Opinion | Campaign

Are cranky Democrats an electoral risk?

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No one has ever mistaken me for a Bill Maher fan. His standup never really appealed, and I was one of those snowflakes who was deeply offended by his use of the N-word in 2017 and sided with Ben Affleck that Maher's comments about Islam were more Islamophobic than "classical liberal." But now, even though my memory isn't short - I do know how to hold a grudge - this season of "Real Time with Bill Maher" hits all the right notes for me. I've been loving it.

From having the scientists behind the "Dark Horse" podcast on to discuss the origins of COVID-19 and the vaccine, to Democratic wunderkind David Shor who managed to survive his "cancellation" by the woke mob, to tough talk by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on the future of the Democratic Party and how it must include white people like him, Maher and those who book his guests are totally speaking my language: irreverent, researched, controversial and, most of all, thought-provoking.

A recent episode featured American linguist and Columbia professor John McWhorter and his perspective on what he calls "Black fragility," the problem with "mean woke" people, and the importance of challenging the orthodoxy that Black Americans operate as some kind of monolith instead of the diverse and varied group they are. I'd recommend that you watch the entire 15-minute interview, but what particularly resonated with me is a new term McWhorter and Maher used to describe themselves: "cranky liberals," or "cranky Democrats." They're not disaffected, they're not disengaged, they're just really cranky.

Liberalism has changed dramatically over the past few years, and the impact of these changes can be felt across a broad spectrum of issues that are turning a lot of happy Democrats into cranky ones. For me, there are a few issues that stand out to cause crankiness. 

First and foremost, is the so-called movement to "defund the police." Since this slogan burst onto the scene following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it's been a complete disaster. Politicians have contorted themselves into unattractive knots trying to explain what it actually means - because no one in their right mind thinks that we should actually defund police departments.

Progressive stalwart Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) acknowledged that it isn't the term she would use, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) made no bones about it: "Defund the police" cost Democrats seats in November and hurt the Black Lives Matter movement. 

There's no reason to be talking about defunding police when only 18 percent of Americans support the concept overall - including just 28 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Democrats. What has been central to President Biden's success is that he does popular things. That's how you get elected and keep your approval rating above 50 percent. As crime continues to soar in major cities, it is now a top issue in the New York City mayoral race, and I cringe every time I hear that terrible slogan.

Second, so-called "cancel culture" is becoming something more than right-wing complaining. According to recent polling, over 60 percent of Americans see the cancel culture as a threat, including a growing number of Democrats. Just a few years ago, who even knew what cancel culture was? Today, nearly everybody does and 48 percent of Democrats say they see it as a problem, compared to 52 percent who don't.

That's way too slim of a margin to ignore. And I can understand why it's becoming more and more of a hot-button issue. We have European publishers who have been fired as translators of Amanda Gorman's poetry because the translator wasn't a Black woman, even though Gorman picked the white Dutch translator herself. We have seen employees at Smith College get called racists for following school protocols and asking a Black student to leave an area that was off limits to everyone. And one of the most egregious examples is that of Mimi Groves, a white teenager who used a racial slur in a Snapchat video when she was 15, apologized and still had her college admission revoked after a fellow student decided to make her past actions a current problem.

These kinds of reactions and cancellations make a lot of solid liberals cranky - and they worry us.

Ronnie Shows, a former Democratic congressman from Mississippi, got it right when he recently wrote, "This means Democrats must reject the notion of 'cancel culture.' After four years of abuse from the Trump administration, some Democrats think now is the time to exact revenge on conservatives. We must reject those urges."

Third, what's making me a cranky Democrat is the new anti-racism curriculum popping up in both public and private schools. I am strongly in favor of curriculum revisions to address this deep issue, but not to the exclusion of historically important curriculum that is getting the heave ho. Anti-racism teachings and world history must coexist and complement each other.

From refusing to talk to students about Christopher Columbus and why we celebrate Veterans Day, according to one public school teacher I met, to the drama playing out over race at my alma mater, the Dalton School in Manhattan, even the most liberal parents are wondering if it's time to pull their kids.

Virginia's Fairfax County is about to pay nearly $300,000 for an equity consultant, and in the private Brearley School families must sign an "anti-racism pledge" to be considered for admission. Many parents feel their children are too young for such complex conversations that schools are pushing, and I can't say I disagree. This is about liberal pushback, not conservative opposition. It's about parents who share the same progressive values as these schools who feel like things are going too far.  

All this makes me wonder if we are running a real risk of turning "cranky Democrats" into disenchanted Democrats. With former President Trump out of the picture as the animating force, I worry that we will we start to see more results like the 2020 House outcome, where the GOP picked up seats across the map and sent more women and people of color to Washington than ever before, or the recent primary in Texas's 6th District, where a popular Democrat failed to even make the run-off. 

That's certainly my fear. And it's something that worries Maher and McWhorter, too. We want enthusiastic Democrats, not cranky ones.

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

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