Democrats' hot new midterm strategy: Getting "aggresive" on CRT?

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

Why stop there? If they’re intent on pursuing bad education-related political strategies, they might as well go all-in on keeping schools closed until there are literally zero COVID cases left in the United States.

Democrats typically aren’t inclined to draw lessons from electoral setbacks. In 2009 they watched a Republican win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts amid the party’s push to pass ObamaCare and then went right back to passing it. Despite public panic over inflation and a shocking GOP victory two weeks ago in a Biden +10 state, they’re still full speed ahead with another $1.85 trillion in spending under Build Back Better.

They know what they want policy-wise and there’s seemingly no limit to the losses they’re prepared to endure in the name of achieving their goals. So why shouldn’t they go to the mat for Critical Race Theory?

One thing they’ll have to figure out first is whether CRT is a form of highbrow legal scholarship that simply isn’t taught in U.S. elementary schools or whether CRT is being taught in elementary schools and is Actually Good. Liberals have played both sides of that depending upon the particular audience they’re addressing.

Democratic strategists say the party should hit back harder against “divisive” GOP claims [about CRT] while not losing sight of the priority for voters; the economy.

“On a political level it’s a real threat that is allowing Republicans to claw back the inroads that Democrats have made in the suburbs over the last couple of election cycles,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Democrats haven’t yet pushed back on this issue enough, but the “good news” is the party’s response is effective and there’s time to make the case before the 2022 elections, said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. They just need to make the case “relentlessly,” he said.

“Voters run from the Republicans when Democrats peel back the onion on what these claims really mean,” he said. “It’s not just that Republicans want a bigger role for parents in education, it’s that Republicans are willing to let White supremacists write curricula.”

“If you oppose teaching kids that whites are villains and blacks are victims, you support white supremacy” is a bold midterm strategy, especially aimed at those white suburban moms who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020 before flipping to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia this month. There’s no political problem Democrats have that can’t be solved by calling voters racist more vehemently.

Here’s the best I can do to redeem the advice in the excerpt above. CRT helped motivate white voters to go to the polls in Virginia; if Democrats don’t find a way to similarly motivate nonwhite voters, they’re going to get wrecked next year. Doing battle with the GOP on the subject of race in schools could rally those voters in theory if, as the excerpt imagines, Dems can convince people that Republicans have a hidden agenda. It’s not just lessons about “structural racism” they oppose, in which white children are implicit oppressors by dint of their privilege, Dems will say. They want to purge lessons about slavery and Jim Crow too in order to whitewash (so to speak) the racist chapters of American history. Most voters want kids to know the truth:

A majority of Republicans were on the wrong side of that question, believing the history of racism in the U.S. should be taught not so much or not at all. Another recent poll from Monmouth asked, “Should public schools teach the history of racism?” Just 21 percent overall said no — but more than twice as many Republicans, 43 percent, said so. For some righties, it seems, opposing CRT is part of a broader impulse to avoid teaching about racism, period, whether because they think educating kids about the country’s sins is “unpatriotic” or because they believe studying racial oppression in the past is destined to be divisive in class.

If the GOP overreaches in its anti-CRT initiatives, targeting mainstream American history instead of the niche of “structural racism,” maybe Dems can work with that. They can fold it into a broader attack about Republicans having descended into a book-banning moral panic aimed at showing how much more they care about schools and children than Dems do. But even then, the average suburban parent will simply be choosing between two forms of educational overreach, with CRT itself being the other. And Republicans will have an advantage inasmuch as voters rarely fault politicians for being overzealous in their desire to protect kids from bad influences. “The real issue for voters is whether a candidate is on the side of parents and students or not,” said one Dem source to Business Insider about the anti-anti-CRT strategy, which I think is correct. But which party are parents more likely to perceive as being on their side, the one that wants to rid schools of all manner of smut and woke indoctrination or the one claiming that doing so would amount to censorship?

More than that, public opinion about CRT may have deteriorated so far already that aligning with it is destined to backfire, no matter what Democrats’ actual message is. Here’s what YouGov found a few weeks ago when it asked, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of critical race theory?”

That’s -20 net among suburbanites, -29 among independents. “No, really, the cure is worse than the disease!” is a tough message for lefties in those circumstances. And there’s another problem. Inasmuch as CRT is viewed as a fringe preoccupation of extremely progressive intellectuals, defending it might alienate working-class voters — of all races. “[F]or many voters, and not just white ones, critical race theory is in a basket with other cultural microaggressions directed at working people by the elites they see as running the Democratic Party,” wrote Ryan Grim. “Take, for instance, one of the women in Barefoot’s focus groups. When asked if Democrats share their cultural values, she said, ‘They fight for the right things and I usually vote for them but they believe some crazy things. Sometimes I feel like if I don’t know the right words for things they think I am a bigot.’” Grim went on to compare CRT to busing in the 1970s, another liberal social-engineering project: “Democratic elites are creating conflict within the working class while protecting their own class and cultural interests.” If that’s what nonwhite voters take away from CRT, Democrats are in desperate trouble.

The most encouraging thing one can say for Dems with respect to CRT next fall is that anyone who’s motivated to vote by that issue was probably already so heavily inclined to vote Republican that they were beyond Democrats’ reach from the start. If they want to win suburban moms back, the should cross their fingers and hope inflation eases soon and meanwhile try to avoid saying anything half as stupid as “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” I’ll leave you with this, a dispatch from the culture wars.