The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans use ‘wokeism’ to attack left — but struggle to define it

Conservatives attach the term to a host of policies they oppose, from transgender rights to climate change measures to socially responsible investing

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has made fighting the "woke mob" one of the major pillars of his leadership. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP)
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Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a likely 2024 presidential candidate, used his January inaugural address to warn of “the woke mob” and its “woke ideology.”

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, recently released a statement blaming the military’s recruitment challenges on “the Left’s culture wars” and a “woke agenda.”

And last week, a reporter from the conservative-leaning Newsmax asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: “Is President Biden woke?”

Jean-Pierre demurred, but the blunt query underscored a phenomenon coursing through conservative politics: Republicans have alighted on a strategy of decrying the dangers of “wokeism” and all things “woke” — catchall terms they have weaponized to include a host of liberal policies and positions they don’t like.

The concept has already enmeshed itself in the 2024 presidential race, with declared and potential Republican candidates deploying the phrase to attack what they view as wayward leftist ideology.

Republican politicians and voters alike have differing definitions of wokeism — and some struggle to define it at all. The rallying cry has recently been used to denounce everything from climate change policies and socially responsible investing to transgender rights, critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What we’re seeing is a kind of standard practice of conservatives and conservative reactions to Black political movements — to weaponize the words and concepts they’ve used to undermine efforts of social movements,” said Candis Watts Smith, an associate professor of political science at Duke University and co-author of “Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter.” “History shows that you can rally voters around issues of difference, issues that suggest that people are losing power, issues where their values are being challenged.”

Much like the “cancel” of “cancel culture,” “woke” is another word that originated in Black culture before being co-opted by White people. Some credit blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter for helping to popularize the term in his 1938 protest song, “The Scottsboro Boys,” in which he urges Black America to “stay woke” to social and political injustice as well as physical violence.

More recently, when conservatives began using “woke” in pejorative terms to undermine Black and liberal ideals, it was not an accidental choice, Smith said. “It’s important for us to remember that woke initially became a way to mean Black and to derisively refer to Blackness, and so to use this word that evokes Black folks or Blackness on other things kind of spills over,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a mistake.”

Republicans, however, say their concerns about wokeism stem from their belief that liberals are trying to use government to impose their values, in the process reducing people and issues to crude identity politics.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly elected Republican governor of Arkansas, used the term when she delivered the Republican State of the Union response earlier this month, accusing Biden of being “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is” and asserting that his administration “has been completely hijacked by the radical left.”

“The Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” Sanders warned, adding that conservatives have been told “that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags and worship their false idols.”

A host of House Republicans have specifically singled out “wokeness” and “wokeism” in the U.S. military, despite recent findings by the Army that woke ideology was not one of their top challenges when it came to recruitment and retention.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo, for instance, that the defense budget could be more efficient: “Eliminate all the money spent on wokeism,” he suggested.

Russell Vought, a former Trump budget official now advising House Republicans, has also proposed massive cuts to Medicaid and other federal programs as a way to undermine “a woke and weaponized government.”

And Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, offered a similar analysis to The Hill, saying, “We’re going to cut money that’s being spent on wokeism.”

On Wednesday, the day former Republican governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley announced her 2024 presidential bid, she tweeted, “Strong and proud — not weak and woke — that’s the America I see!”

Haley and DeSantis are not the only potential 2024 GOP hopefuls to deploy the word as a pejorative. Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old millionaire who was recently deemed “The C.E.O. of Anti-Woke, Inc.” by the New Yorker, on Tuesday announced his White House bid as a Republican running on an anti-woke platform.

Ramaswamy, the author of “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” describes wokeism as a “secular religion” reflecting “a deeper need for human purpose at a moment when the time-tested satisfiers of that purpose — including family, faith and national identity — have receded.” But he argues the problem is that “it calls on human beings to see each other as the products of their genetically inherited attributes — race, sex, sexual orientation.”

“I think that that is inherently divisive,” he said.

He argues his fellow Republicans should not just criticize wokeism but also offer an affirmative vision, which for him hinges in part on meritocracy — meritocracy in ideas, meritocracy in government, meritocracy in immigration.

“The best ideas win when no ideas are censored,” Ramaswamy said.

Many Republicans, however, define wokeism in starkly different terms and with varying levels of fluency — including when they are asked about the term.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) described wokeism as “cultural Marxism” in a brief hallway interview last week, naming-checking both “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling — who has been criticized for her anti-transgender comments — and a former Levi’s executive, Jennifer Sey, who decried “woke capitalism,” as recent victims of the phenomenon.

Wokeism, Cruz said, “is the left seizing institutions of transmission of ideas and that includes education — K-12 and universities. It includes journalism. It includes entertainment — Hollywood, movies, TV, sports, music, video games. And it’s characterized by demanding one uniform view on any particular topic, engaging in brutal punishment for any who disagree, including most simply being canceled.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said wokeness was very important to Alabama families and would be a “huge” part of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. But he was vague when pressed to actually define the concept, which he said he views as “more in the education field.”

“To me, education is about reading, writing and math, having an opportunity to grow up in an unbiased world — not biased — and to me that’s what all this woke stuff is, pushing one thing on our young people,” Tuberville said.

And Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), another frequent critic of wokeness, defined it in a military context, citing the recently rescinded coronavirus vaccine mandates for troops; adopting usage of different pronouns for gender; concerns about domestic extremism in the ranks; climate change preparedness efforts; and an alleged focus on “toxic masculinity.”

“I can just go on and on but there’s a lot of it out there,” he said.

Some political operatives are skeptical that anti-wokeism will ultimately prove a successful messaging strategy for Republicans. James Carville, a longtime Democratic strategist, generated buzz early in Biden’s first year when, in an interview with Vox, he criticized Democrats for their “faculty lounge” politics and declared, “Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it.”

Now, however, he said an interview that “I don’t use the w-word anymore” — because it originated with Black Americans “and then overeducated White people ruined the word.”

To him, the deployment of “woke” as a political attack represents the culture wars of previous eras — the latest version of dismissing coastal elites as chardonnay-swilling, latte-sipping liberals.

“It used to be that [Republicans] were kind of free traders and anti-Russia and pro-military and for entitlement reform,” Carville said. “Well, that’s all out the window. The only thing they have that unifies them is cultural resentment — ‘Let’s all attack the trans kid’ or ‘We shouldn’t tell seventh graders there are gay people because then they’ll never know.’”

Rich Thau, moderator of the Swing Voter Project — which conducts monthly online focus groups with adults who live in competitive states and voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020 — conducted two focus groups last month in Florida, shortly after DeSantis used part of his inaugural address to first define and then criticize wokeism.

The findings, as he chronicled in an essay for the Bulwark, were striking, as the participants “struggled to explain what wokeism is, even in the most general of terms,” he said in an interview.

It may be a compelling argument with the Republican base, Thau said, but he is dubious it will prove successful in winning over the sorts of swing voters who can prove critical in a general election.

“The question I have now is: How effective is it as a strategy to attack wokeism among people who don’t particularly understand it?” he said. “I am looking for evidence that attacking wokeism is a strategy that converts people to that candidate’s side.”

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