All this “Democrats are too woke!” stuff never tells us anything about what Democrats (meaning: anyone of significance within the Democratic Party) actually do or say. But it always reveals so much about what truly animates the people railing against “wokeism.”
America is a country with a massive right-wing propaganda apparatus and millions of people who refuse to admit they're susceptible to it.
Which Democrats are too woke? Too woke how, exactly? Is there any legislation one could point to? What, precisely, is the Democratic Party actually doing that it shouldn’t? We never get any proper answers, the “too woke” critique remains entirely unsubstantiated.
I get the impulse to counter the pervasive criticism of Democratic “wokeness” with facts – but it’s pointless. We shouldn’t treat these claims as if they were made in good faith or focus on refuting specific statements, but highlight the underlying reactionary political project.
If this weren’t such a pervasive line of criticism among self-proclaimed moderates and liberals, it would be better to just ignore this Maher nonsense. But I encounter versions of this all the time, from people who adamantly deny any reactionary beliefs and sensibilities.
Earlier this summer, for instance, someone from the “nonpartisan” think tank world here in DC complained to me that, yes, Trump was bad, but on the other hand, “all Democrats ever do is talk about bathrooms” – during a roundtable discussion on the state of American democracy.
Some of this is just rightwing propaganda powerfully flooding the discourse with moral panic imagery – which is then adopted as factual reality. But propaganda isn’t the whole story, as it doesn’t explain the eagerness with which people well beyond the Right jump on this stuff.
There is also an element of what we might call performative centrism: “Oh, look how above the fray we are: We’re bravely pushing back against leftist orthodoxy!” This kind of neutrality-theater anti-wokeism is quite pervasive in the mainstream media and the think tank world.
There is also an ideological dimension, a widespread reactionary sensibility. “All they do is talk about bathrooms” is not really an empirical claim, but primarily an ideological statement of preference and intent that translates to: “They care too much about the wrong people.”
Such complaints about “wokeism” indicate a belief that the forces of egalitarian multiracial pluralism have been allowed to advance way too far already, that the claims of traditionally marginalized groups have lost much of their legitimacy and are simply not an urgent concern.
This anti-“woke” notion that “special interest groups” (a typically conservative, intentionally delegitimizing perspective on traditionally marginalized people) are getting too much attention, are being selfish and unreasonable, is widespread well beyond the Right.
It is not the result of an actual empirical analysis, of an honest assessment of what the Democratic Party is and isn’t doing, but instead builds on a vague sense that things are changing too fast and that the “wrong” people are in charge of where the country is going.
This vague unease among those who believe there has been just enough upending of traditional hierarchies already – which often leads to an aggressively annoyed lashing out against those who insist otherwise – is so perfectly captured in this Bill Maher interview.
There is “stuff about race and gender” going on in this country, Maher says – and he’s absolutely right, of course: Traditional hierarchies of white Christian patriarchal dominance have come under pressure, and Maher evidently is not comfortable with that.
The fact that many of those who display similar reactionary anti-“woke” instincts and sensibilities consider themselves moderate or liberal – and very much not conservative – is actually important because it informs their assessment of what is happening on the “Left.”
If you are convinced to be just the right kind of reasonable / liberal /moderate, then experiencing these reactionary impulses creates a kind of intellectual and emotional dissonance that is often resolved by declaring that which makes you uncomfortable “radical” and “extreme.”
“I’m a true liberal – these people are radical, woke activists” feels a lot better than “I always thought I was pretty liberal, but I must say I’m feeling uncomfortable about these calls for equality and respect, especially when they question my status in society.”
It’s a combination of performative and reactionary centrism, and no matter the exact mix between strategic, ideological, and psychological elements, the result is the same: An aggressive lashing out that bears striking resemblance to the rightwing moral panic over “wokeism.”
And this is the level on which the response should focus. Instead of playing defense by trying to intercept and refute every single vague claim, let’s emphasize how such accusations are tied to a broader reactionary counter-mobilization against egalitarian multiracial pluralism.
Let’s focus on how such claims pave the way for a rightwing political project that seeks to delegitimize the demands for equality and respect of some of the most vulnerable groups in our society and is committed to rolling back the post-1960s civil rights order.
Anti-“wokeism” is a reactionary moral panic that builds a permission structure for people across the political spectrum to make common cause with the anti-democratic Right – or, at the very least, stifles the response to the assault on multiracial, pluralistic democracy.