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In recent electoral cycles, the traditional party bases have gone through something of a seismic shift. Historically, Republicans have done well with educated, suburban voters and struggled with the working class. But Trump’s arrival upended those norms. 2016 and 2020 saw the Republican Party hemorrhage in the suburbs, as educated voters moved considerably towards the Democratic Party. These voters were repulsed by Trump’s style, his offensive statements on social media, and the threats he posed to democratic norms. 

The Republican Party was remade into a rural, populist party that wanted to take on the establishment. This worked well when Trump was on the ballot. But since voters with lower levels of education are typically low propensity voters (meaning they are less likely to turn out in off year elections) it meant the rest of the party could face a more difficult electoral environment when Trump wasn’t running. Republicans decided they needed to win back suburban, educated voters. And they believe they’ve found their magic potion with Critical Race Theory. 

Critical Race Theory is a legal theory that has generally been taught at the graduate school level. The theory was pioneered by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate. Critical Race Theorists argue that racism is embedded in political institutions and thus economic and political racial disparities are both predictable and a result of societal choices, not random chance or variance in work ethic. 

Conservatives have seized upon Critical Race Theory as a means to win back suburban voters–particularly white voters–who may fear the Democrats are pushing cultural excess too far. Opponents of the theory claim that it teaches white children to “feel bad” about themselves and view historical American figures such as Thomas Jefferson as flawed instead of heroic. 

Republicans have galvanized behind opposition to Critical Race Theory, with a sizable number of state legislatures banning it from being taught in public schools and universities.

Republicans have galvanized behind opposition to Critical Race Theory, with a sizable number of state legislatures banning it from being taught in public schools and universities. States such as Idaho, Texas, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have passed bans. Republican members of Congress have made it part of their midterm message, with the hope that it will ultimately swing white suburban voters back into their camp. 

However, it is an open question of whether opposition to Critical Race Theory is just a midterm ploy or part of a longer term strategy. American history is littered with examples of those opposed to social inclusion eventually backing down after protracted battles. In the post World War II era, conservatives initially opposed integration before backing down. More recently, former President Ronald Reagan opposed creating a federal holiday for Martin Luther King before backing down. It is entirely possible that opposition to Critical Race Theory may rile up a Republican base for the midterms, before eventually falling out of favor as the mainstream moves left on social issues. 

Nevertheless, political observers should expect the 2022 midterm elections to be shaped by how white suburban voters respond to the Republican framing of Critical Race Theory. If the suburbs buy the Republican narrative, Democrats could have a tougher battle. 

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.