Democrats control the language of politics and culture — but for how long?
Elections are won by creating a contrast between you and your opponent. Republicans are not doing a very good job at creating that contrast right now; they seem to acquiesce when Democrats define the issues.
Democrats defined the riots, looting and burning of businesses across America in 2020 as “mainly peaceful protests.” But when a relatively small number of former President Trump’s supporters (their actual number unknown) at a mostly peaceful rally on Jan. 6, 2021, stormed the U.S. Capitol, it was defined as “insurrection.”
By accepting this characterization, Republicans had to accede to what followed: the staging of 25,000 troops, Capitol grounds being ensconced in concertina wire, the trespassers being pursued and jailed, and liberal pundits demanding that Trump voters be “deprogrammed.”
Senate Republicans last week did scuttle the Democrats’ attempt to create a “9/11-style commission” to study the Capitol attack, terminology that would have prejudiced the outcome from the start. But CNN reported that “35 House Republicans broke ranks” to support the bill, and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) had indicated their support for the bill.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had defined the commission as “Impeachment 3.0” in an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo. Politically, the commission would have kept Donald Trump in the news in a negative light — nourishing the Democratic base and taking issues such as President Biden’s $6 trillion budget proposal and questions about the origin of COVID-19 off the front pages.
Think of how different the narrative would be were a commission suggested to study the origin of the virus or the consequences of the “mainly peaceful protests” in Seattle, Portland and other U.S. cities.
There are other issues where Republicans don’t challenge the Democrats’ lexicon until it is nearly too late. The terms “assault rifle” and “weapons of war” were only recently questioned by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) when he asked while questioning David Chipman, Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), at his confirmation hearing: “I got 35 seconds left. Define it for me, would you please, sir, what’s an assault weapon?” Chipman had no answer — maybe because no one had ever asked before?
Technically, the definition of an assault rifle is a military weapon that has the “capacity to switch between semiautomatic and fully automatic fire.” This is not the AR-15, but Republicans have allowed Democrats to change and broaden this definition.
The fulcrum of the Biden administration is “equity,” which is only vaguely defined, yet is directed to be practiced by every department and integrated into every executive action and bill. On his first day, Biden signed an executive order creating “woke government” by empowering Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice to “coordinate efforts to embed equity principles, policies and approaches across the Federal Government.”
Our military is actively purging “insurgent thinkers,” such as fired Space Force commander Lt. Col. Matthew Lohmeier for criticizing “diversity training,” and qualified Asian and white students were allowed to be discriminated against in university applications, but Republicans have seemed unable to connect the dots to create a compelling public counter-narrative.
It took Leslie Stahl, reporting on “60 Minutes,” to bring to light what has happened to some who had sex changes with insufficient medical guidance and psychological support and chose to reverse the process. This is not just a “transgender rights” issue. In some cases, there are children making life-altering decisions. Kudos to Stahl and CBS for framing the issue carefully and starting the conversation.
Republicans seem afraid to engage in actual debate on the issue of race in America. “Systemic racism” is a loosely-defined term that is shaping policy and being accepted as causal to most problems and challenges that Black Americans face today.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, to its credit, took a shot at defining systemic racism as “racism that infects the very structure of our society.” The company’s website uses systemic racism to explain inequity in wealth, home ownership, educational achievement, employment, delivery of health care, policing and criminal justice. This is the unifying principle of the Democrats’ utopian “woke society,” and it seems that Republicans are hard-pressed to posit anything other than this foundational argument of Democrats. Maybe Republicans should ask Shelby Steele or Thomas Sowell, two conservative Black intellectuals, to help the GOP frame a larger, more inclusive, public debate.
Biden was elected in 2020 largely because he wasn’t Trump. If they keep on the current path, Republicans will not regain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms because they are “not Biden.” We are in a culture war for the hearts and minds of younger generations who are quickly becoming the political majority, and Republicans are slow to engage.
Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., which provides strategic communications services to organizations. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling and fundraising. Follow him on Twitter @dennismpe.