If you have been anywhere within range of conservative talking points on either side of the Atlantic during the past few months, you are surely aware that “anti-wokeness” has become central to the right’s assault on their political enemies. There are various explanations for this phenomenon, ranging from not-so-secret pandering to racism and sexism to the absence of a substantive conservative agenda these days.
Personally, I think it’s catnip for the right in no small part because it enables culture warriors fighting such strange ideas as equality to pose as victims rather than perpetrators of injustice. But its power as an unmistakably partisan cudgel for Republicans can be seen in all sorts of unlikely places, including the gubernatorial campaign of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who cares about nothing so much as protecting Arkansans from wokeness and its terrifying first cousin, “cancel culture.”
Some Democrats legitimately fear that their party’s reputation for wokeness may hurt it among credulous or, well, benighted voters who are otherwise open to voting blue on noncultural grounds. As New York’s Jonathan Chait points out, if being “woke” means being acutely aware of America’s structural racism, then it follows that no one should be surprised there is a political price to be paid for outspoken pursuit of racial justice.
But when Democrats weaponize wokeness against each other, they are simply reinforcing a particularly nasty and mendacious line of attack. And a regular culprit in this appropriation of right-wing culture-war tactics is that famously partisan Democrat and entertainment figure, James Carville. It started in the aftermath of the 2020 election when there was some finger-pointing over the failure of Democrats to achieve some of their preelection goals. Unsurprisingly, Fox News was happy to report it:
“Some of these woke people need to take a nap,” the characteristically blunt Carville joked on MSNBC after “The 11th Hour” host Brian Williams asked him if Democrats still want the support of working-class Americans who may feel the party has left them behind.
Quite a rib-tickler, eh?
But Carville’s tendency to use “wokeness” as a sort of all-purpose slur of progressive Democrats was on display in his reaction to the results in Louisiana’s special congressional election this past weekend. In the all-Democratic runoff in a heavily Democratic district, State Senator Troy Carter defeated his colleague Karen Carter Peterson. There were plenty of ways to explain why Carter won, including his endorsement by the man whose resignation to join the Biden White House, Cedric Richmond, created the vacancy to begin with, or his backing by a host of other national Democratic luminaries such as House Majority Whip James Clyburn and House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries. It would even be kosher for friendly observers to echo the candidates’ self-identification with national party factions (Carter with “moderates” and “pragmatists,” Peterson with “progressives”), even though they differed superficially on major issues.
But here’s how Carville put it, as the hometown Times-Picayune reported:
James Carville, the New Orleans-based political strategist, believes the outcome has national implications, noting that Peterson had the advantage of her side spending more money and a low turnout special election (16.6%) that typically favors candidates who seek to excite their party’s most fervent supporters.
“Voters voted against wokeness,” said Carville. “They just did. Woke did very, very poorly.”
This is apparently the 2021 version of “hippie punching.” I should know, as a former spokesman for the Democratic Leadership Council, which was frequently and sometimes unfairly accused of deploying Republican talking points against intraparty rivals. You don’t have to be allergic to robust debate, or guilty of wanting to “censor” Democratic differences because the enemy is listening, in order to object to a negative “wokeness” characterization of progressives. It represents an especially pernicious lie in the service of an especially pernicious right-wing effort to whitewash reactionary bigotry.
As an old southern white guy who probably lives too much in the past, I’m not sure how much I qualify as “woke.” But color me anti-anti-wokeness. I may not always agree with people to my left, but I sure as hell don’t want to put them to sleep.