Democrats need to quit arguing with Republicans about Critical Race Theory even if they need to push back against specific policies like book banning in Texas. The GOP uses CRT to motivate their base, not to persuade any voters. Engaging in debates over CRT or most of their inflammatory positions helps them reach voters who otherwise might not vote. When those debates are dominating electoral politics, Democrats are usually on the losing end.
The CRT argument is about reaching a narrow audience, not a broad one. Polls show that most people don’t believe that Critical Race Theory is a threat to their children. In fact, a solid majority of people believe schools should teach about racism and its effect on society. Republicans are primarily the people who oppose that notion. And that’s who the argument is supposed to motivate. I would suggest that it worked in Virginia.
Virginia had the highest turnout for a gubernatorial election in its history. I suspect a lot of the voters who usually don’t participate in off-year elections but who showed up to vote against McAuliffe were motivated by race. A Fox News poll showed that 25% of electorate said the CRT debate was the most important issue in the race and we know who those 25% are. We’ve seen the Critical Race Theory sentiment before in different forms. It’s Defund the Police. It’s coming for your guns. It was the Helms “Hands” ad in 1990 and Willie Horton in 1988. The audience is narrow, but excitable.
As frustrating as it might seem, Democrats can’t “win” the argument over race. People motivated by racial animosity aren’t going to be persuaded to change their minds and, in fact, the more they hear about it, the more they’re likely to vote against Democrats. For many suburban White moderates, it’s just not a deciding issue even if they may be more sympathetic to Democrats’ positions on race. And while racial politics may animate progressive activists, there’s not much evidence that it increases turnout among the Democratic base.
Making racial equality or gender equality the center piece of the electoral debate is never going to be good for Democrats. It motivates the Republican base more than it motivates the Democratic base. People for whom social justice is a motivating factor are already politicized and likely to vote. However, racial animosity drives uneducated and low-information White voters because they fear of losing their culture or their place in society.
Now, an article in Business Insider says Democrats are going to push back hard against CRT heading into the midterms. I hope that’s an overreading of the sentiment of a handful of Democrats. The 2022 election is not going to be about education. It’s going to be about Joe Biden and the performance of Democrats in Congress. They need to run on their accomplishments and blame Republicans for opposing the popular programs in the Build Back Better bill. If CRT is the primary topic of conversation, then Republicans are controlling the debate.
Democrats need to have an answer for Critical Race Theory, but it should be dismissive more than engaging. Something along the lines of, “We don’t want to teach Critical Race Theory in our schools, but we do want to teach critical thinking skills so our children can make good decisions for their futures. And we want to teach an honest reckoning of our country’s history so we can learn from both our successes and our mistakes to make sure we remain a beacon of light for nations across the globe.” It should be a response and not a leading argument. Accusing of Republicans of racism or White supremacy will just draw more attention to the issue.
After decades of believing that high turnout elections benefit Democrats, that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. High turnout in 2020 almost gave Trump a second term. High turnout in Virginia elected a Republican in a blue state. The GOP base is more easily motivated by fear of a changing country and racial fear is a big part of it. Instead of arguing with Republicans about whether or not they are racists, Democrats should be arguing that they are standing in the way of economic progress for middle class and lower class families.