“Woke?” “Cancel culture?” “Identity politics?” The right's reliance on empty rhetoric is getting ridiculous
Without coherent policy arguments to make, the right falls back on buzzwords
If right-wing media have legitimate arguments to be made in opposition to Democratic policy proposals, they’re not doing a very good job of articulating what those arguments are. Thankfully, they have a grab bag of buzzwords to fall back on.
Fox News’ Rachel Campos-Duffy dug deep into that bag for the April 1 edition of Fox News Primetime, with a rambling monologue bemoaning that “critical race theory and gender ideology have infected nearly every institution in America.”
Campos-Duffy accused progressives of “ruthlessly conquering cultural territory” in an attempt to destroy “the last vestige of the pro-American meritocracy,” the military. She accused former President Barack Obama of engaging in a “stealth takeover” and of creating a culture where officers who “obeyed and advanced the woke progressive agenda” would succeed.
“Identity politics infiltrates our military,” read the chyron plastered across the bottom of the screen.
“Critical race theory?” “Gender ideology?” “Woke progressive agenda?” “Identity politics?” Add in “cancel culture” and “political correctness,” and Campos-Duffy would have a full right-wing bingo card.
These terms, which I’ve referred to in the past as “rhetorical empty calories,” have long served as verbal crutches in conservative media. Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness. On the right, “critical race theory” seems to mean little more than acknowledging racism, “gender ideology” is the recognition that trans people exist, “identity politics” is a way to say “not a straight white dude” without actually saying as much, and “woke” is apparently anything to the left of William F. Buckley.
From a policy point of view, Democrats tend to have legislative goals that poll more favorably with the public. This may explain why conservative media outlets have put an added emphasis on cultural grievances meant to keep audiences feeling enraged and victimized by imaginary controversies about trivial things like the gender of a Mr. Potato Head toy and terrified that they will be “replaced” by immigrants.
In the rare cases where conservative outlets actually do try to offer opposition to a Democratic policy proposal, they’re reduced to quibbling over the definition of words or just outright lying about what’s at stake. And right-wing outlets and the politicians they support often rely on buzzwords to fill in the gaps of their shakily framed arguments.
While it’s understandable that dittoheads seeking a post-Rush Limbaugh propaganda fix might gulp down these empty words unquestioned, acceptance in mainstream media as a legitimate stand-in for an argument may actually further erode our political system, leaving one party making bizarre and hypocritical circular arguments while the burden of offering fact-driven policy solutions is left entirely to the other.
Mainstream media have an obligation to acknowledge just how absurd the use of buzzwords has become on the right.
When journalists attempt to write about conservative arguments against “cancel culture” and “wokeness,” they often end up relying on some of the same tropes pushed by the people on the right. In a recent Washington Post newsletter about “the war on ‘wokeness,’” the author describes people who opposed racial justice movements as “embracing a doctrine of anti-anti-racism,” explains “wokeness” as “often invoked as a pejorative for overzealous left-wing dogmatism, usually around issues of identity,” and defines opposition to “cancel culture” as a “condemnation of liberal censoriousness and intolerance.”
The problem with this approach is that it takes the right’s arguments at face value, framing the ideas of identity-driven “left-wing dogmatism” and “liberal censoriousness and intolerance” as undisputed realities. This lends legitimacy to the right-wing argument that “cancel culture” is something driven exclusively by the left. Additionally, though he had no problem printing arguments about left-wing “intolerance” as matters of fact, he danced around the reality that “anti-anti-racism” is simply a euphemism for racism.
It’s difficult to write about and report on these sorts of insincere campaigns without appearing to accept the strawman arguments as rooted in fact. This happened in a March New York Times article about Dr. Seuss Enterprises pulling production of six of the late author’s books. “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts,” reads the Times headline. In the piece itself, the author didn’t push back on the loaded right-wing framing that Democrats were trying to “cancel” Dr. Seuss.
The reaction to Tuesday’s announcement was one of swift derision from many conservative politicians and commentators, including Donald Trump Jr. and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who complained on the House floor that Democrats were outlawing Dr. Seuss. He posted a YouTube video of himself the next day reading “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Calling something “woke” is not an argument. Responding to criticism of something someone said or did by launching into a rant about “cancel culture” is not an explanation. Calling a trans person’s hiring “identity politics” doesn’t tell an audience what (if anything) makes the person unqualified. This is the challenge Democratic politicians are often faced with in the current media landscape: Democrats will support a position, offer up a series of justifications for it, and Republicans will just call it “woke” and move along with their day.
The New York Times’ first week of April shows just how common this practice is becoming.
Between April 1 and April 7, the Times ran six separate articles using the word “woke.” Every single reference to the word came from a Republican politician, highlighting the intellectual laziness of their positions.
For instance, in an article about the push by activists and workers to include a fund for undocumented immigrants who didn’t qualify for stimulus funds or unemployment in New York’s state budget, the Times quoted state Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy as calling the fund “woke insanity.” There was no argument or elaboration made, nor was there any indication that the Times pressed him on the issue, though the paper did note that many undocumented immigrants work essential jobs.
Langworthy could have put forward an actual argument for the state party’s opposition to that provision by saying that it was too costly or that the money could be better spent somewhere else; instead, he leaned on a buzzword, giving himself a way out of having to engage with the topic any further.
Similarly, an April 6 article about corporate resistance to Georgia’s recently enacted voting law, the Times quoted Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who criticized those companies as “behaving like a woke parallel government.” By invoking “wokeness” in his criticism of companies that put out critical statements and withdrew support of Georgia over the law, McConnell allows himself room to avoid questions about his own support for business involvement in politics when it suits his needs.
When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently denounced “the rise of the woke corporation” and “the rise of big business enforcing a woke standard” in a statement to journalists, presumably referring to backlash to the Georgia voting law, he was able to hide behind filler words without offering any sort of elaboration on either his defense of the law or how this position comports with his past support of politically active companies like Chick-fil-A.
Sen. @tedcruz: “This past month, we have seen the rise of the woke corporation.” pic.twitter.com/SfQatOfGJb
— The Hill (@thehill) April 13, 2021
Every few years the right co-opts and weaponizes a new term to hide behind. At first, there was “political correctness,” and then there was “identity politics.” Currently, the rhetorical crutches intellectually lazy pundits and politicians are leaning on are “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” Those terms may have, unfortunately, lost whatever greater meaning they once had. That doesn’t mean the zombified filler that they have become need be taken at face value.
On Fox News, that sort of propagandistic pablum will always have a home, but that doesn’t have to be the norm everywhere else. Audiences should learn to recognize these dodges as they happen, and actual journalists need to lay out the actual policy arguments being made, not simply accepting empty rhetoric as an answer.