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The Seuss debate shows Republicans' cancel culture war is a fight against the free market

The escalating rhetoric on so-called "cancel culture" is conservatives' way of saying they are losing power in society and they want someone to stop that.

Republicans have long declared their supposedly unwavering obeisance to the great invisible hand of the market; as former House GOP Leader Dick Armey liked to say, “Markets are smart; government is dumb.”

And yet several recent moments have made that commitment seem situational. Whether discussing Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, voting rights or Twitter, Republicans seem ill at ease with — or just ignorant of — the ways the mighty market actually functions.

Just witness the contrived hysteria about the fabricated “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s books author. Dr. Seuss Enterprises — the very profitable company which controls the estate of the late Theodor Seuss Geisel, the man behind the pen name — has decided of its own free will to stop publishing a half-dozen of his books because, the company told The Associated Press, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” deploying stereotypes about Black and Asian people in a manner that Seuss’s own estate thinks is offensive and inappropriate.

The Fox outrage machine revved itself to high dudgeon over how this private company has decided to conduct its business, bemoaning the Seussian scalp-taking; the GOP’s culture-war ambulance chasers quickly followed suit. “First, they outlaw Dr. Seuss” — mind you, Theodore Geisel died in 1991 and its his own estate taking this action — “and now they want to tell us what to say,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a mendacious non sequitur while debating proposed election law reforms.

The GOP is trying to use the heavy hand of government to pick and choose who can be a consumer rather than responding to their will.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted that the spurious Seuss-squelching — again, the company that owns the rights to his work is opting not to continue publishing a handful of them moving forward — will prompt history books to see this era as “an example of a depraved sociopolitical purge driven by hysteria and lunacy.”

Someone is demonstrating hysteria and lunacy, but it's not who Rubio suggests.

Let’s get some perspective here: Seuss Enterprises made $33 million last year, more than 650 million of his books have been sold around the world and they’re available in more than 100 countries. There is no significant move — and certainly not from Seuss Enterprises — to ban, burn or otherwise cancel Dr. Seuss. A private company has made a considered business decision by pulling a small fraction of the Seuss catalog (none among its top sellers).

Exactly why is this any of the business of the federal government? Surely Republicans, who supposedly believe the government should interfere in private business decisions as little as possible, don’t think the market should cease to work its infallible will; surely if Seuss Enterprises is erring and catering to a political correctness that nobody wants, market forces will correct it. (Of course, the right-wing cancel chorus isn’t holding its breath for that to happen; neither should you. Most people weren’t buying these particular books in the first place.)

Or take the tale of Mr. Potato Head, the brand of children’s toy under which both Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head dolls have long been marketed by Hasbro. Last week, Hasbro announced that this entire universe of toys will henceforth be marketed under the brand “Potato Head” — though the titular couple will still be “Mr.” and “Mrs.” — and conservatives lost their collective minds, including some on Capitol Hill, where some Republicans weren’t going to let facts get in the way of their feelings.

The right’s growing disillusionment with free markets might have to do with the markets’ drift away from the right.

Glenn Beck assessed the true import of the Seuss/Potato Head decisions in typically florid fashion: “Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head because it's the end of an era,” he said Wednesday. “It is the end of freedom in America.”

But, again: If Hasbro thinks it makes more sense to sell a Mrs. Potato Head doll as part of a “Potato Head” brand, rather than a “Mr. Potato Head” brand — and it does — isn’t that a company’s right? And if the company’s wrong, the market will tell them, with no right-wing outrage machine trying to cancel their decision necessary.

So what’s going on?

Perhaps looking to voting rights can help sharpen the picture. In a Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday over whether a restrictive Arizona law unconstitutionally discriminates against minorities, Republican National Committee lawyer Michael Carvin told the court that striking down the law — making it easier to vote — would put the GOP “at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

It was a startling if not surprising admission. Republicans have lost the presidential popular vote in seven of the last eight elections — or to put it another way, they have been losing political market share. But instead of adjusting their product (their candidates and policies) or how they sell it (their messaging), the GOP increasingly relies on government interference to maintain power, including the distortionary nature of the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate (which is evenly split despite the fact that Democrats represent 41 million more constituents), radical gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws, like Arizona’s.

Conservatives may not like which market forces companies respond to, but in a free market, that's not their call.

But it’s not just anti-democratic (or anti-Republican) to try to reduce the system’s responsiveness to the will of the people; it’s anti-market. The GOP is, in effect, trying to use the heavy hand of government to pick and choose who can be a consumer rather than responding to their will.

In other words, the right’s growing disillusionment with free markets might have to do with the markets’ drift away from the right.

Companies are taking a more holistic view of what factors drive their decisions. For instance, the Business Roundtable — hardly a bastion of AOC stans and Bernie bros — announced in 2019 that the purpose of a corporation extended beyond strict adherence to the bottom line and includes “all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

Conservatives may not like which market forces companies respond to, but in a free market, that's not their call. But in a less free market, they believe, maybe it could be.

Which brings us to former president Donald Trump. Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, he repeated his oft-made claim that social media is part of a giant conspiracy to censor and silence conservatives. “Republicans, conservatives must … repeal Section 230 liability protections,” Trump told the crowd, to extended cheers. (Section 230 actually protects internet companies from liability from lawsuits for what gets published by others on their platforms, not from what they remove; ending it would, ironically, result in more content being removed, not less.)

“And if the federal government refuses to act,” he said, “then every state in the union where we have the votes, which is a lot of them, Big Tech giants, like Twitter, Google and Facebook, should be punished with major sanctions whenever they silence conservative voices.”

Never mind that Facebook has long catered to conservatives or that it wasn’t conservatism that got Trump a lifetime Twitter ban but seditious, insurrectionist lies. Trump called for — and conservatives cheered — more regulation of and lawsuits against private companies based on their market-based business decisions, and for the limited-government party to unleash the power of federal and state governments to punish those companies for how they choose to conduct their businesses.

In a free market in which Twitter was making bad business decisions, users would punish it by switching to Parler or Gab. Most, of course, have not done that; the idea that most users want more abuse, more violent rhetoric or more conspiracy theories proliferating on their social platforms is absurd. So conservatives want to find a way for the government to force companies to feed it to us anyway.

In the end the biggest victim of cancel culture might just be conservative principles.