No, “Wokeness” Is Not Hurting the Democrats by James Taichi Collins

Self-reflection is a lost art for the Democrats. When Hillary Clinton failed to win the presidency in 2016 against the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history, the party blamed everything. From racism, sexism, Russian interference to “Bernie Bros,” Democrats insisted that they weren’t to blame for getting crushed in what should have been a landslide victory against a bumbling idiot. It was everyone’s fault but their own. The playbook for Democratic Party operatives urges them never to question their unpopular ideology and pin the guilt, instead, on anything that enables them to sustain their high-paying gigs as consultants or talking-head media pundits.

So it should come as no surprise that, in the aftermath of a recent Republican win in the Virginia gubernatorial race, which should have been a slam dunk for the Democrats, the liberal media-pundit class has found a new whipping boy to assail for the loss: “wokeness.”

Thus, a headline to New York Times op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd reads, “Wokeness Derails the Democrats.” CNBC’s Joe Scarborough says the Democrats need to tackle “Wokism” if they want to win elections again. Democratic strategist James Carville calls “Wokeness” a “problem, [for the Democrats] and we all know it.” CNN’s Dana Bash used the Carville soundbite to frame an insinuating question to Sen. Mark Warner when asking, “Are the Democrats too woke, senator?” CNN’s John Berman also asked a similar question in a recent interview with NYC mayor-elect Eric Adams, vaguely claiming there are “critics” who say that “the national Democratic Party right now is suffering from runaway wokeness.” Comedian Bill Maher also blamed Democrats loss on “woknesss,” saying “I’m an old-school liberal. I believe in a colorblind society. That’s not where woke is.”

We could list several fundamental factors that caused the Democrats to lose Virginia a few weeks back. We could argue that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe failed to excite union voters with his hesitancy to repeal the state’s “Right to Work.” We could talk about how he may have alienated young Millennials and black voters by refusing to get rid of qualified immunity for the police. We could point out how McAuliffe’s ads consistently tried to tie his opponent to Trump.  Polls show that American voters are more inclined to vote for something rather than against something else. Yet McAuliffe forwent a positive message promising to expand jobs, health care, and improve the quality of public education and resorted, instead, to a negative campaign.

But for argument’s sake, let’s examine “wokeness” as a factor that played out in this election cycle. First off, what is being “woke”? I would argue it could be one of three things.

First, if we are not using the word “woke” pejoratively, it could mean taking a responsible stance in one’s approach to dealing with race, sex, or issues of class. Wokness strives to understand how a person’s place in an unequal society and how one speaks or acts can perpetuate or dismantle oppressive structures. From expressing solidarity with oppressed peoples and supporting their liberation to respecting how someone else wants to identify themself to the world, being “woke” finds expression on macro and micro levels. A simplified definition of the term if one is using it to describe themself in a positive light.

However, “woke” can also be a façade for moral posturing about race, sex, and class issues without actually offering anything that even remotely contributes to improving people’s lives. Sometimes it amounts to no more than harmless superficiality; sometimes, it rises to dangerous hypocrisy. In both cases, it helps no one and, often, the result is a counterproductive provocation.  New York politicians commissioning a “Black Lives Matter” mural in the city while opposing defunding the police and ending qualified immunity is an example. McDonald’s also putting up BLM in their social media while refusing to pay their workers a living wage is another one. The U.S. military naming a navy ship after the anti-imperialist Harvey Milk is also an example of woke whitewashing. If that is what critics define as “woke,” then yes, that doesn’t win over anyone.

For Democratic consultants and the liberal media-pundit class, “woke” has become a handy term to degrade Millennials and Zoomers they find excessively conscious of race, sex, and class issues. True to the form they exhibited in 2016, the media-pundit and Democratic consultant class does not want to look themselves in the mirror and question how their neoliberal policies may be unpopular. Instead, they instinctively look for someone else to blame. Rather than surveying their core positions for possible flaws, they parse their algorithms for novel variants that might explain their failure.  They find the new phenomenon called “Wokeness” or “Wokism.” The very ungrammatical nature of the words renders them conveniently suspect.  According to the consultants and the liberal media-pundit class, voters were not repulsed by the ten billionaires that funded McAuliffe’s campaign. It had to be those young activists carrying BLM signs who forced white non-college-educated Biden voters to flip Republican. It is not the Clintonian ideology of meritocracy that irritates the working class – it is those damned young people who work themselves into a frenzy over preferred gender pronouns. “It is not I, the media pundit and Democratic consultant on broadcast television, that they hate: it is those avocado toast-eating hipsters that cost us this election.”

The eagerness of Democratic analysts to scapegoat wokeness plays right into the hands of conservative critics. There has been a tendency among right-wing, “populist” political figures from Donald Trump to Glenn Beck to employ a false characterization of what they label “the elite.” Because reactionary political figures act to defend the interests of the wealthy and powerful, they need to divert the attention of their base and create the illusion that they are fighting on the side of “the little man.” As they see it, the cause of all their problems is not the Wall Street bankers or the fossil fuel industry and every other powerful lobby that underwrites Republican legislation. The “elite” in right-wing propaganda are immigrants, feminists, liberals, leftists, academics, unions, people of color, the poor on welfare, and transgender people.

This tendency that right-wingers have used to divert the attention away from the real cause of society’s ills has seeped into the playbook of the Democratic Party. “Woke” is, therefore, a shortcut to label urban Millennials and Zoomers as somehow part of the elite. Rather than discussing real class struggles between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the media consultant class has embraced the narrative that the new class struggle is not between the rich and the poor. Instead, a “clash of civilizations” between the woke urban voter and the rural, working-class voter. The former may be a barista working for tips, and the latter a steelworker or a farmer, but only the one that doesn’t work in the city as a service worker is considered part of the dispossessed working class.

The Democrats have used this right-wing “populist” lie that voters are realigning on cultural and not economic grounds. Because the media pundit and Democratic consultant class don’t want to be disinvited to those lavish parties hosted by Wall Street executives, they have found a new boogie man for their failures to win over “the white working class.” To them, it is not the Goldman Sachs banker who destroyed the economy that constitutes the “elite” – it is the Millennial workings for minimum wage at Starbucks. And their preference to identify as gender non-binary is what destroyed the Democrats’ chances of winning in Virginia.

Now, of course, a cultural divide does exist among the 300 million-plus citizens of the United States. But that is not what is causing the Democrats to lose elections they should be winning. And the pundits should know this best. It was, after all, James Carville, who won the 1992 presidential election for Bill Clinton, who said, “it is the economy, stupid.” Swing voters often decide who they are going to vote for based on the size of their wallets. If the economy is good, they vote for the incumbent party. If it is worse than before, they vote for the opposition. This is something you learn now from political science 101. Carville has undoubtedly not forgotten his very own maxim. And yet, the effect of the Democratic policy on economic issues is conspicuously absent from his recent election post-mortem analyses.

Indeed, “Woke” culture may annoy some voters. But those who are genuinely disturbed by wokeness are not going to vote Democrats in the first place. There is no independent voter thinking, “Gee, I really like Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Tuition-Free Debt, but I am voting Republican because AOC specified her gender pronouns in her Twitter bio.” Voters that may claim “Democrats are too woke” are not winnable voters, but they are unwinnable for other policy reasons. Most people who support Republicans do so because it is in their racial or class interests. Saying “I flipped from Democrat to Republican because of wokeness” is just a pretext to protect their racial or class superiority.

There are, of course, working-class voters that are hurting. They may have either stayed home during this election or voted Republican because they were deceived, misinformed, or habitually voted for a different party based on how the economy is doing. But for the Democratic-media consultant class to admit that voters they lost were more upset over the economy than cultural issues would mean they would need to embrace a policy change. It would mean that they would need to support a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a Jobs Guarantee, and the forgiveness of Student Debt, all of which would undoubtedly help the working class. But this is an inconvenience that they can’t afford because Democratic-media consultant class is part of the 1 percent. They don’t want to argue that Democrats should go after Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Jeff Bazos because their priority before winning elections is fundraising and owning a house in Martha’s Vineyard. It is easier to blame the student debt-ridden millennial working as a server in Brooklyn than to confront the reality that perhaps they are the ones that the working-class hates with vitriol.

If anything, “wokeness” is not only not a problem for the Democrats, but it is probably a net benefit to their chances of winning.  If we understand “wokeness” as slang to describe racial and class conscience, then that is what the Democrats need to make gains against Republicans. America is becoming less white each election year, with the reactionary white boomer generation also dying off. Millennials are the largest living adult generation in the country. According to the New York Times exit polls, race relations was a more significant issue than COVID for voters determining the 2020 presidential election.

Imagine if Democrats were actually “woke.” What if the party decided to run on reparations and create a massive jobs program for working-class black and brown Americans? Democrats could flip a state like Mississippi, which is 40 percent African American, with 86 percent of the demographic in the country supporting compensating the dependents of slaves. What if Democrats ran on citizenship for the protection of 11 million undocumented immigrants? They could flip Texas, which is 40 percent Latino and Hispanic, with 83 percent of the demographic in the country supporting undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. What if Democrats listened to those avocado toast-eating Millennials and eliminated student debt? They would not only be the largest adult population but the most reliable Democratic voters in the country.

The fact is that the only people hurting the party to lose against the most beatable and lunatic Republican party is the very media that advise it and the Democratic consultants that run it. If you are annoyed that figures like Dowd, Carville, or Scarborough get to decide what happens to our democracy, then join a Democratic club and infiltrate the party. Or better yet, join a DSA chapter and volunteer for one of those “woke” candidates to oust a longtime centrist Democratic incumbent in a primary. Maybe the only thing that could perhaps shut those media consultant types is to prove them wrong.

James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.

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