As debates on contentious social and moral issues rage across the United States, the country finds itself ensnared in a never-ending string of culture wars. Though both the left and right have harmed the legitimacy of their political platforms with frivolous scuffles over less pivotal cultural issues, Democrats in particular have suffered. By giving in to the party’s caricature of “coastal elites” who lack tolerance for the moral views of the heartland, Democratic culture warriors have substantially harmed the party’s image and jeopardized its legitimate policy initiatives.
While some subjects like abortion are important and worthwhile fights, other attempts to engage Republicans on cultural flash points such as corporate activism, free speech in academia and cancel culture have proven to be losing-issues that paint Democrats as out of touch with everyday Americans.
To refocus debates on concrete policy proposals and constructively engage voters on social issues, Democrats must learn to pick their battles and back down from inconsequential culture feuds. Though social media and a 24-hour news cycle have made embracing reactionary politics tempting, elected officials must develop a better filter to identify cultural issues that are worthwhile to act on.
Constructive political issues — as opposed to less productive issues that fuel anger and drive little progress — have tangible impacts on the rights, well-being and equality of specific groups. Instead of focusing on nebulous problems, Democrats should promote issues that are grounded in empirical evidence with clear policy solutions. Fights about reproductive rights, climate change and police reform are all productive issues that deserve the attention of Democrats, which is in sharp contrast to clashes over performative activism, regulation of free speech and feuds over terminology that lack the potential for influencing systemic change. By shifting their focus, Democrats can protect the party from attacks on its “woke” image and focus on issues with more achievable legislative targets.
One of the most successful “anti-woke” candidates has been Gov. Ron DeSantis, who — as an incumbent — swept the 2022 Florida Gubernatorial election with his promise to combat corporate activism and out-of-touch Democratic policies. Targeting Disney as his chief nemesis, DeSantis struck a chord with voters who didn’t believe corporations had a role in dictating the political beliefs of consumers. Though he offered few concrete solutions and struggled to make positive change in his fight against Disney, DeSantis still successfully formed a populist coalition centered on his perceived fight against corporate elites.
A prime example of performative activism is corporate involvement in politics, typically motivated by a corporation’s desire to improve brand image in the eyes of their young and very-online consumer base. Activism serves as just another profit-maximization strategy. With a majority of Americans unsupportive of corporate activism and many enraged by their favorite brands engaging in hot-button political issues, encouraging corporate political initiatives is likely harming the Democratic Party’s electoral chances. Additionally, since many brands use a faux “woke” exterior to distract from harmful internal practices and protect their business from government regulation, mainstream Democrats must stop supporting activism that aligns the party with the interests of big business and alienates rural and low-income voters.
In addition to toning back “woke” ideals in corporations, Democrats should pull back on the strict enforcement of liberal values in academia. While it’s no secret that universities are bastions of progressive ideas, there’s been a sharp drop in tolerance toward moderate and conservative thought over the past decade. With 63% of university students afraid of reputational damage from voicing their true opinions, free speech on college campuses is dying.
Though some extremist or hostile ideas should be prohibited, many students without bad intentions self-censor their views on major issues to avoid academic and social repercussions. While increasing inclusiveness on college campuses is a worthy goal, punishing students solely because their ideas are unpopular is a poor way to achieve that aim. As institutions of higher learning, universities should aim to foster vibrant and thoughtful debates throughout campus communities, which can’t occur without open discussions on difficult topics.
This wave of — sometimes student-led — censorship and intimidation on college campuses occurs as fights over liberal values in grade school education are taking place across the country in rowdy school board meetings. Despite the insignificance of many parents’ complaints relative to other national issues, the introduction of explicit political beliefs in the classroom has clearly galvanized voters. While it may be tempting to engage Republicans on cultural issues in education, doing so only plays into the hands of Republican politicians, who’ve used outrage over education to triumph in multiple major races.
Ultimately, if Democrats hope to win the culture war, they must hone in on important issues — such as abortion and voting rights — where they can offer voters actionable steps toward progress. Fighting Republicans on issues like free speech and engaging in performative activism fails to spread liberal messaging and aggravates voters who reject ideas that are forced upon them. With the GOP in chaos, Democrats have a prime opportunity to present themselves as responsible leaders. It’s time for the party to give up on the petty cultural fights Republicans embrace and focus on serving the country.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist who writes about national politics and campus events from a moderate perspective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.