The Limits of Woke Politics

About this time last year, when the various candidates for the Democratic nomination were racing to disavow their past votes and stances while shoring up their claims to wokeness—their commitment to social justice and the advancement of oppressed social groups—I suggested that this election cycle would become ever-more defined by identity-preening and the Jacobin pursuit of purity.

Some of that did happen. In successive debates, the candidates attempted to outdo themselves in acts of ritual piety. But it wasn’t all wokeness: While some candidates sought to weaponize some aspect of their identity as women or minorities, Bernie Sanders stuck to his roots—a broad appeal to the American people on behalf of the working class. Joe Biden similarly stuck to familiar positions. I find myself most surprised that he has survived, but he discovered early on that the woke tyrants never accept a partial apology and hewed to his obvious advantage as the moderate in the room. Perhaps this demonstrates the degree to which claims of identity fail to resonate deeply outside elite culture, the universities, and media. What wins likes and retweets probably doesn’t win votes—and Biden profits from that.

Others weren’t so lucky: Although he’s still in the fray, Pete Buttgieg turned out to need his sexuality as a shield more than a weapon. After all, his work for McKinsey and the image he creates of a white, overachieving, Organization Kid needs to be cancelled out by something. Kamala Harris’ success mobilizing the online woke Left by using the language of identity couldn’t outweigh her transgressions against social justice in the prosecutor’s office—violations for which she remained unrepentant. Cory Booker—the man formerly known as “Spartacus”—abjured his former status as a moderate reformer. He moved leftward but couldn’t stand out in the crowd. And the list goes on.

Tulsi Gabbard chose either the wrong election or the wrong party. At any other time, she would have offered a tremendous advantage to the Democrats, and along with Andrew Yang, she may be one of the few candidates truly interested in talking to her opponents and befriending them. Indeed, rather than simply taking Hillary Clinton’s wild accusations of collusion and treason as part of the game, Gabbard has done something relatively novel about it in taking the former nominee to court. She doesn’t fit into anyone’s preconceptions of what a politician should be like—and perhaps that is the problem. Gabbard’s greatest sin appears to be the fact that she remains disposed to peace at a time when her party’s faithful want to wage cultural war against unwoke opposition at home, and has become unthinkingly hawkish abroad simply out of opposition to Trump.

Beyond this spectacle, in the last few weeks, events have unfolded that might help us understand the electoral limits of competitive wokeness.

On January 13th, CNN broke a story detailing a private meeting in December 2018 between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, a talk between friends where the two worked out a truce on the left. In the story, Warren revealed what I can only imagine was what she believed to be a silver bullet against Bernie: that he believed a woman could not win in 2020. Sanders categorically denied this. At the primary debate later that week, CNN’s moderator Abby Phillip flatly asked Warren, “What did you think when Sanders said a woman couldn’t win the election?” Mutual accusations and recriminations ensured, and after the debate, both Sanders and Warren accused one another of lying on camera—which CNN gleefully played on a loop.

That Warren—that paragon of honest dealing—sought to use her one remaining identarian advantage against her rival suggests her increasing desperation to replace him as the most plausible candidate of the Left. The fact this allegation has either simply fizzled, if not actually backfired against Warren, shows the limitations of wokeness, and in particular, the ways it fragments political coalitions more than it binds them. By attacking Bernie, Warren asks the Democrats whether they care more about identity or class—and the Democratic electorate seem to have spoken.

Just last week, another round of attacks rained down on Sanders after he publicized wildly successful podcaster Joe Rogan’s endorsement on Twitter. According to the woke Twitterverse, Rogan’s primary sin is one of association—he talks with basically anyone he finds interesting, from Jordan Peterson to Elon Musk. He has also refused to accept the willful denial of medical reality one finds in transgender activism, reminding his viewers that biological males retain decisive advantages over similarly trained female athletes. Rogan is precisely the person the internet mob would love to cancel but can’t, and to see Sanders endorse him must gall them. Whatever Bernie’s faults, he aims to win—and accepting the endorsement from a sympathetic podcaster boasting seven million politically eclectic followers seems like good politics. But if this is the sort of thing that wokeness will not abide, can it ever win?

Soon after this scandal, the New York Times offered their televised endorsement of not one but two candidates. That they offered these to Warren and Amy Klobuchar—neither of whom has broken out beyond third place with any consistency in the polls—is even more striking than the woke Left’s inability to undermine Sanders’ dominant position in the polls. To be fair, it’s anybody’s guess how accurate polling is in this cycle.

While Warren’s endorsement from the Gray Lady has not ended the feud between Sanders and Warren supporters, it deflected to a great degree media coverage away from the rift… and onto the Times itself. In choosing Klobuchar—one of the leading members of the 2018 self-abasing apology tour the faithful required their candidates to undertake—the Times expressed both their distaste for Biden, Sanders, Buttgieg, and the others, as well as their hope to anoint her as a plausible Vice Presidential nominee. In so doing, the Times offered a performative nod to identity politics (look at us, endorsing two women in a sea of men!) alongside an almost pathological desire to please their constituents without risking a woke revolt.

The editorial board also assured their readers that either candidate would endorse reliably leftish policies, which is probably true. The Times chose two candidates deeply invested in the faux-progressive elite-driven status quo. Put another way, the board chose two candidates not quite so staid in their technocracy as either Buttgieg or Yang, but also not so unnervingly opposed to The Powers That Be as Sanders or Gabbard.

All this suggests that some on the Left are beginning to see the diminishing returns to wokeness. But that still leaves the Very Online Left, who dominate the consciousness of the media and see hope for political victory in vanquishing their opponents.