The past, they say, is a foreign country. But for political pundits, so is the present. This is the only way to explain the ludicrous theories that lately litter the opinion pages of The New York Times or come falling out of the mouths of sober political analysts on the nightly news. When it comes to judging the Republican electorate, commentators are even further out of their depth and no topic confuses the chattering classes more than “wokeism.”
Pundits struggle to understand what wokeism even means. They insist it’s not happening, before turning around and insisting with equal vigor that whatever is happening is good. Then they dismiss anyone who opposes it as both a quixotic crusader and a dangerous menace.
But now they’ve come up with the most fanciful theory of all: the backlash against wokeism in schools is ending. They imagine Republicans don’t even care about wokeism, that the issue is dying away, and that we can steer clear of the vexing topic altogether. They assert that GOP leaders will go back to talking about the deficit or some other mundane topic and leave the “experts” to worry about what their children are learning.
This — seriously — is the conclusion of a number of columns over the past month, from The New York Times, Business Insider, and Vox, to name just a few. All argue that, as Vox puts it, “Republican voters don’t really care for the war on woke.” Voters are tired, they claim, of hearing about gender, race, schools, and everything in between.
They base this theory on a number of facts. First, they point out, the word “woke” has barely come up in the Republican presidential debates. Second, Ron DeSantis — in their minds the icon of the GOP anti-woke crusade — is not leading the race for the nomination, and, in addition, nobody since Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has ridden anti-woke sentiment into office. Third, they say, polling shows Republicans would rather have a candidate who focuses on something else, like crime or the economy, than one who solely focuses on defeating wokeism in schools.
This is wishcasting. Let’s take the arguments in reverse order.
If there is any conclusion to be drawn from recent polling on culture-war issues, it’s that Americans broadly — and not just Republicans — are opposed to the left’s ideological agenda. They oppose allowing gender transitions for minors by a margin of between 17 points and 37 points. They think the rising rates of transgender identification among minors is a problem (63%), as is wokeness (60%), too much of a focus on race in schools (75%), boys playing girls’ sports in public schools (81%), schools indoctrinating kids with liberal ideas (58%), parents not having enough say over the curriculum (80%), and overly accommodating transgender policies in schools (74%). Similar opinions prevail on just about every related issue.
But, the pundits respond, those polls also show voters, including Republicans, rank the economy as a top concern above social issues. And, if forced to choose, Republican voters would prefer a candidate focused on law and order than one who prioritizes fighting wokeism.
However, to leap from this to the idea that voters don’t care about wokeism, or don’t care very much, is absurd. Republicans interviewed by The New York Times were quick to point out that the choice is a false one — they want candidates who are anti-anarchy and anti-woke. Moreover, if being ranked as less of a concern than the economy means that an issue doesn’t matter, that implicates other issues also, such as abortion. Perhaps someone should tell Democrats the backlash to the Dobbs decision is over!
Next, the pundits opine that DeSantis’ campaign hasn’t resonated because his anti-woke message is a turnoff. But this explanation fails to account for the candidate overwhelmingly leading the race: Donald Trump. Since launching his campaign, Trump has promised to ban gender transitions for minors, defund doctors and hospitals who perform them, investigate any school that promotes gender ideology, and establish that there are only two genders, determined at birth, in law. These issues have regularly featured in his rallies and speeches. Clearly, Republican voters aren’t being alienated by them.
And as for the fact that the word “woke” hasn’t been mentioned very much in the GOP debates, that may be true enough, but the word itself is not at issue. The candidates spent significant time discussing the actual substance — enough time for it to qualify as a top-four issue in both debates. Candidates went out of their way to address school indoctrination, parents’ rights and gender issues, in some cases very passionately. That these topics did not feature as prominently as others had far more to do with the preferences of the moderators than those of the candidates, or voters.
Indeed, the weakness of the pundits’ anti-anti-woke argument says more about the punditry’s own preferences than anything else. Unfortunately for them however, even Republican politicians are not, it appears, stupid enough to suddenly stop campaigning on issues on which they have a significant advantage in popular opinion. Although the commentariat may not like the culture wars, they are undoubtedly here to stay.