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Go Woke, Get Tired
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Go Woke, Get Tired

Nature is healing.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian supporters rallied in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles on October 14, 2023. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

This isn’t going to be more musing about whether America has reached “peak woke.” But that is part of the story, so let’s start there.

About a decade ago, many on the left embraced the word “woke,” a term with roots in African American culture and activism. It originally meant staying awake—that is, “woke”—to the dangers facing the black community. But in the hands of the broader, and whiter, academic and journalistic left, it soon became a kind of cool catchall for progressive politics, alongside other buzzwords like “intersectionality.”

The combined effects of the Trump presidency, the death of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed wokeness into overdrive. This was the era of “defund the police” and other radical inanities. 

The right soon took up the word, using “woke” as a catchall for everything—woke or not, real or not—it hated about the left. The novelty of wokeness as a concept lent an equal edginess, for a time, to anti-wokeness. It’s a familiar tale, really: The same thing happened with “political correctness” in the early ’90s. 

Republican politicians declared war on wokeness. Erstwhile presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was at the anti-woke vanguard, even pushing the “Stop WOKE Act” through the state legislature. It didn’t work out too well for DeSantis or his imitators.

And that’s the point: Both wokeness and anti-wokeness have lost their transgressive edge. Now they’re both kind of “cringe,” as the kids say.

And that is a sign of healing. 

One of the worst annoyances of polarized politics is the way the fringes symbiotically feed off each other. Like bootleggers and Baptists both benefiting from blue laws, the extreme left and extreme right need each other to justify their catastrophizing. The worst thing that could happen for Republican House fundraising efforts would be for the “Squad” of far-left members of Congress to be replaced by sensible Democrats. And the last thing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wants is for Marjorie Taylor Greene to be primaried by an intelligent Republican who doesn’t talk about Jewish space lasers.

So is woke over? Probably not. The term might be in terminal decline as anything other than an epithet, but the ideas are going to be around for a while—as will anti-wokeness—because both are just stand-ins for the culture wars left and right.

But it does seem as if many on the left are starting to realize they went too far. Most Democrats don’t talk about “defunding the police” anymore because it is a wildly unpopular idea, including among black people. Nor do they use the term “Latinx” as much now that they have learned that it repelled more Latinos than it pleased.

It was recently reported that MIT will no longer require applicants for faculty jobs to submit “diversity statements” confirming their support for “diversity, inclusion, and belonging.” University President Sally Kornbuth told UnHerd, “We can build an inclusive environment in many ways, but compelled statements impinge on freedom of expression, and they don’t work.” 

A slew of elite schools have reversed course by requiring standardized tests again. Big corporations are paring back their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) departments, which surged under Trump.

And, of course, the explosion of lawlessness and antisemitic rhetoric on elite campuses has been a lesson for academia, the left, and Democrats. The country isn’t that into disorder and bigotry. The public, parents, and university patrons are siding with police more than protesters.

There’s a lesson here for the right, too. For a decade, the populist right has been whining about losing every battle in the culture war to rationalize its embrace of radical and authoritarian politics. But the premise is wrong. The right doesn’t always lose—or win—any more than the left does. 

Trump and his supporters insist that America can’t survive without him in the White House. Bill Barr, who was attorney general under Trump, says his former boss is utterly unfit to be president but that he will still vote for him because a second Biden term would amount to “national suicide” because of wokeness or something. Never mind that wokeness surged under Trump and has been receding under Biden. 

Obviously, the right and left still have plenty to complain and worry about. The point is that there’s always plenty to complain and worry about. Tides come and go. And people learn, eventually, from their mistakes.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.