My friend Rod Dreher recently had a blog post for The American Conservative called “Why Are Conservatives in Despair?” He explained that conservatives are in despair because a hostile ideology — wokeness or social justice or critical race theory — is sweeping across America the way Bolshevism swept across the Russian Empire before the October Revolution in 1917.
This ideology is creating a “soft totalitarianism” across wide swaths of American society, he writes. In the view of not just Dreher but also many others, it divides the world into good and evil based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion or open discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official catechism. It produces fringe absurdities like “ethnomathematics,” which proponents say seeks to challenge the ways that, as one guide for teachers puts it, “math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist and racist views” by dismissing old standards like “getting the ‘right’ answer.”
I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.
The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.
But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts.
In an essay titled “The Language of Privilege,” in Tablet, Nicholas Clairmont argues that the difficulty of the language is the point — to exclude those with less educational capital.
People who engage in this discourse have been enculturated by our best and most expensive schools. If you look at the places where the splashy woke controversies have taken place, they have often been posh prep schools, like Harvard-Westlake or Dalton, or pricey colleges, like Bryn Mawr or Princeton.
The meritocracy at this level is very competitive. Performing the discourse by canceling and shaming becomes a way of establishing your status and power as an enlightened person. It becomes a way of showing — despite your secret self-doubts — that you really belong. It also becomes a way of showing the world that you are anti-elite, even though you work, study and live in circles that are extremely elite.
The meritocracy has one job: to funnel young people into leadership positions in society. It’s very good at doing that. Corporations and other organizations are eager to hire top performers, and one sign of elite credentials is the ability to do the discourse. That’s why the CIA made that widely mocked recruiting video that was like a woke word salad: cisgender, intersectional, patriarchal.
The people at the CIA, Disney, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola aren’t faking it when they perform the acts we now call woke capitalism. They went to the same schools and share the same dominant culture and want the same reputational benefits.
But as the discourse gets more corporatized, it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.
We saw this happen between the 1970s and the 1990s. American hippies built a genuinely bohemian counterculture. But as they got older, they wanted to succeed. They brought their bohemian values into the market, but year by year those values got thinner and thinner and finally were nonexistent.
Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.
The economist and cultural observer Tyler Cowen expects wokeness in this sense won’t disappear. Writing for Bloomberg last week, he predicted it would become something more like the Unitarian Church — “broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment.”
This would be fine with me. As I say, there are (at least) two elements to wokeness. One focuses on concrete benefits for the disadvantaged — reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies. The other instigates savage word wars among the highly advantaged. If we can have more of the former and less of the latter, we’ll all be better off.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.