Dr. Seuss goes to Washington: How the GOP plans to use the culture wars to win elections

·14 min read

WASHINGTON — For someone who has supposedly been “canceled,” Dr. Seuss is having a pretty good run. Last Tuesday, the company that oversees the estate of the beloved children’s author announced that it would no longer publish six of his books because they contained racist images. Outrage followed — much of it from conservatives — and within hours, the Amazon bestseller list was dominated by Seuss, with more than half of its top 100 bestsellers belonging to the author of “The Cat in the Hat” (the top-selling book on Amazon) and “Green Eggs and Ham” (No. 2).

Even as a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill headed toward President Biden’s desk, Republicans continued to obsess over Dr. Seuss. They are a party that has been dispossessed of power in Washington, watching as their Democratic counterparts pass legislation that is both consequential and popular. Giving people money does tend to poll well, and Republicans have been desperate to find an issue that will throw Biden off course.

Dr. Seuss books
Three Dr. Seuss titles that will no longer be published. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

They may have found that issue on Mulberry Street. Talking about children’s books in the middle of a pandemic may seem like an unserious countermove, but the right has long believed in Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that “politics is downstream from culture.”

Winning the war over Dr. Seuss and other icons of American culture, some conservatives believe, could be their path back to congressional majorities and eventually the White House. The National Republican Congressional Committee is sending copies of “The Cat in the Hat” to every person who donates $25 or more to its election coffers. “We need you to help save Dr. Seuss from the radical left,” declares the fundraising pitch, which includes a questionable attempt at poetry.

“Look, it’s definitely not mainstream America. It’s not where the voters are at,” NRCC Chair Tom Emmer, R-Minn., told Yahoo News. “They're making a huge mistake.” As far as Emmer and many other conservatives are concerned, effacing American icons like Dr. Seuss is part of that agenda.

That the decision to stop printing six of his books was made by a private corporation unrelated to the Democratic Party seems to make no difference. “Americans are much smarter than that,” Emmer said.

Some on the left think the Democratic Party should tend more carefully to cultural issues, even as it shores up the economy. “You do not want to be the political party canceling Lincoln,” a veteran Democratic strategist told Yahoo News, referring to a school board in San Francisco that recently made (then dropped) an attempt to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name from a public school because of his treatment of Native Americans.

The trick for Republicans will be to tether Democrats to these cultural developments: the degendering of Mr. Potato Head by toy maker Hasbro; a seemingly earnest proposal to take down the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., because the third president owned slaves; a movement by some teachers against teaching Shakespeare because he was, supposedly, as one educator wrote in School Library Journal a proponent of “misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir.”

Mr. Potato Head toy
Mr. Potato Head. (Mario Ruiz/The Life Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

These developments have been fodder to some Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has embraced the Seuss controversy, even as she seeks to broaden gun rights, curb protections for transgender people and impeach Biden. Asked for comment, Greene replied in her own attempt at Seussian rhyme:

If I published books, I wouldn’t succumb to leftists’ dirty looks.

I would never cancel the author of Cat in the Hat.

Nope, I would never do that.

If I ran the House, I would fire Pelosi. It would make the place a lot more cozy.

I would impeach Joe Biden, and send him back into hidin’.

Woke progressives want cancel culture, they’re just a bunch of nasty vultures.

Each jab by someone like Greene is meant to box Democrats into a corner. So the reconsideration of television police drama is supposedly evidence that political progressives and cultural elites want to “cancel” the very idea of law enforcement, as Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., put it.

To engage with the argument is to lose it, but to let such accusations proliferate unchecked could allow Republicans to spin a damaging narrative. Either way, Democrats could find themselves heading down a “not-so-good street,” as Dr. Seuss once put it.

Biden does not want to defund the police, as he has made clear. That won’t stop Republicans from seizing on any evidence, no matter how slight, that “middle-class Joe” is really a culture warrior in disguise.

As far as the Seuss controversy goes, it didn’t exactly help that the announcement about the six titles in question came on National Read Across America Day, which coincides with the March 2 birthday of Theodore Geisel, as Dr. Seuss was known in the real world (he died in 1991). Biden’s proclamation for the quasi-holiday contained no mention of Seuss, unlike similar proclamations by Obama and Trump. That was enough evidence for conservatives that it was all his doing.

“Who knew Joe Biden was such a great book seller,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appending his message with an image of an all-Seuss list of Amazon’s top 10 best-selling books.

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

When there’s an opening in politics, someone is going to take it.

The opportunity appears to be there. Many Americans don’t know what cancel culture is, a September poll found. It doesn’t help that the concept has no clear definition. Cancellation can mean the loss of a job because of a legitimately flagrant violation of social norms, or it can mean the loss of status because the culture has changed. Conservatives have been canceled, but so have liberals.

Definitions, however, matter less than impressions. When people do learn about cancel culture, they tend to view it with distaste, a Politico/Morning Consult poll from July found. That means that there’s a large group of Americans open to persuasion on a highly controversial issue. And that persuasion seems to flow in one direction, i.e. to the right.

Awareness of the issue does appear to have grown throughout the fall and winter. A recent poll by YouGov and Yahoo News found that 59 percent of people polled viewed cancel culture as either a big or “somewhat big” problem. The voters who tended to care most about cancel culture were whites earning $100,000 or more per year: that is, the suburban voters who are crucial to Republicans’ electoral prospects.

“‘Cancel culture’ may spawn a new, silent voting bloc,” went a headline in the Hill shortly before last year’s presidential election. That didn’t come to pass on Nov. 3, but without Trump making their case for them on a daily basis over Twitter, Republicans may actually find it easier to make the cancel culture issue stick.

“Well, all they have at this point is doubling down on the culture wars,” said Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher. It’s very strategic and, by the way, has historically been successful for them for decades.” Belcher said that if the strategy is less successful in the future, it is because younger voters “are increasingly flexing their political muscle in a determinative way.” Polling by YouGov and Yahoo News confirms that voters between 18 and 29 years of age care much less about cancel culture than do older voters, in particular those over 65. To complicate matters somewhat, Asian Americans are increasingly aligned against progressive cultural politics, as are Hispanics.

Trump would have doubtlessly reveled in the fight over Dr. Seuss. His successor has little appetite for cultural warfare, and the Biden administration has studiously avoided taking the Republicans’ bait on whether “The Lorax” belongs in the pantheon of children’s literature.“We are not focused on battling with Dr. Seuss,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News.

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 28. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even if the Democratic establishment has nothing to do with the Seuss estate, the very notion of turning Yertle the Turtle into a martyr felled by joyless, finger-wagging radicals is too rich to resist. To underscore just how far left the Democratic Party had supposedly moved, Fox News found a 2015 clip of President Obama telling White House interns “pretty much all the stuff you need to know is in Dr. Seuss."

Obama has spoken out against cancel culture, even as he has asked American culture to be more inclusive. But that kind of nuance does not tend to make it onto primetime cable news. Part of the problem — and the opportunity — is that “cancel culture” is as amorphous a phrase as “drain the swamp,” which is what makes it so politically useful: It can mean whatever one wants it to.

What Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., calls “the woke mob” includes both Portland antifa protesters and Manhattan corporate executives. Ever since having his book deal canceled by Simon & Schuster for his alleged support of the Jan. 6 rioters at the U.S. Capitol, Hawley has portrayed himself as a victim of that mob, appearing frequently on Fox News to tap into a deep well of Trumpian grievance.

“We’re facing a fight for the republic itself, and we are facing an unprecedented alliance of radical liberals, and the biggest, most powerful corporations in the history of the world. They are standing together,” Hawley said during his CPAC speech. A few days later, he announced a record fundraising haul.

Hawley and Greene have just updated and refined the Trump attacks from 2016, claiming Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street and the Democrats in Washington are working together to erode traditional American values. It may be that “cancel culture” is just another expression of Trumpism, with its disdain for elites of all varieties.

In the simplest terms, the Republican Party hopes those demands result in a backlash. In the Seussian controversy, they believe they have evidence of such a backlash, at least if the Amazon bestseller list is any indication. They believe they can paint the Democrats not only as the party against freedom, but against the uncomplicated pleasures of American life. That may be why Cruz ended his CPAC speech with three words: “Just have fun.”

That approach could backfire, however. “If Dr. Seuss is the Republican plan to take back the White House, they will be in the wilderness for a long time,” the veteran Democratic strategist told Yahoo News. He cautioned, however, that it would be a mistake to entirely dismiss the controversy as “nonsense” that feeds the outrage machine.

Josh Hawley
Conservative firebrand Sen. Josh Hawley. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Culture war issues, standing alone, are insufficient for Republicans,” agreed Republican pollster Whit Ayres. But he also cautioned that cancel culture could become “a real vulnerability for Democrats,” if Republicans figure out how to invoke the issue without exhausting it.

The right’s preoccupation with cancel culture began over the summer, during the antiracism protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by officers in the Minneapolis Police Department. When some of those protests turned violent, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for federal troops to restore order in American cities. The ensuing outrage cost opinion editor James Bennet his job.

New York Times editors rarely become heroes of the right, but in decrying Bennet’s dismissal, conservatives saw a way to lambaste the New York Times, denounce the summer’s largely peaceful protest and raise alarms about the frightening new specter of leftist intolerance. “The New York Times Caves to a Woke Mob,” read a National Review headline.

It would be months before cancel culture became a Fox News staple, but a movement did appear to be building, and not just on the right. In August, some of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals, including linguist and left-wing icon Noam Chomsky, progressive Black academic Cornel West and feminist Gloria Steinem, signed an open letter critiquing cancel culture that was published in Harper’s Magazine. The letter decried “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

Trump chimed in as well when he spoke at the Republican National Convention two weeks later. “The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated, and driven from society as we know it,” he said.

Marjorie Taylor Greene
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., at a news conference in February. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

With that formulation, Trump made it seem like ordinary Americans, not cultural elites, were the ones cancel culture sought as its victims.

David Shor, a Democratic strategist who found himself canceled last year, said that if Republicans want to use cancel culture as an electoral issue, they will have to make the case that it affects people who are not New York Times editors or Hollywood mainstays.

“It’s usually a bad idea to talk about things that voters don’t care very much about,” Shor told Yahoo News. “They’re really leaning into this free speech argument, and I don’t think it will go anywhere.”

Some are looking to expand the notion of cancel culture to include other divisive issues, such as rights for transgender people. Greene, for example, has charged that progressives want to “cancel gender,” an apparent reference to queer-friendly moves by both congressional Democrats and the Biden administration.

Those moves have included House passage of the Equality Act, which would make gay and transgender people into a protected class and make discrimination against them a federal offense. Although the fate of the legislation in the Senate is unclear, Biden supports the bill. He has also signed an executive order on combating gender-identity-related discrimination. And he has picked Dr. Rachel Levine, the Pennsylvania health commissioner, as a high-ranking deputy in the Department of Health and Human Services. She stands to become the first openly transgender person in U.S. history to hold a Senate-confirmed position.

“I notice a lot more focus on trans topics from the GOP lately,” said Republican strategist Liz Mair. Greene has accused Democrats of exploiting the issue, while Levine faced hostile questioning on trans issues from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

A sign put up by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene
A sign put up by Greene, a harsh critic of transgender rights. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

“This is a crisis that demands our full attention,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told Yahoo News. “That’s why everyday working Americans look at this focus on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and eliminating gender as a legal category and think it is nuts.”

The irony is that this discord is exactly what Dr. Seuss sought to diminish throughout much of his career. He apologized for the racist images of his early works and political cartoons. His best books strive to teach the very kind of inclusivity today’s progressives support.

A proponent of compassion and moderation, Dr. Seuss would have likely been horrified by the controversy surrounding his books. He perhaps also would have cautioned people about making his books a touchstone in the culture wars.

“Be sure when you step, step with care and great tact,” he wrote in his last work published in his lifetime, “Oh, the Places You'll Go!”

“And remember that life’s a great balancing act.”


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