What was particularly notable about the piece was the way in which Nichols described how the senator might be viewed as presenting a different sort of politics than the one she endorses.
“Progressives could be forgiven,” Nichols wrote, “for presuming that Sinema, 45, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, who’s easy to spot in her trademark sleeveless dresses, wry wigs and acrylic glasses, would share their woke politics.”
Share … what?
It’s not uncommon for a word or phrase that has some limited purpose in some group to be elevated into something broader. “Woke” is such a word; one used to describe an awareness of the world that has now been embraced by the political right as an often sardonic descriptor. It doesn’t really mean anything specific in its current political iteration, being used mostly as a shorthand for people who, in the eyes of the user, are focused on race in a way that is deemed excessive or dangerous. It’s a pejorative, in short, a hand-wave about the left and its purported obsession with race.
You will not be surprised to learn that it has been a favorite of Fox News of late, overlapping with that network’s obsessive focus on “critical race theory,” itself a term repurposed by the right.
In the Foxworld lexicon, “woke” is the adjective and “critical race theory” the verb, both referring to a contrived framing of the left — essentially that there’s an effort to play the race card to put White people on the defensive.
What’s particularly important here is that it makes no sense in the context of that description of Sinema. From the left’s standpoint, the issue isn’t that Sinema doesn’t support their politics on race; she does. (Here, for example, is a Facebook post from the senator embracing Black Lives Matter.) The problem is that, like other moderate Democrats, she doesn’t support policies aimed at bolstering the social safety net or increasing taxes on wealthy Americans. This is “woke” only if you assume that the exercising of government power to aid the less fortunate is centrally an effort to help non-White Americans — a group that is disproportionately poor.
This conflation of “woke politics” with “liberal politics” showed up in another, more disconcerting place on Friday. The Atlantic’s Emma Green interviewed Ryan Williams, the head of the far-right Claremont Institute, a conversation during which Williams outlined his organization’s complaints about modern society (too many non-Christians, among other things) and the possible remedies it foresaw, like civil war — something Williams said “we try to avoid almost at all costs.”
That “almost” certainly lingers.
If you’re thinking that the Claremont Institute sounds familiar, it should. One of its most prominent voices is John Eastman, the attorney for President Donald Trump who, in the days before Jan. 6, actively prodded Vice President Mike Pence to simply discard the law and grant Trump a second term in office. It was an overt attempt to seize power without the energy expenditures of a civil war, one that Williams cast in laughably generous terms in an essay for Newsweek.
“The president and vice president of the United States are entitled to legal advice. They asked Eastman for counsel on how to proceed during the course of a constitutionally valid process,” he wrote. “What the public has seen is a truncated part of a draft version of John’s memo. To say this truncated portion of a legal memo amounts to treason or incitement of a 'coup’ is preposterous demagoguery.”
What the public has seen is two iterations of a memo in which Eastman makes a case for Pence to simply seize power, unquestionably triggering something not far from a civil conflict. (This response, Eastman laughed off as Democrats “howling” about Pence’s cleverness.) What the public has also seen is Eastman repeatedly making false claims about election fraud that mirrored Trump’s, included claims made from the same stage as Trump on Jan. 6 itself.
In his interview with the Atlantic, Williams admits that his organization’s desired outcome is to “take control of all three branches of government for a generation or two,” something that he insisted was dependent on “persuading our fellow citizens” of the superiority of their rhetoric. That said, Williams assured Green that “[t]he rule of pure numbers was never the touchstone of justice for the Founders.” (Also, of course: America is “a republic, not a democracy.”) So winning via the electoral college is certainly fine, he said — as is, it seems, winning by ignoring the electoral college.
So what is the crisis that demands unified Claremont control of the government, lest our only recourse be civil war? Williams explained his concerns to Green.
“I would say the leading edge of progressivism now is this kind of woke, social-justice anti-racism,” he explained. “It’s a threat to limited government because it seems to take its lead from scholars like Ibram Kendi, who has proposed a Department of Anti-racism that would basically have carte blanche control over local and state governments. … The pursuit of equal results is only going to be successful in a new woke totalitarianism. I realize that sounds a little hyperbolic, but that seems to be the road we’re on.”
This manifests, he said, in efforts to ensure that “all groups are equally represented and have the same outcomes for, say, homeownership, wealth, the proportion of CEOs, or members of Congress.”
Green pressed him on that: Might not uneven representation reflect the sorts of systemic disadvantages that Black leaders (and supportive Democratic senators) have made a focus of their efforts? Well, maybe, Williams said, using the useful dodge that he simply hadn’t seen enough evidence to show that it did — a dodge that helps power dismissiveness forever. (As in: “I’m just not yet entirely convinced that Bigfoot didn’t kill John F. Kennedy.”) He also betrayed his complete disinterest in probing that evidence, remarking that “it would be a wonderful starting point to try to dig into some of the issues you’re talking about, like the different classification of drugs being more associated with one group or another,” something that has been considered repeatedly and led to legislative proposals.
What’s obvious from the discussion is that Williams finds his conception of a “woke” effort to examine American culture as not only painful but dangerous, even if he admitted that he couldn’t rule out that such an examination was justified. It was simply an indicator “that a good portion of our fellow citizens don’t agree with our principles and conclusions about what politics is for” — a line he offered in defense of a truly unhinged essay from Claremont fellow Glenn Ellmers.
Ellmers, writing in late March, argued that the only real Americans were “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”
To this, Williams shrugged. “I think we’re more divided now than we were” during the Civil War, he told Green. “As Lincoln said, we all prayed to the same God. We all believed in the same Constitution. We just differed over the question of slavery.”
If your view is that the Civil War was no more complicated than whether states should allow people to be enslaved, it’s probably not a surprise that you aren’t convinced there might have been lingering effects triggered by that legality. The Civil War was the functional equivalent of whether stores should or should not mandate shirts and shoes in order to provide service? Okay.
Again, it’s the vagueness that galls. “Woke totalitarianism” is a dire threat but one that is attributed to one historian’s commentary about the federal government and to efforts aimed at ensuring the sort of colorblind policies he claims to find so important. He’s mad at “woke” because it’s questioning if they really are colorblind, even as he says he can’t say they are.
He may be in lonely company suggesting that this gauzy fear necessitate armed conflict, but he’s certainly not in lonely company in his wispy invocation of wokeness as a dire political threat. That it is meaninglessly tossed into a political profile is important, an effort to summarize a certain group in a certain disparaging way without examining anything further than that.
That this insouciant rhetoric leads even one person to shrugging about war is reason enough to wonder why it’s happening at all.