Published May 27, 2021
Wokeness won’t cancel itself. Some pundits are predicting that the revolutionary zeal of wokeness — the ill-defined but suddenly all-conquering radical ideology that has swept through American life and institutions — will soon abate. But what they describe is not the end of wokeness but its victory.
For instance, the New York Times’s David Brooks argues that wokeness is not all bad and that its excesses will be curbed as it is institutionalized. Brooks is confident in “the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology,” and he endorses Tyler Cowen’s view that, “the sooner wokeness becomes like the Unitarian Church — broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment — the better.”
In short: woke capital is still capital, and woke elites are still elite, so don’t worry. Wokeness won’t overthrow the system; rather, the system will absorb wokeness and the true-believer radicals will be bought off, appeased, or marginalized. Even if elite tongues speak the moral language of wokeness, elite hearts will still be enthralled by money and prestige.
There are at least two fatal flaws in this optimistic assessment. The first is driven home in Rod Dreher’s response to Brooks. Dreher observes that the “core of our disagreement is over the effects of having a leadership class radicalized by wokeness. David thinks it’s not all bad, but it will fade in time. I think it is entirely bad, and that even if it fades — I’ve got my doubts — the damage it does in the process is going to be immense.”
Dreher is right. The poison of wokeness will not be easily diluted down to a safe dose. The animosity and incompetence it produces vitiate the institutions it controls, and taming it requires standing up to it, which few are willing to do. Furthermore, accepting the framework of wokeness deprives people of the moral language and resources needed to effectively criticize it.
The difficulty in restraining wokeness is illustrated in the current fights in elite schools. Upper-class parents are horrified at the hard-left takeover that is ruining their children’s (very expensive) educations, but they are also terrified of the social consequences of openly opposing the new ideology. If America’s leadership class is struggling to protect its own children from the radicals, the rest of us should expect little help.
Even supposing that time and ambition tame woke depredations among America’s leading institutions, what about the rest of us? Dreher’s objection to Brooks points to the second fatal flaw in the latter’s argument, which is that Brooks misunderstands the nature of the danger we are in. It is not news to critics of wokeness that wokeness is coopting — or being coopted by — elite interests and institutions. Rather, this is precisely what we are afraid of and have been warning about.
We are less concerned that various aspects of wokeness, from transgender ideology to critical race theory, may disrupt the American establishment than that wokeness is becoming the establishment. It would be far better for the woke to be trying to sabotage American institutions, from Coca-Cola to the CIA, than for the woke to be running them.
But this might be good for elites who fear that their careers and social status could be next on the chopping block. True believers or not, most elites just want to know what to do — fly the rainbow flag and a Black Lives Matter banner, put pronouns in their bios, patronize the right “anti-racist” gurus — to keep themselves from being targeted.
The continuing absorption of wokeness into the American establishment might provide some protection for those who profess the new creed. Wokeness has less incentive to disrupt and destroy that which it controls.
But regardless of how it plays out internally, the woke conquest of institutions will intensify — not end — the pressure on the rest of us. The establishment consolidation around woke ideologies, even if it is often individually insincere and cynical, will then direct that power at external opponents. If wokeness is the American establishment’s new civil religion, what happens to us heretics, dissenters, and nonconformists?
What will happen is what is already the norm in woke-dominated institutions like academia: exclusion and suppression. Woke institutions and industries will expect everyone to join in the latest expression of the new faith, and even quiet opposition will imperil careers and reputations. Professional organizations will require members to adhere to woke doctrines; refusal could mean losing one’s livelihood.
These tendencies toward forced ideological conformity will not dissipate as wokeness becomes more dominant in elite institutions. Those who oppose it, even in part, cannot surrender their way to victory. Rather, wokeness must be opposed in order to be defeated. Part of this opposition is presenting a better vision of how to live, and how to respond to injustice.
Wokeness claims to seek justice, but it lacks love and mercy; securing establishment power and elite status will not change that. For the woke, justice is about punishment and group identities.
Wokeness claims to seek racial justice, but instead, it tends toward promoting racial essentialism and encouraging racial animosity.
Wokeness claims to seek justice regarding sex and gender, but it elevates selfish, subjective desires over natural human sexual complementarity and family solidarity.
Wokeness claims to seek political and economic justice, but its embrace by the elite serves as a distraction from the exploitation they continue to perpetuate.
Wokeness is a poor substitute for real justice, community, and faith. Its all-consuming emphasis on group identities obscures essential truths about human nature and flourishing. Only by recognizing that the dividing line between good and evil runs, not through group identities, but through every human heart, including our own, can we pursue justice and love.
Wokeness will be ended not by giving it more status and power, but by the opposition of those who can offer true justice rooted in love.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.