who espouse classical liberal views about free speech, due process, equal treatment before the law and elsewhere and the scientific method. On the other is a rising cohort of cultural socialists, who prioritize protecting disadvantaged groups from offense while redistributing self-esteem and power. These aims are used to justify restricting people's freedom of speech and conscience.

Cultural socialism grows out of wokeness, the idea that historically marginalized race and gender minorities are sacred: more spiritual, moral, fragile and helpless than members of advantaged groups. And unlike causes advanced by the Left in the past, which pushed for equal rights for Black and gay Americans under the auspices of classical liberalism, cultural socialism is likely to provoke a sustained backlash from cultural liberals. But while the cultural socialists are in the decided minority—there are two cultural liberals for every cultural socialist in America—cultural socialists have a slight advantage among Millennials and Gen-Z. And as these relatively woke generations enter the electorate, they will start to edge out their more moderate elders.

And as this divide on the Left increases, it will continue to give an advantage to the Right, which is united by the very issues dividing their opponents.

That's what my data shows. In my survey, people were asked whether students should be taught that America was stolen from native peoples, and that the school they attend and houses they live in are built on stolen land. 90 percent of Republicans were "strongly against" teaching this, while Democrats were just about evenly split across the four response categories—strongly for teaching this, weakly for it, weakly against it, and strongly against it.

In other words, Republicans are more motivated to oppose CRT than Democrats are to support it.

teaching history

With cancel culture, the dynamics are somewhat different from CRT, but produce a similar result. I asked people if they endorsed the firing of four people who lost their jobs over giving offense to woke sensibilities. And what I found was that half of people who identified as Strong Democrats supported cancellation in these cases. But they were the outliers: Moderate Democrats were more similar to Republicans and Independents in strongly opposing the cancelling of these four individuals.

In other words, cancel culture and CRT split the Left and rally the Right, making these issues are a clear vote winner for the GOP.

opposition to cancel culture

Skeptics often argue that the average voter doesn't care about the culture wars because they don't know what CRT or cancel culture are, and are focused on bread-and-butter issues. So I decided to test this theory. To gauge the importance of culture war issues, I asked people to name their top three priorities from a list of nine issue baskets. For one of those baskets I used a broad definition of cancel culture that covers a range of terms through which people understand cancel culture: "Political Correctness, Free Speech, Cancel Culture, Wokeness, People Falsely Accused of Racism and Sexism." Even without including critical race theory in that list, 10 percent of respondents ranked this suite of issues as the most important facing the country, behind only COVID/Economy and Health Care. Other surveys show a similar mid-range ranking for "cancel culture/political correctness" among a list of 24 issues.

Cancel culture issues ranked in the top three for 31 percent of voters, including a third of Independents and 17 percent of Democrats. Among Republicans, nearly half (48 percent) placed this issue in their top three, above religion and moral values, with only immigration and COVID/Economy scoring higher.

It's just no longer tenable to claim that these questions aren't on voters' radar and can't swing elections.

cancel culture

Had CRT been added to the political correctness basket, culture wars issues might have scored even higher. While most parents don't know if applied CRT is being taught to their children, a rising number have encountered it: Around half of those I surveyed had taken diversity training, and a quarter said they took training in which instructors used one or more of the terms "white privilege," "patriarchy" or "white supremacy."

swing elections

And the more voters learn about what CRT means in practice, the less they like it. For example, when a sample of mainly Democratic-leaning Independents read the following passage, they were much cooler toward CRT and warmer toward CRT bans than people who didn't read it: "A middle school in Springfield, Missouri, forced teachers to locate themselves on an 'oppression matrix,' claiming that white heterosexual Protestant males are inherently oppressors and must atone for their 'covert white supremacy.' This kind of approach has been labeled Critical Race Theory."

Republican politicians are beginning to realize that campaigning on cancel culture and CRT is a winning posture with voters. Glenn Youngkin's stunning upset in Virginia owed a great deal to centrist parents' fury at the woke educational establishment and its implementation of CRT dogma in schools.

These issues matter. They will increasingly decide elections unless the Democrats are able to distance their brand from cultural socialism.

Eric Kaufmann is a professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and is affiliated with the Manhattan Institute and the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

The views in this article are the writer's own.