The New Front in the Culture Wars: Wokes vs. Liberals

Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).

To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.

So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.

Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media).  Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.

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30 thoughts on “The New Front in the Culture Wars: Wokes vs. Liberals

  1. We cannot remind ourselves often enough, we cannot judge people in terms of their past history. People are unavoidable biological continuum. But we must judge a cultural for its excesses and influences on the minds of its people!
    In my opinion, the USA has been in a culture war since its inception. As long space and capital were widely available and the majority of people could be still made to believe in the illusion “made in America” the lies could continue. The Trump legacy has shown us the deceived are now in the majority and the corporate leaders of any type and colour have given up all their scruples and shamelessly pursuing their political agendas on both sides of the spectrum.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s a lot of deception to go around, Michael, that’s for sure. From the moneyed interests to the political/activist classes to the academic woke theorists, slick marketing seems baked into the public sphere of the USA. But you’ve triggered the hippie optimist in me 🙂 The good news is that the kids on the street don’t generally fall for the moneyed interest ideologues, and although they talk the talk of the woke, the walk they walk is more compassionate and open-minded — at least enough of them to maybe right the ship. I might be pushing and pulling, but I ain’t giving up yet. Underneath the demoralizing surface of political, media, and academic classes, there are too many crazy, creative, generous, unpredictable threads in the US counterculture for giving up 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This essay is indecipherable to me in terms of the world as I see it.

    I am currently working on a piece that touches on but does not focus on the battle within the Democratic Party between moderates and progressives, which I find very disturbing. I plan to post it tomorrow.

    I think the “woke” stuff has been blown way out of proportion and lumps together so many different people with different views that it is rendered meaningless.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Separate note, Annie. Per your essay on mods vs progs in the Dem party, I’d say it is not exacty binary. As you can see from my point of view (neither of us is conservative but we have very distinct vantage points), progs fall into two camps. Many on the Bernie side (like me 🙂 ) strongly align with the wokes — i.e., left of moderate — on health care, wealth inequality, and environment, and at the same time strongly align with liberals (and moderate ones in this case) against the wokes on the issue of identity (again, that’s based on my definition that liberals traditionally favor more free speech for multiple and conflicting views and less racialization of our judgments about others, and that the woke position is distrustful of free speech [deplatorming, censoring hate speech or speech that makes us feel “unsafe,” treating speech as violence, etc.] and is in favor of re-investing race into our judgments about others [e.g., “I don’t see race when I meet people” is now officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities]). No matter how wrong I am, this outside perspective might sharpen your essay 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        • No, I don’t think “woke” really factors into that one, at least not in any definitive way. I think a large majority of Americans favor mask requirements per public gatherings, whereas “woke” is a much smaller and more specialized subset — at least that’s how I see it. There are a LOT of people who criticize conservative ideas who are still outside the bubble of the woke, just as there are a lot of people who criticize the excesses of the left but are not racist, xenophobic Trump-worshippers. You’d never know from the media because portraying people as either insanely woke or Trump-loving racists is how clickbait works.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Annie. I would agree that “woke” is somewhat amorphous, but sometimes its effects are quite concrete (i.e., not meaningless) — e.g., the case where the NYT editor was forced out and the Times had to apologize for publishing an editorial by a conservative US senator (which made the staff feel “unsafe” in their Manhattan offices), the clamor to remove Dana Schutz’s painting from the Whitney solely because she is white, the trend back to segregated housing at universities, the “white fragility” training movement — “woke” may be somewhat amorphous but there is no doubt that wokeness is the ideological driver in these and other situations. (It’s certainly not the traditionally liberal or the conservative world view that is operative in these instances. Perhaps if we consider wokeness the outward expression of Critical Race Theory, that might make the concept a little more solid/less amorphous.) Btw, I hope you are right that it is blown out of proportion, but as I look across widespread university policies and manifestos, newsrooms, museums and the arts, and to a lesser extent corporate training programs, I fear that maybe it is not blown out of proportion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My essay isn’t about the internal battle; I just mention it as part of a larger concern.

      After I read the Harper’s manifesto, I read the response by little-known writers who strenuously objected to it. (I assume you did as well.) I think I am in both camps and neither—more concerned about what I see as the fragility of our democracy unveiled by trump as a result of 40 yrs of Republican mischief and demonizing govt.

      Liked by 2 people

    • 1) James Bennet said he didn’t read Tom Cotton’s op-ed. James Bennet was the opinion editor at the Times. It was his job to read all op-eds before publishing them, and to have them fact-checked.

      In other words, Bennet admitted to not doing his job. That is a legitimate reason to force someone out.

      2) If you have to go all the way back to 1994 to find someone supporting segregated dorms, perhaps it isn’t a contemporary problem.

      3) Devah Pager once did a study about job-seekers in Milwaukee. She discovered that a white job-seeker with a prison record had a better chance of being hired than an equally qualified, law-abiding black person.

      Less than two weeks ago, Emily Khazan released a study. Students judged a TA they perceived as male more highly than they judged a TA they thought was female. It couldn’t have been any difference in the TAs, because both TAs in question happened to be the same person.

      Woke people are not arguing for any essentialism. They are arguing that, in a society that has traditionally placed great weight on gender and racial categories, white men have an inherent advantage. People will consider race and gender even if they are not aware of it – critical race theory seeks to make this bias visible. Only by explicitly taking race and gender into account will stop the currently existing implicit bias.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Your post makes a good distinction which may be missed by a quick read (I did the first time). You are not claiming that all culture wars will now be between liberals and “wokes.” Rather you are limiting your thesis to the issue of race. Good, as it is indisputable to me that there remain many cultural war issues that will split along traditional liberal-conservative lines (abortion, gay marriage, gay adoption, immigration, etc) The composition of the Supreme Court will only continue this clash. But dear friend 71 Million people voted for Trump. I can’t imagine that any were “woke” or “liberal”. They will be a force in the ongoing culture wars on every issue from abortion, to immigration, to gay marriage, and including race and this is particularly true in the South. Why did southern states support the democratic party from Reconstruction through LBJ? Why did it vote overwhelmingly for Wallace in 68? And begin to switch allegiance to the Republicans thereafter? You won’t like my answer—-race and racial issues. That’s not going to go away. So while I think you have identified a thread of the culture wars on race going forward (liberal v woke) I don’t think it is a stand alone or even the largest thread.
    Now if we can just figure out how to all come together and find common ground post Trump. Miss our conversations crossing the bridge. Peace.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You raise good points. I will address a few of them. You are correct; my “liberals vs wokes” applies to the issue of race. The fault lines on other issues vary. On many issues, the old “conservative vs liberal” schema still holds. Likewise, there are many Bernie types (e.g. me 😊) who align strongly with wokes (left of “liberal”) on environment, health care, and wealth inequality, but align strongly with liberals against wokes on race/identity. I agree with you that racism was a big electoral driver in the South straight up through the 1960s. I think it is less of a driver since the 1960s nationwide, including the South. I think most people even in the South these days accept racial equality as a valid goal, though there is much dispute on what to do about it. (Oddly, I think the more conservative of them would align with the wokes in favor of segregation, of racializing judgements about people, etc., whereas the the more liberal ones would align against those woke principles.) I agree that no wokes voted for Trump. I do thing the racial essentialism of the wokes, who are in many ways bringing us back to the old southern ideology that says we should prejudge people based on race, we should segregate people based on race, etc., alienated a lot of moderates across the country, some of whom may have ended up voting for Trump. If you live in the Midwest and have always tried hard to be fair to people regardless of skin color, it must be tiresome to hear the woke wing of the Dem Party endlessly telling you how complicit you are in the white supremacist ideology that defines your country.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your idealized view of the 60s, I think, clouds your view of race issues thereafter. Nixon used a “law and “order” campaign to attract southern votes in 68 and 72. This was a cover for a less overt race claim. Wallace still had support throughout the South in 72 and to suggest his support based on racism somehow vanished thereafter seems myopic. Thereafter Republican candidates fell back on racial dog whistles periodically (recall Bush and Willie Horton, Reagan and “welfare queens”). And then there was Obama who was vilified not so overtly by many Republican or conservative commentators for his race starting with birtherism (He’s not ‘one of us’). There are countless examples with Trump. Trump and his political sycophants have demonized BLM calling them terrorists and thugs. His followers presumably share this view in large numbers. Trump picked up on Nixon’s law and order strategy for this reason and with the possible exception of Georgia it worked again in the South. Voter suppression efforts by Republicans throughout the country but especially in the South often aim at limiting black votes. Conservatives still oppose affirmative action. Look at Trump’s cabinet and appointees—Besides Ben Carson who is black? This isn’t some accident of selection. Several prominent Republicans and supporters have made disparaging comments about Kamala Harris and her race (Here in Louisiana the owner of an insurance company that supported Trump—Go Auto— posted on face book that she was a “ho”) There is a reason only 7-8% of blacks voted for Trump and 90%+ voted for Biden. You may not believe Trump was a racist (I tend to think he was just being a narcissist) but many non-wokes view him that way and struggle with what that says about his supporters. So to the extent you seek to dismiss or minimize the conservative-liberal divide on race post 60s I disagree. It is there and I believe will continue to play a prominent part in the divide.
        To be clear I’m not supporting a woke view on everything and especially on identity politics and race. I tend to agree with your divide on where to agree and where not not agree with them (assuming there is an identifiable ‘them’). But we can’t be blind to the historical racism that has permeated politics in this country (along with other areas) and still does. Yes progress was made in the 60s and thereafter and yes most people see racial equality as a good thing but there is a world of difference in opinion when you drill down into the details of that agreement and what it means.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks, Michael. I enjoy arguing with you as always 🙂 . I didn’t say racism doesn’t exist, but I think you exaggerate the bad and ignore the enormous shift in consciousness that came in the decades after the 60s, with real results on the ground in terms of integration, collaboration, and friendships across races. If the white people you know are sitting around saying, “I can’t wait to see who the pro-racist candidate is so I can vote for them,” you may need new white friends 😊. I have a lot of white friends all over the country and none of them think that way. In general, things are much different now than they were 50 years ago – thanks not to conservative efforts and not to woke efforts but to liberal efforts. The fact that we have a long way to go is not because we haven’t made progress but because we underestimated the enormity of the task. However, even if I am wrong, even if my white friends are freaks because (even when you “drill down”) they believe racial equality is a valid goal that requires more work, because they do not seek racists to vote for, even if your gloomy view is completely true, I still think the liberal approach (more free speech, less racialization in our judgment of others) will get better results than the woke approach (less free speech, more segregation and more racialization of our judgments about others).

          Liked by 1 person

  5. On this issue I must respectfully disagree with Annie. It’s obvious to me that the “woke” stance is developing into a major problem, more in Europe and Canada than the US so far, but it is seeping into our own country as well.

    You said above:

    Many on the Bernie side (like me 🙂 ) strongly align with the wokes — i.e., left of moderate — on health care, wealth inequality, and environment, and at the same time strongly align with liberals (and moderate ones in this case) against the wokes on the issue of identity (again, that’s based on my definition that liberals traditionally favor more free speech for multiple and conflicting views and less racialization of our judgments about others, and that the woke position is distrustful of free speech [deplatorming, censoring hate speech or speech that makes us feel “unsafe,” treating speech as violence, etc.] and is in favor of re-investing race into our judgments about others [e.g., “I don’t see race when I meet people” is now officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities]).

    Identity politics and freedom of expression are exactly where the problem lies. Some amount of identity politics is natural — black people as a group share a common history of oppression in the US and naturally mostly share a common response to it. The same is true of gay people under the domination of Christianity and Islam. But woke ideology has created an extremist, rigid version of identity politics, and has asserted conformity to that version as a litmus test differentiating the saved from the damned. It also demands that we view ethnic categories as immutable, hermetically-sealed boxes into which every individual must be classified, which does not reflect biological or cultural reality — for example, in practice the distinction between “white” and “Hispanic” is becoming fuzzier over time. And as you say, it demands the “racialization” of politics by putting race and racism at the center of everything, whether that’s objectively true or not.

    The threat to freedom of expression is clear from the “hate speech” laws in Europe, which in practice are mostly used to harass people who tell the truth about Islam. I’d also add the demonization of dissent on transgender ideology, according to which any objection to (for example) allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports or putting biological male sex criminals in women’s prisons (with predictable results) is enough to get you damned as a hater and bigot.

    I would question whether the woke are genuinely winning these battles against genuine liberals, though. Their successes — in academia, politics, and elsewhere — have been achieved via campaigns of strident bullying and hysteria, which are not sustainable in the long run. Moreover, these successes do concrete harm to identifiable victims, who naturally fight back. Liberals need to take a stand on this, before conservatives exploit it to peel off demographics who are traditionally liberal but will turn to the right wing if liberals refuse to give them a hearing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • We see eye-to-eye across the board, Infidel. I’ll just add, per the racial/ethic essentialism (hermetically sealed boxes) you see in woke ideology, if I can quote myself from a former blog entry 🙂 : “’58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent)’ and ‘about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry.’ That’s not even counting Latino and other ethnicities. Even those without mixed blood have grown up with enormous cultural cross-fertilization, from music to movies to cooking and social life. Let’s celebrate the unique attributes of our different subcultures, but this pitting of one group against another is nonsense, and the game has to stop here. Things like wealth inequality and declining environmental resources are becoming too serious.”

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I have been involved in left wing causes since the Vietnam war. I want to assure you that “wokeness” is by no means a new phenomenon, and was fully in evidence in the 1960’s. In the end, it amounts to little more than abandoning the people they claim to be supporting, in order to stoke their feelings of moral superiority to everyone around them. In this regard, they are sadly close to Evangelical Christians, who are engaged in the same pursuit. In fact, if you are familiar with the works of Lenin, you will know that this sort of deviance goes back at least to the earliest years of the twentieth century, and is hardly a solely American phenomenon.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. People need to wake up to the fact that their primary identity is consumer and every working person’s foe are the corporate elites who see a nonviable market when they consider us. That is why it is okay for so many to die in this pandemic. That is why insufficient PPE is available to healthcare workers. If no profit can be made off us, doesn’t matter how woke we are. Nonsense and distraction. Our children already know how to live together. The adults need to perform better analyses of our situation, which is starting to look more Soylent Green by the second.

    Congratulations on your works! Be well!

    Liked by 2 people

    • From the woke point of view, usfman, yes, I think you and I are old-fashioned in our faith in shared humanness. But I think the woke point of view is not as widespread as people think — their mic is oversized because of their oversized power in universities, newsrooms and the twitterverse. There are MANY of us out there for whom shared humanness is as timely as ever. If we ever get our share of the mic, watch out wokes!


  8. I think the progressives like to lump all people of a certain group together and that isn’t right. We’re all individuals and as individuals, we’re each responsible for our own lives and behavior. For instance, I’m not responsible for things I cannot control (i.e. things that happened before I was born) and I think it’s both unfair and absurd to hold innocent people accountable for just that. As an independent. Human Nature has both a bad and good side and my take is that each person should be judged on their behavior and the content of character, not on the behaviors of bad apples. Thank you for addressing things that aren’t addressed enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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