Will the midterms be the highwater mark for American wokeness?

Will Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States be a referendum on wokeness?

Republicans certainly think so. While the Democrats have been campaigning hard for abortion rights after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the GOP is laser-focused on children’s rights.

This over-the-top tweet from former Trump advisor Stephen Miller kicks the Democrats in the proverbial. Unfair, perhaps, but it shows what Republicans believe will be effective.

A journalist for Fast Company said ruefully that political slogans like this show that Republicans believe that “any issue relating to so-called wokeness can gain traction if it’s framed around protecting children”. (Is that such a bad place to start rebuilding civil society in the US?)

It’s easy to sneer at anti-woke posturing as virtue-signalling by anti-virtue-signalling hypocrites. But however you look at it, wokeness could be a third rail for many Democrat candidates. Even progressive comedian and talk show host Bill Maher says that woke policies and rhetoric will be responsible for 2022 election gains by the Republicans. In an interview on Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast last week he said:

"I am very much a critic of what goes on on the fringe of the left. I mean woke culture has just ... that’s one reason why the Republicans are going to do so well in this election, because the left has gone super crazy with lots of sh*t that the average American just never voted for, doesn’t recognize in this country, doesn’t want."

No less an expert than former President Barack Obama feels the same way. On another podcast interview with some of his former staffers he was aghast at what he was seeing:

“And sometimes Democrats are, right? You know, sometimes, people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And they want some acknowledgment that life is messy and that all of us at any given moment can say things the wrong way, make mistakes."

Election night will reveal whether voters are cool with transgender bathrooms, abortion rights, critical race theory, and defunding the police – or not. Stay tuned.

But according to savvy political observers, the bad news is that wokeness is not going to evaporate any time soon.

In a recent column in The Economist, veteran political demographer Ruy Teixeira divides supporters of wokeness into three segments: voters, politicians, and institutions.  

For voters, sympathy for woke causes flared with the death of George Floyd but faded within a few months. “Socially speaking,” says Teixeira, “the peak was clearly attained during the summer of 2020, when no one outside of right-wing circles dared to dissent from the Black Lives Matter orthodoxy that quickly consumed the country’s discourse”.

After the hysteria faded, people began to reflect on woke attitudes – and reject them:

 “Defund the police” was not popular with black voters, especially those in crime-ridden communities, who simply wanted better policing. Hispanic voters rejected woke cultural radicalism. To an overwhelmingly working-class, upwardly mobile and patriotic population with kitchen-table concerns, the idea of America as a racist hellhole was absurd.

The cannier Democrat politicians realised this. Eric Adams, the new Mayor of New York City, is a good example. Although he is black, he is not supporting the extremism of Black Lives Matter ideologues. He ignored the idea of defunding the police and prioritised safety on the streets.

Teixeira cautiously suggests that American politicians may have passed through “peak woke” – although “woke stances on crime, immigration, race essentialism, gender ideology and school curriculums that are still alive and well in the party’s left could easily re-emerge.”

But it is in America’s institutions that woke ideology has armed itself and dug in for bitter trench warfare. He says:

In academia, the arts, mainstream media, advocacy groups, NGOs, foundations, school administrations, professional organisations and corporate human-resources departments, it is hard to detect an ebbing of the tide. In the past two years, there has been a proliferation of bureaucracies imbued with “diversity, equity and inclusion” principles, alongside ideological training, rules and strictures intended to compel conduct that is deemed sensitive to the marginalised. Even venerable science journals such as Nature are repenting for their past racism and pledging to “decolonise” scientific research.

He concludes with this sombre warning:

Wokeness is stubbornly entrenched in these institutions, and it is there that it will make its stand. Millions of people have jobs, money, positions and influence that are now bound up with wokeness, and they will not give it up easily. The world they inhabit is more insulated from the views of ordinary people than those of social discourse and political competition. We may not yet have seen “peak woke” in that world—which means many of us, unfortunately, may yet face being called out, cancelled or targeted in some other way.

Whether or not the Republicans control the Senate in 2023 will not change the woke-friendly culture at Disney, the New York Times, Meta, Levi Strauss, Yale or the Department of Health and Human Services. The battle for sanity will continue.


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