Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 1 May 2021


When Wokeness Becomes Weakness

Credit... Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Opinion Columnist

Recently, James Carville, the unfrozen Clintonite of Democratic politics, stirred a predictable controversy by complaining about “wokeness” in an interview with Sean Illing of Vox. Everyone has a different definition of the term, but Carville’s was one you hear a lot from strategically minded Democrats: Wokeness is “faculty lounge” rhetoric, the language of elite hyper-educated progressivism, entering into mass politics in a way that turns a lot of normal people off.

Framed this way, intra-Democratic debates about the new progressivism often boil down to word choice and emphasis. Do you sound inclusive or out-of-touch if you say “Latinx” instead of “Hispanic”? Do you win more support for antipoverty policies if you talk about racial redress or pan-racial redistribution? Are voters actually worried about cancel culture, or are figures like Carville mistaking the Fox News bubble for reality?

In those debates I’m on Carville’s side: Indeed, I once wrote an entire column called “Liberalism’s Latinx Problem,” on the political costs of the new progressive style of discourse.

But at the same time I think the problem he’s describing could be manageable for Democrats, because their primary voters already figured out a way to manage it: Don’t nominate Elizabeth Warren, nominate Joe Biden instead. Or to depersonalize the strategy: Don’t nominate a candidate who talks like a member of the Harvard faculty, nominate the candidate who can talk like an old-line Democrat and, once elected, shovels money out the door.


This approach doesn’t fully solve the problem of being seen as “an urban, coastal, arrogant party,” in Carville’s formulation, but it mitigates it — which is how the Democrats won both Congress and the White House in 2020 even as elite institutions were being pulled leftward by the Great Awokening. Maybe Biden’s successors won’t be able to pull it off, but his model is clear enough: If you don’t sound like a very-online liberal, voters won’t punish your party nationally just because the Poetry Foundation is self-immolating or New York prep schools are re-enacting scenes from St. Petersburg in 1917.

If the new progressivism becomes truly politically disastrous for Democrats, on the other hand, it will probably involve not just off-putting or elitist rhetoric, but a dramatic policy failure linked to social justice politics.

The two places where that seems most likely to happen are crime and education. Crime is the more urgent case: 2020 saw a major spike in the homicide rate, back to late-1990s levels, which so far is carrying over into 2021. Biden’s speech to Congress last Wednesday made a vague connection between ongoing “bloodshed” and the liberal-friendly debate over an assault weapons ban, but it isn’t AR-15s doing most of the damage in the current murder wave. Instead, police demoralization and withdrawal in the aftermath of protests and riots seem like a crucial factor — along with (more speculatively) coronavirus school closures, widespread masking, and the general Covid-era suspension of normality.

Maybe we’ll revert to pre-2020 trends as normality returns. If we don’t, though, the Democrats’ problem won’t be the off-putting rhetoric of police abolition; it will be the reality of a rising body count as liberal politicians struggle to negotiate between activists, protesters, progressive prosecutors and cops. And that kind of failure could take what is, for now, the modest trend of some conservative-leaning Asian, Hispanic and African-American voters drifting rightward and make it an existential problem like the white-ethnic abandonment of the Democrats under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.


In education the stakes aren’t as mortal, but the dynamics could be similar. In the best case scenario for Democrats, blue-state public schools reopen without incident this fall, and the anti-racist curriculums being promulgated by progressives become like religion class in a worldly parochial school: a pinch of incense for a faith that doesn’t make much difference in the educational day-to-day.

In the worst case, though, the reopening goes badly even as activists alienate Democratic-voting but not-particularly-woke parents by making gifted-and-talented schools and programs disappear in the name of anti-racist equity. In which case you could get both an institutional crisis, with more engaged parents abandoning public schools, and a political backlash, with more recent-immigrant parents in liberal cities and suburbs following their Italian-American antecedents rightward.

I have liberal friends who are anxious about these possibilities but reassure themselves by thinking of them as local challenges, internal to liberalism, concentrated in regions where there really aren’t any Republicans anymore.

This seems like wishful thinking. Crime rates might have seemed like a local problem in the early 1960s, too, but soon they became key to the emerging Republican majority, and issues go national even more easily today. Donald Trump increased his vote in a lot of unlikely areas in 2020; there’s no reason to assume other Republicans can’t do the same.

So the core question facing Democrats isn’t how faculty-lounge rhetoric plays with today’s swing voters. It’s how left-wing policymaking might create tomorrow’s swing voters, if the liberal city becomes ungovernable again.

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