Perspective: The Great Awokening was a gift for the GOP
Rebuffing wokeness does not mean affirming genuine injustice, but defying the attempts of a self-appointed elect to constantly redefine reality
Editor’s note: For an alternate perspective on this issue, read Democratic strategist Steve Pierce’s take on wokeness and the GOP.
“Stop hitting yourself!”
It’s the classic taunt of a bully who takes the fist of his target and directs it back at him, making the chosen target seem like his own assailant.
It’s a position conservatives often feel like we’re in when the left, having initiated its latest volley, turns around and accuses us of being the ones waging “culture war.”
David Turner, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association, recently told ABC News that “Republicans, time and again, have overstepped where they think the average voter is and where most Americans are on mainstream issues” and that “this also applies to their hyper-focus on niche cultural war issues.”
In reality, conservatives are typically responding to some novel attempt to unsettle long-held beliefs and/or to absorb yet another apolitical dimension of life into the political sphere. For holding to settled customs, or for believing that some spaces in life should avoid politics, we, on defense, suddenly become the aggressors.
The rise of wokeness is no different. It is a debated phenomenon, and even a disputed term. In recent months, however, as conservatives have begun to push back against it, the left has begun either to water down the term and its permutations so that it’s essentially innocuous (or even allegedly popular) or simply to argue, as a recent Washington Post article did, that conservatives have weaponized “woke” and “wokeism” such that they now “include a host of liberal policies and positions they don’t like.”
Such evasions elide the fact that wokeism is a real thing. Its definitions vary, and one can understand why its defenders and sympathizers might want to muddy the waters. But even they agree that being “awake” as a political metaphor initially grew out of the very real racism of 20th-century America, when the term connoted an awareness of the reality of contemporary discrimination.
“Woke” in something like its expansive, modern sense took off about a decade ago, in the wake of protests over police brutality. At the time, many on the left were quite clear — and often enthusiastic — about what the term meant: to be radically, totally and personally aware of perceived structural injustices (particularly those purportedly tied to identity based characteristics), and committed to rectifying them, whatever one thinks they might be at a given time — and to fault anyone who disagrees either on means or ends as part of the problem.
As the leading edge of wokeness consists mostly of academics, journalists and activists, there is a special emphasis on alleged powers of symbols, ideas and even words. Wokeness is an elastic creed for a cause whose demands and stipulations seem to grow endlessly, and thereby to consume more and more areas of life.
That the left is now resisting the label, trying to defend it or attempting to confuse its critics suggests that conservatives have succeeded in making it a millstone. Why? In part, perhaps, because the left itself has changed. Where once institutions not directly tied to politics, such as the military, were content to stay in their lane, now they have seen fit to demonstrate left-wing bona fides. Where once fields such as mathematics and science were seen as relatively immune to political fads and faulted for when they deviated, now they are seen as implicated in oppression unless they give in.
And, generally speaking, where once political processes were the primary channels for political action, now more and more of life is subjected to the political realm — at the same time that ordinary political processes are seen as part of the problem.
It’s not hard to see how wokeness, whatever attributes of it one examines, has led to this. By looking at reality totalistically, by deliberately blurring the line between the personal and the political, and by interpreting any perceived social injustice as evidence of an ongoing moral transgression, it leads quite naturally to the necessity for radical political action to challenge the status quo. And its limiting principle is nonexistent; whatever gains or progress are made on, say, racial equality are immediately pocketed as insufficient. And a political system that led to them but didn’t address others becomes illegitimate, an obstacle to be overcome rather than a tool to be used.
This creates many problems for the left, however. The easiest to point to are electoral consequences. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that “woke” politicians fail; indeed, in a media environment that rewards showboating and extremes, they can prosper, albeit at our expense.
But people still do tend to recoil from the excesses of wokeness. A recent HarrisX and Deseret News poll found voters were less likely to support candidates labeled as “woke.” And longtime Democratic political consultant James Carville put it bluntly in 2021: “Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” Paradoxically, its adherents’ failures lead them not to reconsider but to double down.
But to focus on the electoral consequences is to ignore the deeper defect: namely, that the all-consuming tendency of wokeness makes people uncomfortable. And rightly so. Most Americans aren’t politics-obsessed weirdos of either stripe, and most of them get their deepest joys from things that aren’t related to politics. If wokeness intrudes upon their workaday lives, especially in a manner that escapes their active consent, then they will look to escape it, or to reject it.
There is a risk here for conservatives. The defenders of wokeness are right that simply describing anything conservatives don’t like as “woke” will eventually make the term meaningless, though we would then have to invent another word for what would remain a real phenomenon. And wokeness is not the root of every problem, nor even of every deficiency of the left.
But there is, and will remain, both a moral and electoral upside for those conservatives who take a stand against the totalistic framework and implications of wokeness, who fight it where it has become entrenched in institutions that should not reflect some academic vanguard’s imagined consensus, and, above all else, who preserve the apolitical spaces where life’s true joys arise.
This does not mean affirming genuine injustice; it means defying the attempts of a terminally online, self-appointed elect to constantly redefine reality — think of the ongoing war on acknowledging differences between the sexes, for example — to suit its ends.
If the left keeps (metaphorically) punching us in the face and telling us to stop hitting ourselves, then it will be good for those who stand athwart the fist and say, “OK.”
Jack Butler is an editor at National Review Online, media fellow for the Institute for Human Ecology and a 2022–23 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.