Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign: Plan to message critical race theory?

Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign: Plan to message critical race theory?

Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.

Over the last week, there have been a lot of discussions in Democratic campaign circles regarding messaging. Several of those discussions have focused on how Democratic candidates can message around critical race theory. The concern is that Republicans are trying to win over suburban soccer moms by scaring them with the threat of their children being indoctrinated or, well, something. So, how do Democratic candidates message? I’ve heard answers ranging from providing descriptions, rebuttals, historical context and then sidestep the issue. The answer that rings most correct—at least to me—is simple: Republicans will be whipped up over Republican issues, and these are not people who ever were going to vote for you. If you plan on trying to sway them, you are wasting your breath and campaign resources. This week on Nuts & Bolts, let’s talk about the proper use of your time on critical race theory and how you can use it to your advantage.

What actually is critical race theory?

Critical race theory began within the legal community looking at in-place legal structures which followed from outside their community to the handling of the law. The American Bar Association notes that many of the prime examples do come from education, like segregated schools (Brown v. Board of Education), funding inequities to predominantly Black schools, and the removal of protections for minority communities in schools as recently as 2019. Critical race theory was developed with this lens in mind to say that much of the law as written came from only one perspective and that created problems like segregation, redlining, and prosecutorial differences. It challenged the legal community to recognize these issues in shaping the future law and look at the issues in such a way to recognize the problem within the law as it currently stands.

The late Harvard professor Derrick Bell is credited with establishing critical race theory through his publications and groundbreaking course Race, Racism, and American Law. The academic concept was further cemented in 1993 when a group of legal scholars — Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Crenshaw — published a seminal book on the theory, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. “Individual law teachers and students committed to racial justice began to meet, to talk, to write, and to engage in political action in an effort to confront and oppose dominant societal and institutional forces that maintained the structures of racism while professing the goal of dismantling racial discrimination,” the authors wrote.

Sounds like something they teach in second grade, right? By looking at these issues, law professors have addressed things like why crack cocaine has a longer prison term assigned than cocaine or how broken window policies impact minority communities.

When you hear the right complain about critical race theory, they aren’t actually complaining about critical race theory because they do not know what it is. Instead, they are largely complaining about teaching U.S. History with perspectives from different communities or highlighting the instrumental works of others that weren’t taught when they were a child.

Conservatives are okay with works that change history to make slave owners into poor victims, but when the idea is even suggested that a teacher might include information about how poor life was for slaves, or that Jim Crow was bad, or that the BIPOC community faces systemic problems that still exist, you are asking teachers to avoid talking about reality to many students. 

Again, though, the Republicans who are most bitterly protesting critical race theory don’t understand it, don’t want to understand it, and think that some second-grader who escaped being sacrificed and eaten by Democrats is now being brainwashed in it; they don’t know because they don’t actually have kids in school. These Republicans have always existed, and they were and always will be Republican voters. The fact that critical race theory motivates them now is not a surprise, before other issues motivated them in exactly the same way.


A Democratic candidate in a rural district once told me they planned to run anti-choice because it would work with their district. I explained that it would not matter to anti-choice voters, as they would just point out he would caucus with Democratic leadership and that was by default pro-choice. They were convinced that they could just talk to Republican anti-choice voters, just give them a shot. They could convert a few of them, and that would be the secret.

What an absolute waste of time. A complete and total waste of time. If you put your energy into chasing an audience you will never win, you are wasting valuable campaign time. You are also not presenting a counterargument, you are arguing on defense all of the time. 

In the photo above, and in several others I’ve seen in school board races and education races, you will see people show up and scream and yell. Often, these people don’t even have a child in the school. They just want to show up and yell and scream. 

Do you think you will ever win their vote? NO. 

The evolution comparison

In the early 2000s, a series of Republican states began to look at another idea—pushing intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools. In my home state of Kansas, it resulted in a series of hearings. There were lawsuits around the issue. Fights where conservatives would not let it go.

How did that turn out? Instead of focusing on explaining minutia, Democratic candidates reached out to actual suburban moms and urban voters and said “look, we are for allowing educators to set their policy and not dictating it from the statehouse. Classrooms and students are different and may need individualized education. None of us have time to deal with that. But we do know right from wrong, and shoving this garbage down their throat is wrong.”

The response was immediate. Independent or unaffiliated voters (depending on your state) largely broke in favor of the idea that evolution should be taught and that intelligent design was garbage.

The answer to talking about critical race theory is simple—address the fact that history teachers teach history, and if you want to re-write history to take out or redefine the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, or anything else, you can do that on your own time, but it isn’t okay. 

On Thursday night I was in front of a group of mostly Republicans, supporting a Democratic candidate. The topic of critical race theory came up, and someone in the audience who I knew piped up and said, “I’m Jewish and let me tell you, we know a lot about changing history to wipe a storyline out.” There was a broad agreement in the room. 

Republicans are going to motivate some of their Fox News watching, OAN-believing voters with critical race theory. They are voters you were never, ever going to get. 

You can also motivate voters by simply saying: next thing you know, we’ll be opposed to math because it was invented by Muslims (stealing from the HBO show Veep):

If you are spending your time crafting a lot of messaging to insulate yourself from critical race theory from voters who were never going to vote for you, I’d tell you spend more time dismissing it and talking about real issues which impact voters in the real world, and go out there and bring voters to the polls. Republicans might woo some of their voters this way, but they aren’t growing their voter base with this nonsense. History shows us that.

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