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Fear is one of the most animating factors in politics. It inspires paranoia, it nurtures grievance. It can also usher voters and policymakers to a shared conclusion. In the wake of 9/11, fear drove players to surrender civil liberties for the sake of perceived security. As the economy melted down in 2008, insecurity bred bailout. And with Covid-19 at the fore, massive spending came in waves with support from both parties.
But in 2023, the Republican Party is at odds with itself on whether Wokeness is America’s new boogeyman, and whether it can serve as an amorphous catch-all for things they don’t like through the 2024 elections.
“So we will wage a war on the woke,” Ron DeSantis said recently in Iowa. “We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.”
Asked to define the term, DeSantis leaned hard into his perceptions: “It’s a form of cultural Marxism. It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth.”
DeSantis is the most relentless 2024 contender in his Wokness bashing (his wife, Casey, even rocked a black leather jacket featuring an outline of Florida and the slogan “Where Woke Goes To Die.”), but he is far from alone. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have all invoked the buzzword to varying degrees, and varying definitions.
And yet there are signs that Woke has worn out its welcome in the GOP. When former Vice President Mike Pence, a culture warrior from the start, announced by video on Wednesday he was seeking the party’s presidential nomination, he didn’t once use the word woke. It was also not at the fore of his message when he spoke to Iowa voters north of Des Moines, either.
Similarly, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who joined the race a day earlier, dismissed the culture war rhetoric as a sideshow best ignored. He said the field features contenders who are wasting voters’ time when “talking about issues that are so small that sometimes it’s hard to even understand them.”
So is the Republican Party finally done beating the woke horse? And why have they clung so strongly to a word that broke through among people protesting racial injustices, and who now use it far less often than their critics?
Well, the answer to that depends largely on whether you think America is sufficiently inclusive. In that query, you may well understand why Republicans are tripping over themselves to be the most anti-woke candidate in the mix, and maybe even tripping themselves up come next November.
At its most basic, Wokeness demands we maintain vigilance to unconscious biases about race and gender. That consciousness can safeguard against subtle discrimination and more overt bigotry alike, and demands bystanders to confront inequalities in real time. At the core of it is a call to be a good neighbor and not to be a jerk about it.
Pretty benign stuff, right?
Well, as with so much of our politics right now, the partisan leanings of the beholder color the eye on how that actually plays out. Wokeness for progressives means to look in all corners for instances of accidental exclusion. To them, it’s an acknowledgement of privilege and a call to remedy past wrongs as culture evolves. It’s the cultural equivalent of NATO’s Article 5: an attack on one is an attack on all.
For conservatives, Wokeness is the ultimate pejorative of the moment and has incorporated a whole lot more than its initial remit. It means inclusion run amok to the detriment of whites and men. It is a shorthand for Critical Race Theory, an academic framework occasionally used to discuss institutional racism in the law but seen as a nefarious creep into classrooms disguised as Black history curriculum. It is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs in H.R. and Environmental, Social and Governance-focused best practices in the boardrooms. Wokeness is, in short, the embodiment of a changing nation where agenda-pushing players are conspiring to deny whites their historical power.
Wokeness’ history is one that has compelled social scientists, historians, activists, and, yes, politicians to debate its very origin. It doesn’t stretch credulity to trace the term all the way back to a 1904 editorial in the Baltimore Afro-American editorial urging Black readers to “wake up, wake up!” Marcus Garvey followed in 1923: “Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa!” The New York Times in 1962 published a piece on Black idioms from William Melvin Kelley under the headline “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The Oxford English Dictionary credited Kelley by name when it added “woke” to its tomes in 2017.
But as it stands now inside conservative spaces, Wokeness is anything—and everything—unideal. It’s akin to Communism during the Cold War or Political Correctness in the tribal era that followed. That imprecision carries enormous potency—and maybe some votes in Republican primaries.
As Vivek Ramaswamy, a tech investor running for the White House with the culture wars as his footing, put it in Woke, Inc., his first of three books on political Wokeness, the term now encapsulates “progressive identity politics today. … Basically, being woke means obsessing about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Maybe climate change too.”
Although most Americans—56%, according to USA Today’s polling—define the term as an awareness of social injustices, Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to what they believe it represents. A full 60% of Republicans told USA Today’s pollsters that they view woke as an insult, and 56% of them said the word represents too much political correctness and policing of thought.
So that explains why contenders are rushing to mangle the basics about what Wokeness is and is not. “I don’t like the term woke,” ex-President Donald Trump said last Thursday in Iowa. “Because I hear woke, woke, woke—it’s just a term they use. Half the people can’t define it; they don’t know what it is.”
It’s often unclear if the candidates themselves get it, either.
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