America needs help. Yet Democrats are getting sucked into fake culture wars

I do not know if I can survive three more years of Democrats stumbling over themselves to disavow the Democratic platform in a doomed attempt to win bad-faith culture wars. It is too painful, like watching ruthless hunters herding panicked animals over the side of a cliff. The poor, dumb beasts inevitably go extinct if they are not able to outthink such a rudimentary strategy.

Walk around your town. Explore a major American city. Drive across the country. What are the most important problems you see? There is poverty. Homelessness. A lack of affordable housing. Vast and jaw-dropping economic and racial inequality. There is a lack of public transportation, a broken healthcare system, environmental degradation, and a climate crisis that threatens to upend our way of life. These are real problems. These are the things that we need our government to fix. These are what we need to hear politicians talk about. These are what we must debate and focus on, if we are really concerned about human rights and our children’s future and all the other big things we claim to value.

I guarantee you that neither “cancel culture” nor “critical race theory” nor, worse of all, “wokeness” will grab you as enormous problems after your exploration of America, unless that exploration ranges only from a college faculty lounge to a cable TV studio to the office of a rightwing thinktank. These are all words that mean nothing. To the extent that they are real at all, they are niche concerns that plague such a small subset of Americans that they deserve to be addressed only after we have solved the many other, realer problems.

All these terms function primarily as empty vessels into which bad-faith actors can pour racism, so that it may appear more palatable when it hits the public airwaves. Common sense tells us we should spend most of our time talking about the biggest problems, and less time on the lesser problems, and no time on the mythical problems. To engage in long and tortured debates over these slippery and indefinable culture war terms is to violate that rule, with awful consequences for everyone.

Let’s not bullshit about this. Racism is a wonderfully effective political tool for Republicans, yet explicit racism is frowned upon in polite society now, so there is a constant flow of new issues to stand in for racism in political discourse. Lee Atwater, who invented Nixon’s “southern strategy”, explained this all decades ago, and it is still true. George Wallace could be outright racist, but subsequent generations of politicians have had to cloak it in “welfare reform” or being “tough on crime” or, now, opposition to “wokeness” and “critical race theory” – things which mean, by the way, “caring about racism”.

Three-quarters of a million Americans are dead from a pandemic. We have a Democratic president and a booming economy. So we will get culture wars, and more culture wars, all of which are built on stoking various forms of hate. This is a game that serious leaders should not play. Unfortunately, we don’t have too many serious leaders. We have the Democratic party.

Republicans will push these culture wars as far as they can, but it takes Democrats to make the strategy work. There are two types of Democrats falling for this trap now. One type is the group of fairly well-meaning people who assume that the fact there is a cottage industry dedicated to amplifying these terms in the media means there must be something to them. The other type are the opportunistic Democrats, who often brand themselves “centrists”, who see the culture wars as a way to steal power from the left wing of their own party, even if it comes at the cost of hurting millions of Americans.

We have seen this movie before. The 1990s was the era of fiery and stupid debates over gay people in the military, flag burning and Sister Souljah. They were just an earlier iteration of the same thing we’re going through now. The decision of Democrats to lean into this dynamic by running to the right led to atrocities like Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” and crime bills that won him momentary electoral power by immiserating an entire generation of poor, non-white people, many of whom are still caged in prison today. Choosing to give credence to the culture wars has real life consequences. Already, we can see panicked Democrats rushing to decry the very sort of social justice fights that give the decrepit party its only redeeming value.

Here is the good news: we don’t have to do this. We can step off this train before it pulls out of Bad Faith Station on the way to the Trump 2024 victory party. What we need is some sort of broad force that can unite people of disparate races and persuasions around a shared, common interest. Something capable of demonstrating the value of the fight against inequality and corporate domination in a real, tangible way. Something that wages its fights in reality, not in the remote world of buzzwords and misdirection.

Guess what? That thing already exists. It’s called the labor movement. And it’s energetic as hell right now. A wave of strikes across the nation that has been building for months is garnering levels of attention unseen in decades. The popularity of unions is high. This is a model of progressive values in action that a political party could rally around, if that party was not always so easily tempted to trip over its own shoelaces.

In deep red rural Alabama, you can find hundreds of striking mine workers – black and white, Democratic and Republican – completely united and fighting hard, in unity, for economic justice. These people whom our society typically divides have come together in a union, and are sacrificing for one another, side by side. The military is the only other institution in American society that accomplishes this feat of unity, and unions can do it without shooting anyone. The labor movement is living proof that the substance of progressive politics – protecting the poor against the rich, promoting equality, giving everyone fair treatment no matter who they are or how much money they make – is a tool powerful enough to overcome the background drone of Fox News (and the Atlantic).

Democrats do not need to wonder how to overcome the culture wars. We already know how: organizing working people to create power that can produce a more just and equal world. It works. But to make it work, you need to hold it up and promote it and help it and talk about it, rather than talking about whether things are “too woke”. Our problems are in the real world. Our solutions are in the real world as well. Our politicians? Many of them are floating in the ether. Come back down to earth, join the labor movement, and help people walk the path away from the incredibly dumb nightmare that awaits us if we get sucked into bullshit debates, with bullshit people, about bullshit.

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