Joe Biden celebrated a major win on Monday as he signed a $1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill into law, but the U.S. president and his Democratic Party also incurred a number of losses in recent weeks: Biden’s approval rating dipped to a new low of 41 percent in a Washington Post poll and Democrats lost the governor’s race in Virginia while falling way short of expectations in the governor’s race in New Jersey. The current political climate will be influenced by a range of factors—including Americans’ dim view of the economy—but some Democrats are blaming these recent election results on cultural dynamics. “What went wrong is this stupid wokeness,” argued the prominent Democratic strategist James Carville. Carville expressed frustration with the influence of left-wing slogans like “Defund the Police” and what he sees as out-of-touch progressive language. The political analyst Jeff Greenfield wrote in Politico, “One of [Republicans’] most powerful political assets is alive and well: the power of cultural issues over policies.” Is the Democratic Party really losing ground politically on account of cultural issues?

David Kusnet worked as the chief speechwriter to President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. Though he shares some of Carville’s convictions—that “Defund the Police” is a bad slogan, and a bad idea, and that Democrats should speak in accessible, relatable language—Kusnet is wary of “woke”-bashing as a political strategy for his party. He sees contemporary Republicans as picking up an established tradition in their party of speaking to cultural grievances—and sometimes racial grievances—instead of economic grievances Americans might have. For Kusnet, the solution isn’t to denounce every radical-sounding idea Republicans try to associate with Democrats but rather to focus on a stronger economic message for a multi-cultural working class.

Graham Vyse: What do you see happening here?

David Kusnet: The country has been hurting since the start of the pandemic, which has affected the economy, education, people’s lives, and the social fabric. In a deeper sense, the country has been suffering since the 1970s and “the Great U-turn,” when working-class real wages went down and inequality increased. Further back, since the 1960s, Republicans have had a strategy of trying to convert every grievance that people have into a cultural grievance and then making cultural grievances code for race. All of those things periodically intersect, to use a fashionable word.

Every political party has its ups and downs. When Democrats have our downs, we have a history of going through bouts of depression and self-doubt—thinking there’s something wrong with us and what we believe and that we have to change ourselves into something we may not be. Sometimes that yields creative results. I still think what Bill Clinton did in 1992 was a creative response to 12 years of Democrats in the wilderness. Sometimes it just results in pushing away our base, suppressing our beliefs, and not getting much in return for that kind of Faustian bargain.

Kendall Hoopes

When you look at how Biden campaigned, he really had five consistent pledges to the American people: First, he talked about a struggle for the soul of America and that he’d bring back decency and unity to the country. He never said “normalcy,” as some pundits claim. That was Warren Harding’s word. Second, he said he’d lead the nation’s response to the pandemic, because we couldn’t revive the economy, restart the schools, or reknit the social fabric decisively until we dealt with the pandemic. Third, he said he’d bring back the economy—and bring it back better so we wouldn’t return to the extreme inequalities and stagnant wages of the old economy. Fourth, he specifically said he’d address racial injustice, which has been festering for far too long. Fifth, he said he’d defend democracy against what Trump was doing—and against attempts to restrict voting rights. He was elected on every one of those points, and every one of those points speaks to the current condition.

He’s tried to govern as he campaigned. As in any administration, sometimes people do things better and sometimes people do things worse, but I don’t think there’s been any betrayal of what he said he was going to do. In terms of the low poll numbers, we’re now in an era where no president goes too far under 40 percent approval or too far above 55 percent approval. It’s disappointing but not surprising that he stands where he stands.

Vyse: His standing is relatively normal?

Kusnet: It’s normal for abnormal times. This isn’t the Era of Good Feelings. This is a country that was in a terrible crisis a year ago and has gone through several decades of economic, cultural, and political polarization, with terrible inequalities dating back to before the nation’s founding.

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