In the wake of last Tuesday’s elections, which among other results included Democrat Terry McCauliffe’s defeat in the Virginia gubernatorial election and Democrat Phil Murphy’s surprisingly narrow victory in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, pundits and Democratic strategists, seemingly ignoring reality and the real interests and needs of the majority of Americans, have been quick to turn on progressive Democrats and weaponize the dog whistle of “wokeness” against them.
The hasty post-election analysis reeks of a knee-jerk reaction typical of Democratic establishment politics. The reflex I’m talking about is the habitual flight from progressive positions that would sharply differentiate Democrats from Republicans—and serve the interests of the majority of Americans–to a “centrist” or “moderate” position that tends to abandon and demoralize those constituencies of the Democratic base.
African Americans have been widely credited with playing a substantial, if not decisive, role in Joe Biden’s election to the presidency. Yet, once again, we see in much of the analysis of last Tuesday’s election, the concerns of this constituency and other historically marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ groups, are the first to be jettisoned.
Adopting politically progressive politics that recognize and advance policies that seek to make American society more equitable for these constituencies and ensure their civil rights has come to be referred to as “wokeness.” Republicans have mobilized this term as a pejorative to encode the whole suite of political positions that insist on basic civil rights and socio-economic inclusion and equity for women, people of color, the working class, and LGBTQ people, threatening white male supremacy and the corporate power structure that creates gross economic inequality.
And now elements of the Democratic Party have bought into this Republican framing, similarly deploying “wokeness” as a term of slander and dismissal, betraying key constituencies as they flee to the center, looking more and more like Republicans as they court “bi-partisanship” with a poisonous party that favors minority rule instead of courting an American majority.
Certainly Terry McCauliffe, a bland Clintonian centrist, did not lose because he spoke out so vociferously in favor of a progressive economic agenda and the civil rights of all. We didn’t hear him, as he campaigned in the heart of the state in which white supremacists marched with burning tiki torches in 2017, speak intelligently about how racism and discrimination undermined the interests and civil rights of all working class people. He wasn’t really for anything. He was mainly against Trump.
And yet if we listen to James Carville, another political dinosaur still tied to an anachronistic Clintonian centrism doused in southern accommodationism, the problem wasn’t McCauliffe’s lack of political relevancy to voters’ lives. When Judy Woodruff asked Carville what went wrong for Democrats, he said,
What went wrong was this stupid wokeness. Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this defund the police lunacy, this ‘take Abraham Lincoln’s name off schools, people see that.”
“[j]ust let the Democrats pull the pin and watch the grenade go off on them. And we’ve got to change this and not be about changing dictionaries, and change laws. And these faculty lounge people that sit around mulling about I don’t know what, they’re not working. Look what happened in Buffalo, again, Seattle, I think the Republicans may have won a city attorney’s race in Seattle, the autonomous zone. Who could even think of something that stupid?”
Pundit Jonathan Alter diagnosed the problem and the solution in similar terms, arguing that “Democrats must put woke to sleep.” He wrote:
Now we’ll see if Democrats can separate themselves from people who think proper pronouns and virtue signaling are more urgent than winning elections.
In the meantime, Republicans are licking their chops over their successful lying about critical race theory in Virginia, where it is not taught at all. CRT has become a now-classic dog whistle, just as intended by Christopher Rufo, the cynic who developed it.
It works because it evokes a whole range of ideas and buzzwords—“inclusion,” “equity,” “anti-racism”—that make many people (including a fair number of Democrats) uncomfortable in their own skin, as if something will be taken away from them or they will be put on the defensive because they are white. “Critical race theory”—which we will hear incessantly until it stops working— is the demagogic descendant of “forced busing,” a major dog whistle of the early 1970s.
Alter’s comments are quite revealing, making clear that “inclusion,” “equity,” and “anti-racism,” are simply harmful buzzwords Democrats must avoid, not substantial issues meaningful to the lives of millions of Americans who have not been included, suffered inequality, and been targets of racism.
Instead of finding intelligent ways to talk about and address issues, such as how race should be taught and discussed in American public schools or how the politics of hate fuel economic and socal inequality for all, just avoid them and play to a white supremacist center, to the thoughtless and racist rather than humane and reflective tendencies in American voters. And once again ignore those key constituencies establishment Democrats play to in moments of need and quickly abandon them when it comes to policy-making.
Alter and Carville accept the Republican framing of “wokeness,” and they do so in ways that fuel racism and discredit the overall quest for a nation free from discrimination and inequity. When so many Democrats insist vociferously that critical race theory is not taught in public schools, their protestations often intone an agreement that it would be horrible if a theory that proposed studying U.S. history and society through the lens of such a powerful historical determinant as race would be a bad thing. They tend not to pivot and change the conversation to make it about the need to come terms with race in U.S. society for the benefit of all.
It’s no surprise that the House passed the grossly insufficient bi-partisan infrastructure bill in the wake of these elections, the results of which have been erroneously blamed on progressives. Once again, progressives were abandoned, and the majority of Americans who would benefit from the human infrastructure bill and who, polling indicates, support it, were abandoned as well.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.