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Democrats are way behind in countering Republican claims about critical race theory, a political strategist says

Using terms like "white supremacists" and "systemic racism" only hurts Democrats' effort to counter the GOP's false claims about critical race theory, Drew Westen, a strategic messaging expert, said. ...
Critical race theory rally
Anti-critical race theory protesters outside the offices of the New Mexico Public Education Department's office on November 12, 2021, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The agency proposed changes to the social studies curriculum that critics describe as a veiled attempt to teach critical race theory.

  • Democrats are late in countering GOP messaging about critical race theory.
  • But there's still time for them to fire back against "old-style Karl Rove" tactics, one expert says.
  • They need to start telling voters what they believe kids should learn about race, he said.

Democrats are way behind in countering GOP messages about critical race theory, the term that's fueling controversy at school board meetings over concerns about race and diversity teaching in K-12 schools. 

But it's not too late for them to fire back with an amplified, affirmative message in everyday language that says what they believe — and rebrands what Republicans believe, too, said Drew Westen, a psychologist and founder of a strategic messaging firm who has advised Democrats.

"If instead of letting the right define them in 2022, if they got out early, saying 'Listen. I don't like the way we're getting split by race again in this country. You know, we've been there before. Let me tell you what I actually believe our kids ought to learn,'" he said. "I think Democrats need to run ads and say 'Let me tell you what I believe about what our kids should learn about race.'"

"I think that's the only way we're going to break out of this," said Westen, a professor at Emory University.

The challenge for Democrats is that Republicans have a running head start. They've been hammering the message that "critical race theory" — an academic approach to examining racial bias — is being taught in K-12 schools, though Democrats and education leaders say that's false and that it's most often taught in law school. In Virginia, GOP Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin drew applause at his campaign rallies for pledging to ban CRT, now a catch-all term for teaching about race. 

"This is old-time Karl Rove type tactics," Westen said. "It's branding an everyday normal position on things with something that to the ear of the average person sounds radical.

"The efforts to take any discussion of race and turn it into 'this is part of critical race theory' — it would be brilliant if it weren't so deeply deceptive," he said.

Republicans plan to use the issue in 2022 elections and say they're for parents' rights, a position that plays to the center. Democrats can't let them own "the flag of parenthood," he said.

Westen, who is currently studying messaging about race and critical race theory, said he'd never before heard the Democrats' strategy party advisers outlined in a recent Insider story. "That's a real problem that those messages aren't getting out," he said.

He also "cringed" at one Democrat's suggestion that the issue should be defeated by describing it as a way to put "white supremacists in charge of the curriculum," a term that he said is "toxic in the public square." Following that story, Republicans unleashed on Twitter, saying Democrats are calling parents "racist" and doubling down on a strategy that failed in the Virginia gubernatorial race.

But Westen agreed that it's a good idea to say Democrats want to get politicians from the left and right out of the classroom so that teachers can just teach again — a new twist on the GOP's 2008 health care message on Democrats putting a bureaucrat between you and your doctor. "I think it would make a great ad," he said.

Drew Westen
Emory University Professor Drew Westen, right, and Associate Professor Stephan Hamann at Emory University in Atlanta, on January 30, 2006. A study at Emory that examined the brains of political partisans, found that emotion, not reason drives the political thought process.

Democrats are now playing defense against Republicans who say Democrats want to teach kids that America is inherently racist and that White people are White supremacists, he said.

They don't help themselves, either, by using academic phrases like "systemic racism" when people don't know what that means "and it just makes people feel dumb and accused," he said.

Just saying they want to teach the truth about history isn't enough at this point, he said. They have to say what they believe the truth is, and it could be as simple as, "Our country created the modern concept of freedom. Did we always do it right? No. Have we done it better and better over the years? Yes. And should our kids learn both of those things? Absolutely. Because then they won't make the mistakes in the past."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is on the right track, he said, with responses they tested about teaching the truth and honoring those who fought to make the country better.

But Democrats will have to be relentlessly on point to beat the GOP message, especially when social media may be feeding a different narrative. They should make their case on social media, news shows that reach the suburbs while knocking on doors in rural areas, and with ads that say what they think kids should learn.

It wouldn't hurt, he said, if the DCCC started running ads now saying "this is what I believe as a Democrat," he said. If Democrats' messages tested well, they should be using them all over the country, he said. 

"And I have not heard Democrats using them all over the country," he said. 

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