When was the last time you were called racist? When was the last time you actually cared about being called racist? Odds are you get called it quite often and care (or should care) about being called it very little.
That’s because lobbing accusations of racial bigotry at anyone who gets in their way is second nature for the left. So when people stopped taking these accusations seriously — realizing it is simply impossible for everything to be racist — the left began decrying “white supremacy,” semantically invoking Nazism.
When accusations of racism failed to coerce enough action, the left moved on to a pejorative with far worse aesthetics while maintaining the same message. Accusing people and institutions of “racism” had lost its utility due to rhetorical inflation, and the era of “systemic white supremacy” had begun.
According to some, the conservative movement and the American right writ large are experiencing a similar ongoing dilemma with the word “woke.” Many suggest the word has come to mean nothing due to right-wing over-saturation, while others insist it has taken on a far more nefarious tone.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Why has the word “woke” become so problematic?
On Tuesday, Bethany Mandel, co-author of “Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation,” appeared on The Hill’s “Rising” to discuss leftism’s role in damaging American families.
During the discussion, Briahna Joy Gray, co-host of the “Bad Faith” podcast, inquired if Mandel would “mind defining ‘woke,’ ’cause it’s come up a couple [of] times, and I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.” What followed was a brief moment of self-consciousness in which the author stumbled over her words before offering a generally accepted definition of the term.
Despite this, the moment was clipped, and the author was lambasted as both a bigot and buffoon across the web.
The whole point of this exercise was to humiliate someone offering a coherent definition of woke-ism that was insufficiently deferential to the whims of leftist ideologues. However, this attempt was unsuccessful.
What Is Woke?
Dragging Mandel through the digital public square did not result in the typical groveling struggle session that has come to be expected whenever people explain their opinions in public, but it did inspire many to inquire about the nature of the term “woke.”
The term started to increase in prevalence in the early-to-mid-2010s back when “Black Lives Matter” referred to a hashtag, not an organization, and when the hot-button social issue du jour was the legalization of homosexual marriage. Despite its original meaning, used in common parlance simply to refer to personal vigilance, “woke” quickly took on social and political meanings. Like how every other community uses specific language to signify in-group allegiance, “woke” was used to inculcate oneself among the broader cause of the burgeoning leftist cultural hegemony and, by extension, the Democrat Party.
But as the term became more and more associated with the party, it became less specifically connected with racial protest movements and more so a shibboleth for supporting the party platform — “stay woke,” the slogan went.
It is undeniable that woke-ism and the people who get protective of the identifying label “woke” have an influential presence on the political and cultural left. There was even a short-lived Hulu series titled “Woke” that chronicled a previously apolitical black cartoonist’s journey through the intersectional landscape of identity politics. And in 2018, “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at the concept of corporate fashion brands using woke-ism to market schlock to well-intentioned hipsters.
Woke-ism came to define a movement so insurgent among the institutionalized powers of the left that even its vanguards like former President Barack Obama and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who undeniably had a role ushering it in, bemoaned its rancorous presence and how it distracts from the Democrat Party’s larger goals.
This was something the Democrats fully embraced until they could no longer fully control the semantics around it.
It’s a Good Bad Word
Woke-ism is simultaneously a persistent ideological framework and a general inclination — it depends on the person or institution in question at the time. But both rely upon a consistent smorgasbord of Marxian dialectics and ideological accouterment — gender theory, critical race theory, et al. — that seeks to usurp the ideals of the American founding and impose contemporary whims.
The word has become as commonplace among the current-day conservative movement as MAGA hats and “lock her up” chants were at 2016 Trump rallies. And this is, to be fair, totally warranted; what other slogany-sounding word really works as a catch-all for what leftism has become?
Sure, it would help if the right had a more tactical approach to diagnosing and labeling each and every radical change introduced to our society at breakneck speed, but that’s not how people work. The right can and should identify the unique threats of identitarian Marxism, managerialism, and contemporary Lysenkoism, but is labeling all of these things useful?
Using “woke” as a catch-all label for radical leftism is effective. That’s one of the major reasons why the left hates it. They lost complete control of the English language, and the word they used to indicate their radicalism to one another is being used to expose that radicalism to the rest of the world.
Woke-ism is an intentionally ambiguous framework that is meant to keep out interlopers and reward its advocates. Therefore, simply describing it as what it is, is anathema to those who wish for its intentions to remain ambiguous.
Simply saying “woke” works.
Samuel Mangold-Lenett is a staff editor at The Federalist. His writing has been featured in the Daily Wire, Townhall, The American Spectator, and other outlets. He is a 2022 Claremont Institute Publius Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @Mangold_Lenett.