I like to imagine chronically online Republican staffers in frenzied meetings with lawmakers, begging and pleading with them to use the barely-coded power of “woke” in every social media post and cable TV interview and stump speech and press release and congressional address.
Keep saying woke, these internet-addicted staffers say, and you will succeed. Look at Ron DeSantis, they say. He rose from relative obscurity to be the most likely to have his ass beaten by Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican primary because he said things like “Florida is where woke goes to die,” an almost comically violent threat against underrepresented and marginalized groups.
For a while I would have believed them, and when my deranged mind would imagine these Republican staffers urging their bosses to attack everything they don’t like as woke, it made sense. I saw their obsession with all things woke as the evolution of “politically correct,” a coded right-wing term in the early-2000s for treating queer people with respect and advocating for LGBTQ rights. While “woke” is far more disgusting and all-encompassing – not to mention stolen from the civil rights movement – I have believed it to be part of a continuum in how conservatives talk about the groups of people they hate the most.
Well, I was wrong. The broken-brained Republican strategists were wrong too, if recent polling is to be believed. Americans, it appears, are sick and fucking tired of hearing about all this woke shit.
That 55 percent of respondents to a March poll said Republican lawmakers and officials should “spend less time talking about wokeness” might not stun you. After all, a vast majority – 63 percent, in fact – of Democrats believe Republicans need to shut up about wokeness. Critically, 52 percent of independents in the poll urged Republicans to talk about wokeness less than they have in recent months. Your socks have not been blown off. They remain firmly on your feet. I get it.
The most important takeaway from this polling, conducted by Navigation Research, is that conservatives are also begging Republicans to shut up about wokeness. Forty-one percent of survey respondents who identified as “very conservative” said Republicans should talk less about woke bullshit; 34 percent said Republicans were talking about wokeness the right amount, an incredibly and unintentionally funny stance; and 25 percent of these “very conservative” people – presumably the most irreparably broken Twitter brains – said Republicans were not talking about wokeness enough.
Fully half of those who identified as “not very conservative” Republicans agreed that there was too much woke talk in the right-wing discourse.
These results might make your brain short circuit if you, like me, spend a tragic amount of your life online, digesting every poisonous political and cultural nugget until you can hardly remember your own politics. Decrying anything and everything as woke – from girl M&Ms who are deemed by conservative men as insufficiently sexy to Super Bowl halftime shows featuring black and brown artists to light beer enjoyed by one trans person – is the best way to gain traction online, to draw the ire of both liberals and leftists (remember, they’re not the same) and the cheerleading of right wingers who see themselves as warriors tasked with defending and returning to an American past that never existed. Rejecting social and cultural and political progress as some sort of nefarious “woke” scheme bankrolled by shadowy (usually Jewish) interests and forced upon the unsuspecting American public is the most efficient way to join – and fuel – the right-wing outrage machine.
Say “woke” three times in the mirror after midnight and Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s beady little eyes appear. I’ve done this. It works.
You don’t need to find a secret Republican decoder key at the bottom of your Lucky Charms to know what conservatives mean when they call a prosecutor woke, for instance, as is the case with New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg. It’s straightforward, really: Bragg is black, therefore he is woke. Donald Trump has called Bragg racist. Dig a little deeper into the “woke prosecutor” attack – launched by Texas GOP officials against prosecutors who go after right-wing terrorists – and you see a panicked call to white folks. These woke prosecutors are going after us, you and me, trying to imprison us and eventually replace us in the racial hierarchy. The ear-piercing call of the “woke prosecutor” dog whistle sounds an awful lot like the right’s caterwauling about White Replacement, a favorite subject of fascist propagandist Tucker Carlson.
The Navigation Research polling and the abject failure of woke-spitting Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections highlight the disconnect between the severely online world and the Real World. It’s a tired kind of analysis, I know, but it’s worth exploring if we want to know the thought processes and political desires of people who have not altered their brain chemistry with twelve hours of timeline scrolling every day since 2011. These all-out culture wars don’t always translate to the wider public even after they’ve conquered online politics for months or years (polling around trans issues tells a similar story).
I do not interpret the polling around wokeness as a call among conservative voters for Republicans to stick to so-called kitchen table issues or to be kinder and gentler toward their LGBTQ and black and brown brethren. Not at all. I see this polling as a burning desire for more good-faith hatred and discrimination against groups of people who refuse to support the right’s wicked little agenda, and keep getting in the way of authoritarian control.
Say What You Mean To Say
My theory, however untested and based on my aforementioned internet mind poisoning, is that people on the American right would like Republicans to speak more clearly about who and what they oppose and how they will wield government power against those forces and people.
Enough of this woke shit, they might say. Please say what you mean about how you will push back against the incremental gains achieved by LGBTQ folks over the past decade. Give us retrenchment. Give us revenge. Tell me how you will use your time in office to further entrench white supremacy in the fabric of everyday life and create permanent barriers against progressive policies that could, one day, transform parts of the United States into actual, real life multiracial democracies. But most of all, please tell me how you will get these queers and interracial couples off my TV screen.
I think there’s some understanding among the American right that crying about wokeness has become a key to bad-faith politics. And I think Americans of all stripes crave more good-faith politics – not rehearsed, coded pitches to folks who spend enough time on the internet to see the winking and nodding.
The fear of being replaced by people of color and gay folks is an animating force of the U.S. conservative movement of the 2020s. Polling of 1,500 Americans in the spring of 2022 revealed that nearly seven in ten self-identified Republicans believe the country’s demographic changes are being orchestrated by “liberal leaders actively trying to leverage political power by replacing more conservative white voters.”
Buying into the Great Replacement Theory isn’t just unseemly or kooky. This should not be dismissed by anyone on the left because the theory is deeply dangerous, even life threatening to people of color in the US, as we saw last summer when a right-wing terrorist obsessed with the Great Replacement stormed a marketplace in a predominantly black part of Buffalo and murdered 13 people, almost all of them black. That the Great Replacement is openly discussed by fascist talking heads on Fox News and elsewhere is enough to make one rethink the limitlessness of the First Amendment.
Many white Americans hold a visceral fear of losing power and being treated the way they have treated those who have suffered in a system of brutal, centuries-long systemic racist repression. The right-wing worldview is one based on domination and subjugation, and white folks are bound and determined to never relinquish the reins of power in the United States. They will never be the subjects. These people, ruled by fear and loathing, want their politicians to be clear about how that power will be secured not just today, but for their children and their children’s children. Republicans’ constant babbling about wokeness is an unnecessary sideshow for white people who believe they are the victims of an international plot to remove them from the top of the hierarchy.
I doubt the conservative desire for less talk of wokeism is about Republican “woke” talk being a proven loser of a campaign strategy or unfair to those they are attacking. I believe it is a demand for some of the worst good-faith politics imaginable.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.