The Unbearable Tensions in Wokeness

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks to reporters as President-elect Joe Biden listens following their online meeting with members of the National Governors Association in Wilmington, Del. November 19, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

If you are looking to find out which faction has the upper hand at the dawn of the Biden administration, look to the policy debates.

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A battle between haughty poseurs and redistributors

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hat is the goal of the new social-justice politics that emerged in 2014 and gained steam during the Trump years?

One school holds that the virtue-signaling and grievance politics are a kind of moat that the upwardly mobile are creating around their class. It gives them an excuse to eject the deplorables from the community of man. In a very perceptive essay at UnHerd, Matthew Crawford writes that social-justice politics enables the moral and political secession of elites from their nation. “Very simply: if the nation is fundamentally racist, sexist and homophobic, I owe it nothing. More than that, conscience demands that I repudiate it.” As we’ve written in this space, this secession of elites is aimed at dissolving the moral and political restraints on self-seeking. That’s why anti-nationalist politics are so often anti-democratic, even when they claim to speak for democracy.

This theory tracks with our perceptions that woke politics is most popular among affluent whites and in elite institutions, the Ivy Leagues, private schools. And that it’s not so popular among its supposed beneficiaries. See the poll results on the number of Hispanics who have heard or would ever accept the woke label “Latinx that is being applied to them. In this theory, wokeness is a series of respectful gestures, and at worst it is a kind of tokenism. In Crawford’s telling and occasionally in my own, this form of woke politics is a way of avoiding serious talk about material inequalities in society. Indeed, it makes talking about them almost impossible. Instead of “Let them eat cake,” it proposes “Let folx be esteemed!” In this view, it’s all a pose.

But, I think this view of wokeness — as a self-seeking con job — doesn’t quite do justice to social justice. The larger progressive movement and the Democratic Party that is embracing “woke” politics are winning the votes of the poor and majorities of non-white working-class voters. Perhaps there is something more to it than a burst of moral enthusiasm and moral panic among the upwardly mobile.

Helen Andrews, in a scorching review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — the most widely read wokebook — detected a distinct Marxist spirit in the project. She cited the relentless emphasis on exploitation and “plunder.” One could also add that the book’s intense materialism, its rhetorical elevation of “black bodies,” is a repudiation of W. E. B. Du Bois’s emphasis on “the souls of black folk.”

By moving on from vague talk of white privilege to talking about white theft, Coates and those who followed on from him were describing the preconditions for a politics of material redistribution. Or rather, restitution and reparations. Something of that is behind the essays in the 1619 Project.

In less rigorous minds, this form of social-justice politics takes the cultural questions in hand — including all the politically correct etiquette and argot of the upwardly mobile woke poseurs — and imposes them not as an end in themselves or a dishonest diversion, but sincerely. The inchoate and usually unstated presumption is that the policies that enabled the concentration of wealth, privilege, and power in the hands of cisnormative-heterosexual, white patriarchs was in some way a product of cultural esteem. Dismantling the myths of Western civilization and elevating the repressed isn’t meant to stop at the symbolic. It’s not a sop. The redistribution of respect, esteem, and honor is a precondition for the redistribution of income, status, and opportunity.

One can almost see the outlines of this tension in the Democratic Party itself. After all, both the poseurs and the redistributors can talk about inequality as an urgent moral problem. Blue states are characterized by greater income inequality than many of the deeply red states. California is the most unequal state in the country, and its middle class is fleeing.

If you are looking to find out who has the upper hand — the poseurs or the redistributors — at the dawn of the Biden administration, look to the policy debates. Is the energy gathering behind policies that disproportionately benefit the affluent, educated, and moralizing elite poseurs — policies such as student-debt forgiveness and the repeal of the SALT-deduction caps? Or is it gathering behind the expansion of universal benefits, which would be enjoyed relatively equally by the poseurs and the truly marginalized and underprivileged members of society?

So far, the poseurs seem to be winning. How long can they keep that up before someone demands they put their money where their mouths are?