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Republican leaders advise members to 'lean into the culture war'

Why is the Republican Study Committee urging members to "lean into the culture war"? Because the party believes voters share their post-policy instincts.

As Joe Biden's presidency got underway, one of the first major legislative challenges was passing a massive COVID relief package. It was the principal focus for Democratic officials for weeks.

The expectation was that Republicans would attack it aggressively, just as they targeted President Obama's Recovery Act 12 years earlier. But instead, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill focused their attention on Dr. Seuss. And Potato Head dolls. And a disclaimer Disney added to some episodes of "The Muppet Show."

It was an early reminder of the Republican Party's post-policy intentions: Democrats could focus on governing pesky details surrounding the pandemic and the economy, but GOP officials on Capitol Hill saw value in the politics of cultural grievances.

As Politico reported yesterday, that dynamic is intensifying.

The head of Congress' largest conservative caucus is encouraging Republicans to embrace anti-critical race theory rhetoric, as the GOP looks to lean into the nation's culture wars ahead of the looming battle for the House. In a memo sent to members of the Republican Study Committee, its chair Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana said the "backlash against Critical Race Theory is real."

The Republican Study Committee's unsubtle memo was quite literally titled, "Lean into the culture war." The document added, "We are in a culture war ... we are winning."

For now, let's put aside the fact that many of these Republicans appear wholly indifferent to what critical race theory even is. Let's also put aside the familiarity of the GOP coming up with some vague and nonsensical boogeyman -- Sharia law, 9/11 Mosque, Common Core, Jade Helm, death panels -- intended to fuel conservative media and keep conservative voters angry, afraid, and engaged.

What strikes me especially significant about the Republican Study Committee's advice to members is the party's wholesale hostility toward governing.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it's worth pausing to appreciate the qualitative differences between old culture-war fights and new ones. The GOP's traditional culture war focused on issues that had at least some policy relevance -- which is to say, they dealt with issues that Congress could at least try to affect.

Vote for Republicans and they'll pass a a ban abortion. Vote for Republicans and they'll create new laws to prevent marriage equality. Vote for Republicans and they'll pass bans on pornography. Vote for Republicans and they'll mandate English as the official language. And so on.

Obviously, these were (and in some cases, are) highly contentious cultural and political fights, but there was at least a correlation between the issues and those hoping to make federal policy changes.

This new approach to the culture war is different in that Congress couldn't ban the study of race, power, and institutions even if it wanted to. Similarly, Republicans couldn't spearhead a legislative initiative to force Dr. Seuss Enterprises to publish old books with racist pictures or regulate the gender identity of Potato Head toys.

None of this falls within the purview of Congress. None of these issues can even be conceptually addressed through federal legislation. Republicans are increasingly fixated on cultural grievances with no possible solutions in mind.

So why does the Republican Study Committee expect members to "lean into the culture war"? Because the party believes voters share these post-policy instincts.

We won't hear Republicans saying, "Vote for us and we'll do something about the stuff you hate," but we will hear Republicans effectively saying, "Vote for us because we hate the same stuff you hate."