Where the war on woke goes from here

It was nearly two hours into the first Republican primary debate before any of the eight contenders on stage uttered the word “woke.”

Toward the end of the Fox News event, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was the first to say it, during a segment about whether candidates would shut down the Department of Education and whether trans athletes playing sports is “the women’s issue of our time”: “We can talk about all these things and there’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in schools, but we’ve got to get these kids reading,” she said. She argued for classroom transparency and vocational education without explaining what the “woke things” are or why they are threatening.

The silence on what has been a rallying call for some Republicans, many of whom were on the stage, was notable, and adds to a growing body of evidence that Republican attacks on schools and curriculum may not be resonating, even with their own voters.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the candidate who has fashioned himself the champion of the so-called “war on woke,” didn’t even mention the word, though he complained briefly about educational indoctrination and mentioned that he eliminated “critical race theory” and “gender ideology” from Florida’s K-12 schools.

Republicans have been waging a “war on wokeness” since Donald Trump took office, even though it had not yet been assigned that name. Recent polls show, however, that Republican voters don’t care much for it. A July New York Times and Siena College poll of Republican voters conducted nationally found that candidates wouldn’t necessarily gain support for simply focusing on quashing “wokeness,” or left-wing ideology, in schools, corporations, or culture at large. Instead, they were more interested in candidates who focused on the economy or on “law and order.” Perhaps Republicans got the message and pivoted away from the term just in time for the debate.

But even if Republicans back away from the rhetoric of anti-wokeness on the campaign trail, the policies and atmosphere they have promoted continue to affect people’s lives.

The start of the school year has brought confusion and frustration for school leaders and teachers, caught in a network of anti-woke legislation that limits classroom instruction. Texas, too, has quickly passed laws against diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at schools and workplaces and gender-affirming care for trans youth. DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ rights agenda has restricted health care for trans youth. Oklahoma’s schools superintendent has called for prayer in public schools, for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom, and for educators to call parents about students’ preferred names and pronouns. In Iowa, parents have to fill out a form if a student is going by a name that isn’t on their birth certificate.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’s attempts to stop schools from teaching about racism, white supremacy, and structural inequality have come in for even more criticism after a white supremacist murdered three Black Americans in Jacksonville.

But even as these effects continue to unfold, the evidence is clear that Republicans might have overdone it on the campaign trail.

“The anti-woke movement has gone too far. When in Florida you’re saying that enslaved people benefitted from slavery, you’ve gone too far,” said Eric McDaniel, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “So [candidates] are starting to pull back because they’re realizing this is not going to work.”

Where the war on woke came from

Though the term “woke” has been found to be used in the social justice context as early as the early 20th century, in modern history, Black activists have used it on the frontlines of protests.

As Vox’s Aja Romano reported, the term became a cautionary watchword — “stay woke” — in 2014 following the police killing of Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and became popular as the Black Lives Matter movement grew in response to police killings of unarmed Black boys and men including Tamir Rice and Eric Garner.

But by 2020, “woke” had “evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory,” Romano wrote. “This framing of ‘woke’ is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.”

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, Republicans had already seized the word as something to deride. Rep. Matt Gaetz rebuked so-called “woketopians” as leftist Biden supporters and socialists. And though Trump now says he does not like the word, he used it in his efforts to court Black voters during his 2020 campaign. In 2020, his campaign opened 15 “community centers” to hand out “Black Voices for Trump” merchandise, T-shirts, hats, stickers, posters, and more emblazoned with the term “woke” — to Black voters. Critics questioned whether Trump understood the meaning of the term. “People who say woke aren’t woke. Woke isn’t a thing anymore,” anchor Don Lemon said on CNN.

“People usually have a hard time defining ‘woke’ since people who aren’t part of the Black community co-opted it and started using it in all kinds of ways,” said McDaniel. “The whole pushback against woke actually started when white liberals started using the term. When Black folks talked about it to mean Black consciousness, no one cared.”

As the 2024 campaign season kicked off, candidates seemingly couldn’t stop talking about wokeness. Though Haley only mentioned the term once on the debate stage, she has railed against “wokeness,” calling it a virus worse than any pandemic, many times on the campaign trail: her campaign’s shirts, stickers, and yard signs call America a nation that is “strong and proud, not weak and woke.”

Tim Scott, a candidate who has spoken publicly about being pulled over by police an inordinate amount of times for traffic stops, has decried “wokeness.” Scott once said that “woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy,” though he has tried to walk that statement back. In 2021, he penned an op-ed stating that he has been criticized by “woke folk” his entire career because his “ideology does not match that which they prescribe based on my complexion.”

Republican nominee Vivek Ramaswamy launched his political career with the book Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam. Ramaswamy has said he left his biotech firm to enter politics after he faced internal pressure to make a statement in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement. As he pressures organizations to end ESG initiatives, he has called “woke” a “cultural cancer” in America.

He told the New York Times in an interview that he has moved on from focusing on the term. “At the time I came to be focused on this issue, no one knew what the word was,” he said. “Now that they have caught up, the puck has moved. It’s in my rearview mirror as well.”

But on the debate stage, the absence of this rhetoric was conspicuous. One reason might be that it doesn’t seem to be resonating.

Republican voters aren’t impressed

In the New York Times and Siena College poll, only 24 percent of Republican voters said they would choose “a candidate who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media, and culture” over “a candidate who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border.” About 65 percent of respondents said they’d go for the “law and order” candidate. The decision was even starker among older voters. For those 65 and older, only 17 percent opted for the “anti-woke” candidate.

When it comes to businesses, about 38 percent of Republican respondents said they would vote for a candidate who vowed to fight organizations that promote “woke” left-wing ideas, while 52 percent of Republican voters want a candidate who “would stay out of deciding what corporations should support.”

The poll found that 51 percent of Republican voters would support a candidate who promised to protect individual freedoms over one who planned to guard “traditional values.” About 40 percent of respondents said they would choose a candidate who defended “traditional values.”

Many have pointed out that Republican leadership’s failure to define woke, and not just use it as a catch-all for liberal and progressive views on racial justice, gender, and sexuality, may be one reason for voters’ disinterest. “Saying you’re anti-woke is basically being explicitly anti-Black. By saying ‘crime,’ you can distance yourself and say you’re not anti-Black but are thinking about security,” said McDaniel. “But ‘crime’ has itself been a coded word for “Black.”

Trump tapped into this sentiment. At an Iowa event in June, the former president said, “I don’t like the term ‘woke.’ It’s just a term they use — half the people can’t even define it. They don’t know what it is.”

After Jacksonville, anti-woke rhetoric collided with reality

When DeSantis won the Florida governorship for the second time last year he celebrated the state as the place where “woke goes to die.” “We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations — we will never, ever surrender to the woke mob,” he said in his victory speech.

Based on the long list of restrictive policies his administration has passed in the past few years, his fight against wokeness has had teeth. He has signed laws that control how schools teach race, history, gender identity, and sexual orientation. His state has reworked African American history standards, to erroneously explain that slaves benefited from slavery, and has outright rejected AP African American Studies.

This spring, advocates warned that DeSantis’s anti-wokeness movement was making the state of Florida unsafe for Black people. The NAACP issued a travel advisory, warning Black people to exercise “extreme care” when visiting, arguing that the state’s loose gun laws coupled with DeSantis’s “anti-woke” campaign created a state where “open hostility toward African Americans and people of color” is normalized.

Three months later, a white supremacist gunman killed three Black people in a racist attack. The response has revealed the tightrope candidates are walking in response to racist violence: They’ve attempted to toe the line between appealing to a white conservative base by denying the existence of systemic racism while trying to appear sensitive to people killed by a white supremacist.

Haley, who was governor of South Carolina when a white supremacist opened fire on nine churchgoers in Charleston, did not state a clear reason for the violence in Jacksonville. “There’s a lot of hate online with social media. We’ve got a lot of mental health issues. And you combine that with the rhetoric that is happening in America of division and just being able to hide behind something on social media and getting angry, it causes for a bad cocktail,” she said. “And when you get that, people die.”

At a vigil for the victims, DeSantis was booed. The governor did not denounce the shooting as a white supremacist attack, despite police reports that the shooter left ample evidence of his beliefs. Instead, DeSantis called the shooter a “major-league scumbag” and said, “We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race.”

Asked for comment, his spokesman said that, “Ron DeSantis has condemned these racially motivated murders repeatedly in the strongest language possible. … He will not tolerate racial hatred or violence in Florida, and we reject your politicization of this horrible event.”

When asked after the shooting whether his party had done enough to reject white supremacist violence, Tim Scott stated, “I think that’s the responsibility of every single American — the Republican Party, Democrat Party, no party affiliation.”

It was a reminder that, while DeSantis and other anti-woke Republicans can try to control what students learn about in the classroom, reality might have a way of intruding. And those policies will remain in place even if they are quieter about them on the campaign trail.

“Democrats will have to repeal these laws and make strong judicial cases against them,” McDaniel said. “Until then, Republicans might not say ‘woke’ as often as they did before but the rhetoric will be the same.”

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