Why Is Wokeness Winning?

The astonishing and continuing success of left illiberalism

(Protesters kneel in front of Lafayette Park near the White House to protest the death of George Floyd. By Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

A question I’ve wrestled with this past year or so is a pretty basic one: if critical race/gender/queer theory is unfalsifiable postmodern claptrap, as I have long contended, how has it conquered so many institutions so swiftly? 

It’s been a staggering achievement, when you come to think of it. Critical theory was once an esoteric academic pursuit. Now it has become the core, underlying philosophy of the majority of American cultural institutions, universities, media, corporations, liberal churches, NGOs, philanthropies, and, of course, mainstream journalism. This summer felt like a psychic break from old-school liberalism, a moment when a big part of the American elite just decided to junk the principles that have long defined American democratic life, and embrace what Bari Weiss calls “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality.”

It’s everywhere. Across the country, schools and colleges are dumping SATs so they can engineer racial equity, and abolish the idea of merit. The Smithsonian backed the idea that working hard, showing up on time and perfecting a task are functions of “whiteness”. In California, there’s a ballot initiative to legalize government discrimination on the basis of race; and a new mandate that company boards add members from under-represented communities. Corporations who haven’t publicly committed themselves to the full woke project are being hounded by their employees into doing so, meaning hiring and firing on the basis of race, or forcing employees into re-education sessions, guided by DiAngelo and Kendi. The NBA, for Pete’s sake, is now a festival of wokeness, even as viewership collapses. CRT propaganda like the NYT’s 1619 Project can be exposed as untrue and unethical, but the paper can both debunk it in its own pages and still hail it as a triumph. And the pièce de resistance: 21 percent of liberal students in the Ivy League favor some level of violence to stop campus speech they disapprove of.

There seems no stopping this. But why? Why this powerful, seemingly inevitable shift, especially among white elites? I’d posit some obvious reasons, but this is a rough guess and I hope we can start a conversation here about the reason for this astonishing change — and how better to engage it.

The first, it seems to me, is emotional. The reason so many people marched this summer was because of a righteous revulsion at the visceral image of a black man being murdered slowly on the street by a bad, white cop. This revulsion is a vital and important thing — and it’s completely compatible with a liberal attempt to reform the cops and criminal justice to ensure equal treatment under the law for everyone of every race. In fact, there is considerable bipartisan support for a pragmatic shift.

But this was emphatically not the core message of the Black Lives Matter movement, rooted in critical theory. BLM’s critical race activists do not support reforming the police, they want to abolish them entirely. In fact, they demonize all cops as “bastards”, and they justify violence and exonerate crime as legitimate resistance to the far greater crime of white oppression.

Liberals, concerned about resilient racial inequality, have simply decided to ignore this. Or they think that a little radicalism is no bad thing in a polarized time: the usual “no enemies to the left” mantra in the era of Trump and white nationalism. I can see why people take this path of least resistance, but what we’ve seen is simple avoidance of the deeper issue of CRT’s profound illiberalism, a dismissal of it, or an anti-anti-woke position that sees opponents as mere hysterics (and maybe racists).

And the CRT advocates have brilliantly managed to construct a crude moral binary to pressure liberals into submission. Where liberalism allows neutrality or doubt or indifference, CRT demands an absolute and immediate choice between racism and anti-racism (defined by CRT) — and no one wants to be a racist, do they? Legitimate anguish about racial inequality and the sheer terror of being publicly labeled a bigot have led liberals to surrender their core values to the far left. 

The second reason for CRT’s triumph is that it’s super-easy. Social inequalities are extremely complicated things. A huge variety of factors may be in play: class, family structure, education, neighborhood, sex, biology, genetics and culture are some of them. Untangling this empirically in order to figure out what might actually work to improve things is hard work. But when you can simply dismiss all of these factors and cite “structural racism” as the only reason for any racial inequality, and also cover yourself in moral righteousness, you’re home-free. Those who raise objections or complications or cite nuances can be dismissed by the same easy method.

Then there’s the deep relationship between CRT and one of the most powerful human drives: tribalism. What antiracism brilliantly does is adopt all the instincts of racism and sexism — seeing someone and instantly judging them by the color of their skin, or sex — and drape them with a veil of virtue. You don’t have to correct yourself when your tribal psyche makes you more cognizant of someone’s visible racial differences, and pre-judges them. You don’t have to resist this any more. You can give in to your core nature, and feel pride, rather than shame. You get to have all the feels of judging people entirely by their involuntary characteristics, while actually dismantling racism and sexism! What’s not to like?

Social aspiration also plays a part. The etiquette of wokery is increasingly indispensable for high society. They mark you as someone high up in the American social hierarchy. The right words and phrases signal your ease in this elite; the wrong ones — “sexual preference”! — expose you as a rube, a bigot or, worse, a middle class provincial. Rob Henderson argues that this aspiration to be in the upper classes helps explain why Asian-Americans, who are targeted for direct race discrimination under CRT, nonetheless often support it: “While money and education are tickets to the middle class, prizing diversity is a requirement to join the upper class. It’s part of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as cultural capital — tastes, vocabulary, awareness and mannerisms which give social advantages to those higher in the social hierarchy.” Reihan Salam has also written brilliantly about this. 

There’s little doubt, either, it seems to me that there is a religious component to wokeness. A generation of nones can feel bereft of transcendence and meaning, and “becoming woke”, like being “born again,” fills that spiritual hole. In an atomized and lonely age, feeling as if you are on “the right side of history”, banishing doubt, joining with countless of your fellow converts in marches and seminars, can abate the isolation and emptiness of it all. Many moderns want the experience of religion without God. With CRT, as in the past with communism, they can have it.

But what also make CRT so successful is ruthlessness. Those who hold a view of the world in which only power, and the struggle for power, matters, have few qualms in exercising it. After all, under CRT, power is always on the side of the white cis-heteropatriarchy, so payback is always fair play. Discriminating against the unwoke or whites or males or the cis-gendered or Asian-American, is not just fair, but vital. Shutting down speech protects the oppressed; bullying on social media and in the workplace becomes a form of virtue; mercy and forgiveness are mere buttresses for white supremacy; HR departments diligently identify dissidents, and discipline them. Once you set up this system of censorship and fear, persecute a few prominent sinners pour décourager les autres, and encourage snitches, dissidents will increasingly self-censor, and dissent peter out, until the new orthodoxy is the only one.  

In the past, a new set of ideas could be engaged in a clash of argument and debate. But you’ll notice that the advocates of what Wes Yang has called “the successor ideology” never debate any serious opponents of their position. This is because debate in a liberal society implies equal standing for both sides, and uses reason to determine who’s right or wrong. But there can be no “both sides” within CRT, no equation of “racists” and “antiracists”, and debates are inherently oppressive. Logic, evidence, and reason are, in this worldview, mere products of white supremacy, forms of violence against the oppressed. In CRT, remember, there is no truth or objectivity; there are merely narratives. So, yes, 2 + 2 = 5, and math is inherently a function of whiteness. And what racist is going to deny this?

The truth is that liberal democracy is hard, counter-intuitive, complicated and requires self-restraint, reason, and toleration at levels most humans are incapable of. That’s why it is such a rare and fleeting exception in the world today and all but non-existent for the vast majority of human history. Critical race theory is much more attuned to human nature. It gives you the simplest template for understanding the world, it assigns you virtue if you assent, it gives you instant power over others purely because of your and their identity, and it requires nothing more than tribal instinct to thrive. That’s why it is here to stay. And why the fight for liberalism is going to be long and hard and require as much courage, steel, and rigor as we can muster.

(Note to readers: we’re experimenting with expanding the space we have for reader input, especially for more personal stories and experiences, as in the Daily Dish, where we had far more space. If you’re a paid subscriber, click here to join the conversation on the successor ideology and your experiences with it. If you’re not paid up yet, and want to join in, click here.)

James Island, South Carolina, 12pm

The Germaphobe Who Let The Virus Rip

The weird thing about Donald Trump’s handling of Covid19, alongside all the other weird things, is that he has always been a near-pathological germaphobe. This was one indelible characteristic I thought I knew about him. He prefers not to press the lowest button on an elevator; he asks visitors to the Oval Office to wash their hands in a nearby bathroom; he has a bottle of Purell available whenever he has to handle hoi polloi; he even lost some real estate deals in the past because he wouldn’t physically greet or shake hands. As recently as last year, Politico called him “the most germ-conscious man to ever lead the free world.”  

The same story quoted a Trump campaign official saying: “If you’re the perpetrator of a cough or of a sneeze or any kind of thing that makes you look sick, you get that look. You get the scowl. You get the response of — he’ll put a hand up in a gesture of, you should be backing away from him, you should be more considerate and you should extricate yourself from the situation.” He once told the radio star Howard Stern that he washes his hands every day “as many times as possible”. One of his old cronies, Anthony Scaramucci, saw it up close: "If you’re standing by him, and you’re going to look at something on his desk, and you lick your index finger to open the thing to try to catch an edge on the paper, he’ll smack your hand and be like ‘What are you, disgusting?’”

So why, why, why did he not go nuclear on Covid19? Why on earth did he first deny it, lie about it, undermine basic public health guidelines on it, refuse to wear a mask, mock those who did, market quack cures, and allow his own White House to host a super-spreader event that led to more Covid cases than the rest of DC combined? For that matter, why didn’t this instinctually authoritarian man react to Covid19 by shutting down all US borders, including those from Europe, and subject US citizens returning home to the kind of hygienic ordeal he routinely demands of anyone who comes close to him? Ross Douthat has a very strong point that if Trump were a real authoritarian, he would have used the epidemic to impose strongman rule — and yet he took a super-relaxed view of it.

So what explains it? I don’t really have an answer. My best bet is simply that Trump is such a narcissist that his concern about germs was only ever exclusively about him. And all he worried about as the virus approached was the damage a lockdown could do to his re-election chances by causing a recession, apparently unable to understand that the disease itself — and its largely uncontrolled spread — might be an even bigger threat to the economy. The polling now shows, that even with the Covid recession, a slim majority approves of Trump’s handling of the economy and say they’re better off than four years ago. But they’re voting Biden because of the virus. 

His own recklessness? Denial, hubris and dumb machismo, it seems to me. The absent authoritarianism? I think the critique of Trump is not that he wants to control and run the entire society; it’s that he doesn’t believe in any restraints on his own power, and will exercise it as he sees fit, checked only, and after infinite legal battle, by the courts, which he stacks with those who defend executive power. Authoritarianism to fight his personal enemies? Sure. To fight a virus? Nah. What’s in it for him?

Rangataua, New Zealand, 12 pm

Dissents Of The Week

Mickey Kaus, one of the few bloggers who also covered the Bush-Gore election 20 years ago, fisks my latest column that dreams of a Biden landslide.

Some counter-points. Yes, I’m aware that the GOP nominated George W Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney in the 21st Century, but the power of the tribal right, from Gingrich to the Tea Party to the Trump cult, is still an obviously ruinous slide from George H W Bush’s moderation. Yes, the Democrats are also responsible for polarization, as I’ve constantly noted in this space. But Trump’s shameless base-pandering and majority-baiting of the last four years? Even Mickey acknowledges how terribly and foolishly divisive Trump has been. Yes, restriction of immigration and minimum wage hikes did help level up the working class under Trump (until Covid19), but the tax cut was far more decisive in directing wealth to the super-rich.

I’m not sure that a big Democratic victory will energize the left into over-reach, as Mickey fears, though I willingly concede that’s always possible. My point is that a big win could bring more Democrats into Congress who represent marginal districts, as in 2018, and thereby bolster moderate leverage over Biden. And yes, I have sympathy for some ‘populist’ conservative policies, like a slower pace of immigration. The “hideous mistake” is not a reference to new policies, but to the deranged, feckless tyrant in the White House. Mickey has been far more sanguine about Trump’s instability and malice than I have been, but I think it’s crucial that America decisively reject this caudillo model of one-man rule, if we are to restore some of the liberal democratic norms he has so wantonly trashed. A landslide would draw a line underneath it as a cautionary tale.

A dissent from a reader:

Much as I would love your dreams to be true, I feel the need to throw cold water on it. Recall that Clinton was dominating Trump at this point four years ago. Trump momentum began showing in polls two weeks before the election as he, quite frankly, out-worked Clinton on the campaign trail. I worry we will have a similar situation where Trump simply campaigns much harder than Joe and that “undecided voters“ are simply ambivalent Trump voters. (How can you be undecided at this point?!)

Also, recall that in 2008 Obama won in a landslide (53% to 46%, 365 to 173), and Democrats held the House and Senate. Obama campaigned on bipartisanship and governed in a centrist manner. Republicans were not chastened. They determined the correct strategy was to obstruct everything. Biden has made the exact same promise and calculation as Obama that somehow he can get Republicans to work with him. This is a fool’s errand. Our only hope is that Biden’s legislative experience makes him a more effective negotiator than Obama, who often disdained dealmaking.

I’m not clairvoyant, and there may well be stealth Trump voters out there, especially given robust Republican registration drives. But the gap between Trump and Biden has remained large and stable for a very long time and recently expanded. Trump’s debate debacle may have been the coup de grace. Another reader is even gloomier:

“Know hope.” Hope is all you have that electing Biden will suddenly, magically, return Democrats to the center. You seem to presume we will wake up on January 21st and the media will abandon its agenda, teachers will stop indoctrinating children, the rioters will just go home, and Democrats will usher in an era of normalcy while resisting the demands of the identity groups that carried them to victory. It’s a nice story, but “dreaming” is more aptly used to describe this little fantasy than your expectations for election day.

Nobody should vote for Donald Trump, but we should all vote against the left.

I get that. I truly do. I loathe the identitarian left. But it’s worth noting that the far left made its biggest gains in response to Trump, and removing that boogeyman might help defuse the intensity of the insurgency. And I think making this election solely about wokeness is to ignore so many other issues — the insanity of Trump and what he’d do in the next four years, climate change, access to affordable healthcare — that need to be taken into account. I think elections are binary and we should make a choice between the two options. Nothing is perfect. Biden is infinitely preferable.

Another reader suspects that the “Bernie/AOC wing” will take advantage of a weak executive:

Yes, a landslide would clean up things for mid-November, but the Democrats and the MSM will take away the wrong message. This isn’t as much a victory for Biden and Harris as a thumping of Trump. Biden has a 40+ year career of being a second banana at best. Until he was saved by James Clyburn in SC, Biden was doing his typical routine of losing a presidential campaign. Harris didn’t even get that far. I teach about political campaigns and stress the old dictum, “better lucky than good”.

On the other hand, this next reader believes the Bernie/AOC wing is the only thing that can save us:

You are hyper-focused on issues of wokeness, race, and gender, but it is utter foolishness to wish for the weakening of the extreme left for one reason good enough to override all other concerns: climate change. Only the extreme left is anywhere close to an adequate response on climate. Biden’s “green infrastructure”, which you tout, is of course a welcome step, but it is a cautious baby step when running is required. Even the Green New Deal is too mild a response. The time is unimaginably short; we are decades late in addressing this existential threat (existential to civilization certainly, possibly the species). A bipartisan government will at best move towards a restoration of pre-Trump America. But we need extreme changes if we are to survive what is coming.

I agree with swift, practical action on climate. But I’m not an extremist, sorry. Another reader:

I agree that a landslide is needed. But this is curious: “It would say to posterity: we made this hideous mistake, for understandable reasons, but after four years, we saw what we did and decisively changed course.” What were the “understandable reasons”?

The plight of the working class under globalization; mass illegal immigration; federal woke fiats, etc. Another reader points to a formerly stubborn pol who turned things around:

Has anyone told you how Doug Ford has been handling the pandemic as Premier of Ontario? I think it’s the closest we’ve got to a Trump counterfactual. Ford is a populist conservative, always exploiting polarization, and always running roughshod over institutions in the name of his “government for the people.” (He’s also the brother of Rob Ford, the crack-smoking mayor.) Except it wasn’t working out for Doug Ford, and polls were plummeting into Trump territory. With Covid, Ford got serious and turned it around, playing well with the experts and acting gracefully toward opponents. He went from angry uncle to “Premier Dad.” He’s been rewarded in the polls.

Trump could have done the same thing and would be now on his way to victory. But as we know, he just can’t.

Cool Ad Watch

Morgan Freeman warns us about a dangerous new species under the sea:

(Hat tip: Curious Brain)

Quote For The Week

“[T]he establishment position [says] politics means focus, laser-like, on the quadrennial extravaganza, then go home and let your superiors take over. The left position has always been: You’re working all the time, and every once in a while there’s an event called an election. This should take you away from real politics for 10 or 15 minutes. Then you go back to work.

At this moment, the difference between the candidates is a chasm. There has never been a greater difference. It should be obvious to anyone who’s not living under a rock. … This is not support for Biden. It is support for the activists who have been at work constantly, creating the background within the party in which the shifts took place, and who have followed Sanders in actually entering the campaign and influencing it. Support for them. Support for real politics.

The left position is you rarely support anyone. You vote against the worst,” - Noam Chomsky, discussing woke activists (such as Briahna Joy Gray) who refuse to rally around Biden.

(Hat tip: Ben Winegard)

Quote For The Week II

“We are staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami,” - Senator Ben Sasse

Mental Health Break

Awkward moments we can all relate to:

In The ‘Stacks

Some great stuff from other Substackers this week:

  • Jonathan V. Last, over at the newly Substack’d Bulwark, is also dreaming of a landslide — and one that could result in a margin of 15 million votes, or five times that of Hillary’s. He even sees the ground shifting in West Virginia, “the second Trumpiest state.”

  • There’s at least one welcome casualty of Covid19: the Oscars.

  • Carol Nesteikis’s son, who is mentally disabled, was tricked into committing a non-violent misdemeanor and had to register as a sex offender. “Being on the registry is a form of civil death,” she writes, running through a disturbing set of statistics showing how the vast majority of “offenders” don’t pose a threat. It’s a gripping piece.

  • In an increasingly complex world, the spread of “simplism” is unsettling. “For simplists, the slogan is the platform,” Nathaniel Rachman observes.

The View From Your Window Contest

So, where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two TWD subscriptions. Happy sleuthing!

We’ve decided to spare you two separate emails on Friday — for the window contest and the main Dish — and instead provide a link here for the results for last week’s window (located on our archive page, where previous contests can also be found).

And as always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the mix, including the view from your own window: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

See you next Friday.