On top of betting on himself, Ron DeSantis is betting that woke-ism is the defining issue of our time. But can he win two wagers?
“We will wage war on the woke. We will fight the woke in education; we will fight the woke in corporations; we will fight in the halls of Congress. We will never ever surrender to the woke mob,” DeSantis declared recently, channeling Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, delivered eighty-three years earlier, on June 4, 1940.
If that wasn’t on the nose enough, DeSantis’ wife Casey wore a black leather jacket to Iowa last weekend, with a picture of an alligator and the words, “Where Woke Goes to Die.”
We get it. We get it. You’re clearly doubling down on the fact that fighting woke-ism is your raison d’être. This is your Make America Great Again. This is your Build Back Better. But does casting opposition to woke-ism as DeSantis’s bête noire make sense, politically? I’m not sure.
A majority of Republicans oppose woke-ism, but do they view it as an existential threat deserving of comparisons to, say, Churchill’s stand against Nazism? Is fighting “wokeism” more important to rank-and-file GOP voters than battling inflation—or is this obsession primarily associated with an elite group of very online right-wing activists?
If woke-ism is a potent topic, then surely other Republicans are seeing this in their internal polling. And, to be sure, almost every viable Republican has adopted a stance on “wokeism.” Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, literally wrote a book called Woke, Inc.
Sen. Tim Scott, who is African-American, declared that “woke supremacy” is as bad as white supremacy.
Chris Christie, who is expected to announce this week, has previously said we need to speak out against “woke society.”
Former vice president Mike Pence, who is also expected to announce this week, found a way to criticize “woke Disney,” while also attacking DeSantis.
Even if they hedge their bets or decline to make it the defining issue of their campaign, every Republican who hopes to be viable in 2024, must at least pay lip service to hating on “wokeism.”
During a CNN town hall on Sunday night, former South Carolina governor and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley declared that “The women’s issue of our time” is “the idea that we have biological boys playing in girls sports.” Initially, though, she struggled to define the term, saying, “There’s a lot of things. I mean, you want to start with biological boys playing in girl sports.”
Along those lines, do most average Republicans even really have a solid grasp on what the term actually means?
As Donald Trump recently declared: “I don’t like the term ‘woke,’ because I hear the term ‘woke woke woke’—it’s just a term they use, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.”
Trump is being both hypocritical and opportunistic here. But is he wrong?
A few months ago, my mom (who drove people to the polls for Trump in 2016) called to ask me what “woke” meant. The only reason she was even confronted with the term was because she was helping edit my forthcoming book.
Even those well-versed in the culture wars have a hard time summing it up. Back in March, a conservative author was famously unable to succinctly define the term during an interview.
For his part, DeSantis recently gave it a try. “Look, we know what woke is, it’s a form of cultural Marxism,” he said on Saturday. “It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth. And as that has infected institutions, and it has corrupted institutions. So, you’ve got to be willing to fight the woke, we’ve done that in Florida, and we proudly consider ourselves the state where woke goes to die.”
DeSantis’ first attempt to define woke involved using another term, “cultural Marxism,” that almost nobody can define. But if you stick with DeSantis, you’ll see that what he’s describing is very real. But it’s also very old.
“DeSantis’ rationale seems contingent…on convincing us that woke-ism is the most important thing in the world—and that this necessitates hiring him to eradicate it.”
It might even be interchangeable with terms or phrases like “liberal indoctrination,” “identity politics,” “political correctness run amok,” or “Newspeak.” Maybe you call it “elite paternalism” or even “liberal fascism.” These ideas are not new, and it’s unclear why we should pretend that they are just because they have been given a new label.
For broader appeal, why not say Florida is “where liberalism comes to die” or “where progressivism comes to die”?
I also wonder whether the “woke” term that DeSantis is investing so much of his own identity in will turn out to be a fad. Will “woke” be tantamount to calling up someone and saying, “Whassup?” Will it be the defining clash of our time, or is it destined to be the “Where’s the beef?” or the Macarena Dance of the 2020s?
This might be giving the word too much credit. I’m not sure it has achieved the cultural relevance that these pop culture boomelts, which were a part of the mainstream zeitgeist, achieved.
DeSantis’ electoral rationale seems contingent, not just on convincing us that he’s the best candidate, but on convincing us that “wokeism” is the most important topic in the world—and that this necessitates hiring him to eradicate it. This is to say that he is now trying to sell us on two things. It is plausible that Republican primary voters will buy this somewhat convoluted message.
Then again, isn’t Make America Great Again a lot more straightforward and inclusive?
The Daily Beast