Republicans know what the biggest issue in the country is right now. It’s not a pandemic that killed more than half a million Americans and the economic devastation it left, it’s not income inequality that is making the rich richer and eroding the path to the middle class for everyone else, it’s not systemic racism highlighted by police violence.
No, none of those are a major issue for the GOP. The biggest threat to America now is cancel culture.
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From Dr. Seuss to Major League Baseball, Republicans are in an uproar about what they see as a threat to free speech. For example, by taking a stand against Georgia’s restrictive voting law, corporations are siding with “far-left mobs,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) went so far as to suggest that democracy itself was at stake if supposed cancel culture ensues. “This is the biggest threat to freedom we face,” Jordan said recently. “We have to fight back.”
Jordan is probably best known for the accusations that he willfully ignored complaints of sexual abuse made by male wrestlers against the team doctor when Jordan was a team coach at Ohio State. (Jordan has denied those allegations.)
Conservatives’ choice to focus on cancel culture — what others might call accountability — is a sign of just how desperate they are to keep the culture war fires burning. Since Trump up-ended their party, Republicans have no legislative agenda beyond cutting taxes and saying no to everything else. It’s the party of outrage, not policy.
There’s no point in expecting logical cohesion in a political argument, but the Republicans’ screams against cancel culture are particularly incoherent. To begin with, conservatives are intentionally muddying the waters to make cancel culture cover whatever they don’t like. Theoretically, cancel culture could be defined as social ostracism.
Say someone writes or tweets something offensive, that person may very be publicly shamed, dropped by their friends and colleagues and possibly lose their job. Conservative complain that this is a form of leftist thought policing that tramples on people’s free speech.
Even some liberals are leery of it, saying that cancel culture can be too quick to call for the harshest possible penalty against offenders. “That is not activism,” Barack Obama said in a 2019 speech. “That is not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.”
But what Republicans are calling cancel culture is more often a combination of criticism they don’t like, and recognition that some things in plain sight have long been offensive.
McConnell didn’t like it when corporations implicitly criticized the voter suppression effort in Georgia, which Republicans across the nation are embracing. The corporations are engaging in free speech — but it’s speech McConnell doesn’t appreciate. He prefers corporate speech to come in the form of big checks, and said so out loud.
In the case of Dr. Seuss, the Seuss Foundation decided to stop printing new copies of six of the author’s books because they contained over-the-top racist illustrations. Left-wing activists didn’t force the decision upon the Foundation, which made the decision by itself.
The racism didn’t bother conservative critics. Moreover, they criticized the Foundation for supposedly caving to “the left.” That says it all: the conservative response cancel culture is to call for — you guessed it — cancel culture. Apparently, it’s okay if Republicans do it.
Led by former President Trump and Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, Republicans are boycotting baseball because of the league’s decision to pull the All-Star game from Atlanta. Legislators in Georgia are looking to punish Delta Airlines for criticizing the law that prompted the move, by targeting the company’s tax breaks.
Conservatives have been canceling people they don’t like for a long time. Just ask former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. He became the target of unending attacks for kneeling at games during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people.
All conservatives are doing is adapting cancel culture and branding it with a different name: religious freedom. The relentless assault on LGBTQ rights is an attempt to cancel the progress made to date.
Canceling trans athletes, canceling medical care for trans youth, canceling same-sex wedding customers — these are core beliefs in the conservative universe. It’s just that the right calls it freedom.
But freedom at someone else’s expense is not freedom. It’s ostracism. When it comes to cancel culture, Republicans are the biggest culture mavens of all.