May 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dems punch back against GOP’s “culture war” attacks

Illustration of a donkey in a boxing robe with the word "dem" on the back
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democrats are starting to fight back against the bludgeoning they've taken since the Republicans seized on socially charged issues to help win this fall's midterms.

Why it matters: Recent research has shown the barrage of "culture war" messaging — on everything from critical race theory to bashing LGBTQ communities — is working, and Democrats now realize they can't ignore it any longer. They want to make 2022 a referendum on MAGA nation and its agenda.

  • President Biden himself got more aggressive while traveling to Ohio last Wednesday to honor 2022's Teacher of the Year: a history instructor who teaches courses about oppression and Black history.
  • "Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points trying to ban books — even math books. I mean, did you ever think ... that when you'd be teaching, you'd be worrying about book burnings and banning books? All because it doesn't fit somebody's political agenda," the president said.
  • "We ought to stop making them a target of the culture wars."

The American Federation of Teachers — along with 214 other parent groups, student groups, and unions — is also placing ads in more than a dozen newspapers, including the New York Times, across 13 key states this week to coincide with Teacher Appreciation Week, Axios has learned.

  • “We’re saying we are grateful, your work matters and you need support to help our kids recover — not attacks from political extremists who make your job harder," AFT president Randi Weingarten told Axios.
  • Fox News has talked about what's being taught in schools over 1,000 times since January 2021, per the Washington Post.

What they're saying: Democrats have often shied away from the emotional appeal of such issues — even with abortion rights — frequently dismissing Republican attacks as unworthy of a response.

No longer.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told Axios: "There's a lot of us that are extremely frustrated with Republicans for doing this but also want our colleagues to be comfortable enough to stand up and defend our values rather than running to some other message or running away from it."
  • "I think that's starting to happen," said Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said: "It is very clear that the other side is going to continue to sort of fear-monger as a way to drum up support. For some [voters] that works, but I think pushing back works too."

Driving the news: Until last week, Democrats felt they didn't have a clear, firebrand example for how to successfully push back on these attacks — even though the party's leaders control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Now, they believe they have at least one: little-known Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow.

  • The lawmaker from a blue-collar state gave a now-viral floor speech in Lansing rebuking a Republican colleague for labeling her a "groomer" over her support of LGBTQ kids' rights.
  • Every Democratic House member interviewed by Axios amid this reporting independently mentioned McMorrow and the backbone and passion she displayed.

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) compared the virality of the speech to that of Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, telling Axios it was the "perfect call-out to the attacks on what McMorrow dubbed 'marginalized people.'"

  • Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said: "I think you absolutely need to have that kind of tone, that kind of attitude on these issues. These guys are punching down. ... I think you've got to hit back. You've got to hit back hard."
  • McMorrow herself told MSNBC last week: "I hope that there are a lot more people like me, who see what I did and say, ‘We have to stand up and fight back.’ Because this strategy is not going away."

Between the lines: With inflation sweeping the nation, the war in Ukraine dominating headlines and slow-moving legislation in Congress, some Democrats feel like they're in limbo.

  • Biden's poor approval ratings have made them want to go on the offensive, but rather than talk about what they've done, they're increasingly targeting the GOP for siding with Donald Trump and backing his rhetoric.
  • Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn, told Axios: "It’s very clear to me this needs to be a referendum on today’s Republican Party, which has embraced [Make America Great Again]."
  • "It’s about all of us versus MAGA. I’m not just talking about Trump, but the disease within the GOP that has taken over," Epting continued.

What they're saying: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, warned of the Republicans' "alarmingly potent" tactics in February.

  • Maloney, a member of the LGBTQ community, told Axios that Republicans have become “openly homophobic and hateful in some of their rhetoric, and we don't need to be shy at all.”

But, but, but: Republicans argue Democrats are to blame for their own position in the polls.

  • “Democrats are pushing defund the police, irreversible transition surgery for minors, critical race theory and taxpayer-funded abortion," said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
  • "Americans overwhelmingly reject this insanity. That’s why, so far, their policies have been far more aggressive than their public-messaging. The more upfront and honest Democrats are about their radical and anti-American cultural agenda, the better.”
Go deeper