We gave 2 groups of American voters opposite scenarios for the U.S. economy and asked them about the culture wars. No one cared about ‘wokeness’ in case of a recession

by The Insights

After Congress grazed the edge of default in last spring’s debt ceiling negotiations, Fitch Ratings downgraded its U.S. debt rating from its top AAA rating to AA+ in a controversial move due to “a steady deterioration in standards of governance.”

With the potential to affect everything from mortgage rates to international contracts, the demotion stoked new fears of a recession that would also change the dynamics of the 2024 U.S. election.

Largely ignoring America’s economic jitters, Republican frontrunners for president are hinging their campaigns on culture war topics like immigration and school curricula about race and gender. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, one of the top-polling alternatives to former President Donald Trump who faces multiple federal criminal indictments, has made his “war on wokeness” a singular focus.

Their bet is that latent frustration with liberals’ pursuit of social justice and equity will drive Americans to the polls in 2024, even as the U.S. faces growing foreign policy threats, intensifying climate change, and fresh economic uncertainty. But will there be similar impassioned debates about undocumented immigrants and girls’ sports if the American economy tanks?

The answer is no, according to a new experiment from Ipsos. Americans will perceive culture war issues to be less important in case of a destabilized economy.

We offered separate groups of survey respondents opposite perspectives on the state of the American economy that mimic the debate playing out among top economists today.

One group was reminded that inflation remains near high levels that haven’t been seen since the 1980s and that over the last 14 months, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates faster than at any time in the last four decades.

Another group of respondents was reminded that the unemployment level is currently below 3.5%–lower than during the economic booms of the 1990s or late 2010s–and that U.S. wage growth has been faster in the last two years than over any two-year period in the last few decades.

After being exposed to these contrasting economic outlooks, we asked respondents to identify the policy issues that were most important to them. Those who read the negative outlook were less likely to care about divisive social questions, particularly DeSantis’ signature issues–“wokeness” and immigration, which both registered the steepest drops in importance.

Exposed to bad economic news, Republicans’ level of concern over wokeness and critical race theory dropped more than any other issue. Wokeness also loses more standing than any other issue among women and people without university degrees. In fact, its priority drops with just about every U.S. demographic.

A term that began to spread a decade ago in left-wing social justice circles and was then seized upon by right-wing leaders to signify Democrats’ overreach, “wokeness” is not a long-established political issue in America. This likely makes it uniquely susceptible to changes of mind. In a recent CNN interview, DeSantis himself acknowledged that many Americans don’t even know what it means exactly.

“Not everyone really knows what wokeness is,” DeSantis said.

The relevance of immigration–which has been a core Republican issue for two decades–also drops among key demographic groups once they are exposed to a pessimistic economic outlook. These include Republicans, white voters, and voters without university degrees.

Of course, if the U.S. economy’s current rebound suddenly stumbles, Democrats and President Biden’s reelection campaign will have their own problems.

Still, the survey results suggest the futility of fixating on issues that hold little appeal among average Americans (and critically, the independents who swing elections). Wokeness, masculinity, and issues related to transgender individuals rank among their lowest priorities. And while a 55% majority of Republicans list immigration as one of their top three policy concerns, only about a quarter of independents do the same.

This reflects the glaring weakness of America’s primary election system, which motivates many candidates to appeal to the fringes of their party’s most passionate supporters in a manner that devalues the priorities of most Americans.

On the other side of the aisle, when Democratic voters are exposed to a negative economic outlook, their concern for social issues like immigration, gender, and critical race theory also drops–at an even greater magnitude than among Republicans.

Notably, women’s concern over abortion rights does not change with the nation’s economic fortunes. They are unwavering.

The fragility of culture war issues’ salience would be less of a problem for Democrats if they continue to center the 2024 campaign on the bread-and-butter legislative achievements of the Biden administration–which has deliberately avoided divisive culture war battles and invested in reinforcing U.S. infrastructure and countering climate change, resisted Russian aggression in Ukraine without involving American troops, and moved to reduce the burden of student loans and the price of prescription drugs.

Coincidentally, the priorities that change minimally with a bad economic outlook are infrastructure, foreign conflicts, inequality, and health care.

If the economy stays strong, Democrats look poised to meet Americans where they are. And should it weaken, Republicans cannot continue to talk about “woke” when Americans are broke.

Clifford A. Young is the president of Ipsos Public Affairs, United States. 

Justin Gest is a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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