How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement
By Fredrik deBoer
Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $29.99
The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics
By Richard Hanania
Broadside, 288 pages, $32
The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time
By Yascha Mounk
Penguin, 416 pages, $32
No Politics But Class Politics
By Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels
Eris, 390 pages, $25
America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything
By Christopher Rufo
Broadside, 352 pages, $32
Ten years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates, then a rising writer at The Atlantic, attended a gathering of liberal journalists at the White House. On his blog, Coates had taken a dim view of the post-racial era that had supposedly dawned in 2008, but in a previous encounter with Obama, he had refrained from voicing his criticisms. He decided to be more adversarial that day in 2013. In an exchange with the president, he highlighted the failure of the Affordable Care Act to directly target racial disparities in health-care access. The president defended his record, and the two sparred briefly. Afterward, Obama took Coates aside and told him: “Don’t despair.”
On a personal level, Obama’s advice proved apt. In the years that followed, Coates enjoyed a meteoric rise, emerging as liberal America’s most fêted black man other than the 44th president himself. The main vehicle of this ascent was his 2015 book, Between the World and Me, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, won him accolades including the National Book Award, and earned him a MacArthur Genius Grant. The book, Coates said, was the fruit of the 2013 exchange at the White House, which had motivated him to justify what Obama recognized as his “despair.”
Yet notwithstanding Coates’s professional success, the author’s despair seemed to get the better of Obama’s hope at every turn. The same year Coates visited the White House, George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin, incepting Black Lives Matter as a social-media hashtag. The next summer, Eric Garner and Michael Brown died at the hands of the police, setting off the first phase of the “racial reckoning” that would gain momentum in the years to come.
The shocking rise of Donald Trump helped make Coates’s lonely dissent the standard wisdom of the chattering classes: America had never really made progress on race and was even moving backward; white supremacy remained the immovable foundation of American life. Bookending Trump’s term in office were two revisionist works of history that gave voice to these newly self-evident truths: Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, for which Kendi earned the National Book Award in 2016 (the year after Coates), and The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which won journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer. Hannah-Jones and Kendi also joined Coates in the most rarefied literary club of all, winning MacArthur Genius Grants in 2017 and 2021, respectively.
“The fatalistic new gospel didn’t occasion passivity, but frenzied activity.”
Malcolm X recounted in his autobiography that a “blond co-ed” once asked him what she could do to help his cause, to which he replied: “Nothing.” In contrast, the emergent anti-racist intelligentsia of the 2010s combined its counsel of despair with a ramping up of moral demands on white America. A considerable subset of white liberals hearkened eagerly to the call. The fatalistic new gospel didn’t occasion passivity, but frenzied activity.
Meeting the rising demand from the reading public for actionable guidance, Kendi in 2019 followed up the bleak history lessons of Stamped From the Beginning with the practical handbook How to Be an Anti-Racist. It was just one entry in a burgeoning new subgenre instructing initiates of racial pessimism on how to call out racism, to educate oneself about it, and to “do the work.” The most widely read of these was former education professor and diversity consultant Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, published in 2018; other notable titles included Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race (2018) and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy (2020). Meanwhile, according to LinkedIn data, the diversity, equity, and inclusion industry ballooned by 71 percent between 2015—the year Coates’s book appeared—and 2020.
Over the past year, a slew of polemics against progressive identity politics have appeared in print—an anti-woke publishing boom that rivals the woke boom that began a decade ago. The more interesting of these critiques converge on the conclusion that what occurred over the past decade was, above all, a process of elite radicalization that redounded to the benefit of well-positioned professionals who turned identity into a currency of social advancement. Depending on their politics, anti-woke polemicists may deplore this development because it forestalls more comprehensive projects of social transformation, or because it degrades institutions they don’t think should have been transformed at all. One of the most significant achievements of wokeness was to distract many of its opponents from these differences, and from the fundamental political questions underlying them.
The post-Obama gospel of anti-racism systematically overturned the assumptions that had guided liberal thinking for half a century. In The Identity Trap, one of the major critiques of identity politics to appear in the past year, the political scientist Yascha Mounk notes that while the left flank of the political spectrum “has historically been characterized by its universalist aspirations,” progressives over the past decade “embraced a vision of the future in which society would forever be profoundly defined by its division into distinct identity groups.”
“The yearning to transcend racial divisions … was now dismissed as a form of racism.”
In the new paradigm, progress no longer meant treating people as individuals or members of the human race—and it might even entail segregation into ethnic “affinity groups” and the like. “Both private actors and public institutions,” Mounk writes, now openly aim to “make the way they treat people depend on the groups to which they belong.” The yearning to transcend racial divisions, a longstanding liberal aspiration, was now dismissed as a form of racism. Some who didn’t get the update in time were shocked to learn around that time that the statement “all lives matter” was highly offensive, and that to declare that they “don’t see race” revealed them to hold an embarrassingly backward sensibility, not a forward-thinking one.
This logic—what Mounk calls the “identity synthesis”—was at work in Coates’s objection to ObamaCare: The problem, for Coates, wasn’t the law’s failure to offer truly universal coverage, but that it was too universal and should have sought to remedy racial disparities directly, rather than expanding access for all. The next year, Coates made a related argument in his blockbuster Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations,” which brought a marginal proposal into the mainstream of political debate.
A national reparations bill of the sort Coates advocated remains a long shot, but some Democratic states and cities have convened committees to develop more localized versions. On a more limited scale during the pandemic, health authorities in some states began determining access to Covid treatments on the basis of race. For a long time, the standard liberal aspiration to colorblindness had been in tension with support for affirmative action, and prioritizing access to medicine based on race would surely have provoked discomfort in an earlier age. But by 2020, state functionaries had no qualms about doing so. Kendi’s assertion that “racial discrimination is not inherently racist” provided a straightforward legitimation for the newly accepted approach.
The trajectory of Coates, Kendi, and like-minded figures puts us on firmer ground in defining the word “woke,” which over the past few years has been weaponized as a pejorative by right-wing polemicists. Before it was anything else, “wokeness” was a pessimistic counter-narrative to Obama-era post-racialism; it sought to establish the violent subjugation of black people as the central truth of America’s past and present and to reorient policymaking accordingly. As Coates put it in one of the most quoted lines from Between the World and Me: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” For whites, getting woke meant becoming attuned to the omnipresence and intransigence of racial oppression; at a policy level, it meant any approach that didn’t put race front and center was at best inadequate and at worst pernicious.
Some have attempted to offer less colloquial terms than “woke” for discussing contemporary identitarian progressivism: Mounk uses “the identity synthesis”; the writer Wesley Yang refers to “the successor ideology”; and many on the right continue to favor “cultural Marxism.” But the traction of “woke,” a term originating in African-American vernacular English, reveals something important about the worldview in question: that it takes American racial politics as the basic template for understanding all power relations pitting oppressor against oppressed.
The deployment of “woke” as a dismissive term for generic progressivism has obscured the word’s origins as a descriptor of a peculiarly black awareness of the disavowed brutality of American life. “Stay woke,” counseled the radical folksinger Lead Belly in a 1938 recording of a song about the Scottsboro Boys, teenagers falsely accused of rape who became the proto-Black Lives Matter cause célèbre of their time. In a New York Times op-ed more than two decades later, the novelist William Melvin Kelley noted “woke” among the words white beatniks were appropriating from the black vernacular to refer to a “hipness” to the real state of things.
A few years before Kelley put “woke” in the pages of the Times for the first time, Norman Mailer published his controversial essay “The White Negro” in Dissent. In it, Mailer wrote admiringly of the “existentialist” attitude he ascribed to black Americans who can’t “saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit” them. He didn’t use the word “woke,” but he was offering a definition of it when he invoked a typically black “disbelief in the words of men who had too much money and controlled too many things.” Nearly 60 years later, white readers of Between the World and Me were electrified by the same sort of wisdom Mailer had attributed to black Americans: Coates’s disquisitions on “black bodies”; his excoriations of the American Dream; his bitter remarks on the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
The neo-woke publishing boom kicked off by Coates in the mid-2010s, in this sense, revived and mainstreamed an older dissenting strain of American racial discourse that rejected the whiggish take on the civil-rights movement that had passed into America’s civic religion well before Obama’s rise. Coates identified this counter-tradition with James Baldwin, whose book The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, served as the main model for his 2015 bestseller. The alternative intellectual genealogy of racial dejection also included various underground currents of black nationalism and Afrocentrism—in which Coates, Kendi, and Hannah-Jones had all dabbled in their early lives—as well as more academically prestigious bodies of literature such as critical race theory and Afro-pessimism.
There are empirical reasons why Obama’s vague encomiums to a post-racial utopia lost ground to darker visions of stasis or regress during the last years of his presidency. As the left-wing People’s Policy Project demonstrated in a 2017 study, the first black president oversaw a catastrophic and unprecedented evaporation of black wealth: The post-2008 collapse of housing prices saddled America’s middle class with underwater mortgages, hitting black Americans the hardest. This wasn’t simply the result of a crisis Obama inherited, as the authors of the PPP report insisted: “Instead of helping homeowners, at every turn, the administration was obsessed with protecting the financial system—and so homeowners were left to drown.” The fallout of these decisions reversed many of the gains that had been made by black Americans in previous decades.
To this extent, the notion that Obama-era post-racial triumphalism was a pernicious myth had a solid grounding in reality. Yet what characterized the neo-woke manifestos of the 2010s was the transformation of racial oppression into a metaphysical—even ontological—condition. Hence, the particular policy decisions that had undercut black prosperity under Obama could be brushed aside, since all they did was ratify once more an eternal state of things. Partly for this reason, it wasn’t difficult for Democrats and their allied institutions to embrace a set of ideas that might otherwise have amounted to a stinging indictment of the party’s governance.
Indeed, a convenient effect of the new racial pessimism was to obscure the specifics of how black Americans had fared under liberal governance in favor of generalized, ahistorical denunciations of “whiteness”—of which the Republican Party, especially under Trump, would always be the more obvious representative. Moreover, what was notable about the rise of Coates and his peers wasn’t that black intellectuals were channeling something of the disappointment felt by black Americans under Obama. Rather, it was that a dark racial vision that had long enjoyed a degree of traction in some corners gained newfound appeal for the mostly white readers of The Atlantic and The New York Times.
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Writing in the late 1950s, Mailer argued that the somber insights of “the Negro” spoke to growing numbers of young, middle-class white people because they offered a radical philosophical response to the general modern predicament. Auschwitz, the atom bomb, and other moral disasters, he argued, revealed to whites what had always been clear to blacks: that civilizational progress was a lie, that beneath the bromides of American optimism lay untold horrors of oppression. “The only life-giving answer” to such a devastating realization, Mailer wrote, was “to divorce oneself from society” and thereby to “set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”
The imperatives drawn from the white rediscovery of racial fatalism in the 2010s were very different. They typically entailed not countercultural rebellion or societal exit, but a submission of the self to ever-evolving, and increasingly institutionalized, moral strictures (for one thing, avoiding the sort of “cultural appropriation” Mailer had observed approvingly). The demand wasn’t that society be abandoned—but remade, especially by way of an expansive bureaucratic apparatus of moral oversight. Those who capitalized on these trends weren’t countercultural outsiders, but the stakeholders of leading cultural, political, and economic institutions. If Mailer’s contemporaries had sought to extricate themselves from the “square” American mainstream, in our own time, it was the mainstream itself that sought a new animating sensibility—and found it in a body of writing that condemned it as irredeemably racist.
The ascendancy of this austere vision bespoke—and attempted to fill—a vacuum of shared purpose. The decades leading up to it had witnessed the rise and fall of two attempts to reanimate the nation’s sense of its collective mission. The first was George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, which met a bloody end in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. It was succeeded by Barack Obama’s “hope and change” promise, which was all but suffocated in the cradle by the financial collapse of 2008, only to be snuffed out for good by further foreign-policy failures, a surprisingly anemic domestic policy, and the rise of Donald Trump. Liberals attempting to wield power retreated from grandiose promises, with enthusiasts of both the “freedom” and “hope” agendas coalescing around fear of “fascism” and loathing for Trump. This paranoid retrenchment helped make America’s elite redoubts hospitable to racial pessimism. In the ensuing years, even as they attempted to present a unified front of #Resistance, liberal spaces were consumed by internal conflict as many who didn’t fall in line with the new orthodoxy faced cancellation.
Opposition to the new progressive doctrines became increasingly hazardous for liberals as the 2010s wore on. For conservatives, on the contrary, it was all too easy, and didn’t even require much of a shift in messaging from earlier decades. Whereas Coates and like-minded black intellectuals of the 2010s saw a massive breach between themselves and Obama’s Democratic Party—roughly the same breach between liberalism and the identity synthesis documented by Mounk—the right had spent years casting Obama not as a moderate heir of the civil-rights movement, but as a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” animated by hatred of America and the West.
Likewise, conservative anti-woke authors, although they recognize that something shifted in the past decade, tend to reassert a basic continuity in liberal culture before and after the 2010s. The journalist and activist Christopher Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution exemplifies this approach. Rufo takes a well-worn path through the intellectual history of the modern left, focusing on the way foreign ideas infiltrated liberal academia and, from there, established a beachhead in mainstream American culture. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the most widely read 1980s culture-war tract, took a similar approach.
At the center of America’s Cultural Revolution are the biographies of four intellectuals. There are the New Left philosophical guru Herbert Marcuse and his famous student Angela Davis—both familiar figures in right-wing demonology whom Rufo treats with more nuance than other polemicists. His other two main characters, not quite as well known but probably more influential overall, are the Brazilian pedagogical theorist Paolo Freire and the legal theorist and CRT pioneer Derrick Bell. All of these figures, having come to terms with the failure of older left projects of radical societal transformation from below, set out on an alternative path to revolutionary change. They were helped in this by America’s liberal institutions, which gave them long-term employment, remuneration, prestige, and the opportunity to teach generations of young people.
As Rufo acknowledges, this “long march” changed those who undertook it as much as it altered the institutions they passed through. It is here that, despite the familiarity of his basic narrative, he offers some worthwhile insights into what is particular about present-day progressivism. Marcuse, Davis, and Freire all sought to overthrow the capitalist order at the outset of their careers; in the end, they settled for grants, tenure, institutional canonization, and other forms of social capital. Bell, in Rufo’s telling, was an adept institutional player from early on, and he is in a sense the most representative of the radicals portrayed in the book. Present-day practitioners of CRT and adjacent disciplines, Rufo writes, still “pretend they are striking at the foundations of the capitalist order, but when their campaign inexorably fails, they simply want their cut.” Think of Nikole Hannah-Jones delivering a talk on “emancipation” sponsored by Shell Oil.
Here, Rufo’s account converges with the progressive writer Freddie deBoer’s addition to the anti-woke bibliography, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, also published this year. “Show me a political movement,” deBoer writes, “and I’ll show you those who find a way to profit off it.” Black Lives Matter, he notes, was spearheaded by “graduate students and professors, journalists and pundits, writers and actors, and, of course, professional organizers and nonprofits,” and many of these actors parlayed their advocacy into jobs, promotions, grants, fundraising coups, and other opportunities, without doing much for the George Floyds of the world. A subset of professionals may thus thrive in part by doubling down on racial pessimism: “The only racial progress that really matters is forcing us all to think and talk about race,” as deBoer notes—since this is what ensures those in this class continue to earn a living.
Some on the right assure us that Marxist tyranny is just around the corner, or claim we are already living under a form of communist rule. For deBoer, on the contrary, the point of racialist progressivism is to leave the current form of capitalism intact by channeling demands for radical change into projects that serve the interests of a handful of elites and elite aspirants. He cites the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s notion of “elite capture,” developed in a recent book of that title, according to which identity politics began with more radical aims but was eventually “taken over” by elite interests. DeBoer’s subtitle announces a similar thesis, although he hedges somewhat on whether he agrees with Táíwò that there was some original radical project in identity-driven activism that was watered down at some later date.
In contrast, the academics Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed have long contended that the left’s turn away from class and toward a hodgepodge of racial, ethnic, gender, and other identities was always reactionary in its political implications. “Identity politics,” they write, is “the politics of an upper class that has no problem with seeing people left behind as long as they haven’t been left behind because of their race and sex.” Or as Reed puts it elsewhere, “identitarianism meshes well with neoliberal naturalization of the structures that reproduce inequality.” Which is to say, DEI ideology in effect claims that a society in which a tiny minority holds most wealth—ours—would be just if only that minority’s racial composition matched the population’s; hence, the pursuit of social justice amounts to diversifying Harvard and the C-suite, even as prospects for the poor and working classes of all races worsen.
The basic contours of DEI ideology were evident to anyone on the academic left well before the general population had encountered them, and well before the woke wars, Michaels and Reed were making the case that identitarian politics serve to legitimate neoliberal inequality. Their essays on the subject, which originally appeared in various small left-wing journals, have now been collected in the volume No Politics but Class Politics, along with four recent interviews with both authors conducted by the European Marxist academics Daniel Zamora and Anton Jäger, who co-edited the anthology. The fact that a book focused on peculiarly American racial politics was put together by two Belgian-based academics and published by a British imprint is a reminder of the continued marginality of Reed’s and Michaels’s views within the US left—but also of the increasing influence and relevance of American racial discourse for readers abroad.
“Identity politics is at bottom a small-c conservative ideology.”
Rufo more or less concedes what Michaels, Reed, and other dissenters on the left have long claimed: that identity politics is at bottom a small-c conservative ideology, not a revolutionary one as its adherents and some of its detractors claim. Its function is to legitimize existing power relations, not overturn them; it does this by expanding bureaucratic oversight, implementing quotas, and the like. Few young people who took to the streets in the 2010s believed their cause amounted to an expansion of certain sectors of the white-collar workforce, but in effect, it did. The real consequence of the woke “cultural revolution,” Rufo says at one point, is to “trap the United States in an endless loop of failure, cynicism, and despair.”
Richard Hanania, author of another 2023 anti-woke manifesto, The Origin of Woke, seems to agree. The situation he deplores isn’t the coming Marxist-Leninist dystopia, but the fact that we are “stuck with stagnant institutions that micromanage” the American people. Contrary to those who would lambaste the left’s delusions of infinite progress, he deplores the culture of “ennui” and “hopelessness” it has fostered. He offers a somewhat more novel account than Rufo of how this state of affairs came about; like Rufo and unlike Mounk, he insists on a basic continuity between pre- and post-Obama liberalism. In Hanania’s version, the real revolution already took place well before much of anyone in America had heard of Rufo’s protagonists—Marcuse, Davis, Freire, and Bell—and had little to do with hard-left activists in its initial phase. It happened when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Those who drafted the legislation “did not see the bill as a way to remake American society, redistribute wealth, or destroy capitalism.” Rather, they viewed it as a targeted effort at “dismantling a caste system in the South.” However, the means devised to pursue this end, once generalized, became an instrument for reengineering society more broadly.
In the American South in the middle of the 20th century, Jim Crow had systematically excluded blacks from civic life, which resulted in objective disparities in wealth, status, influence, and educational attainment. Accordingly, the aim of civil-rights legislation was not only to end this discrimination, but to reverse its effects by identifying disparities and eliminating them. Once expanded, though, this logic evolved into “an open-ended and indefinite commitment to achieving equality between various groups,” as Hanania puts it. This project was justified by the assumption that group disparities of all kinds are always the result of discrimination and thus require correction. Ibram X. Kendi Thought, in other words, was born well over a decade before Ibram X. Kendi himself, and first put into practice not by activists, but by judges and bureaucrats.
As all of this suggests, Hanania assigns a far less significant role to intellectuals than do Rufo and most other right-wing commentators. For him, if we want to understand how the logic of anti-racism became pervasive in America, we need to look at the court cases that established new precedents, as well as the maneuvers of bureaucrats, the machinations of institutional leaders to avoid falling afoul of discrimination law, and other contingent and mundane processes. The role of thought leaders like Kendi, in this account, was to provide a philosophical and moral legitimation for all of this after the fact. For instance, once institutions develop a commitment to race-based affirmative action as a permanent necessity—rather than a short-term corrective, as its architects presented it—it makes sense that a philosophy like Afro-pessimism would come into vogue in elite universities. By inscribing black oppression into the very fabric of reality, it furnishes a durable source of legitimacy for an administrative function of the university.
Rufo and Hanania are both regarded as avatars of the “New Right,” albeit representing different strands of the movement. But a few details aside, their views are largely continuous with the “fusionist” right that prevailed between the middle of the 20th century and the early 21st century. Two of the three legs of the fusionist “stool” were social conservatism and free-market economics; these, roughly speaking, are Rufo’s and Hanania’s respective emphases. Though they offer different causal accounts, both agree that something went awry in America in the 1960s, and the legacy of that decade needs to be rolled back. This differs little from what Republicans have been saying for decades.
The fraying of the fusionist consensus resulted mainly from the success of its helmsman, Ronald Reagan, at defeating Soviet Communism, opposition to which had kept the unruly coalition united. Without a common enemy, social conservatives have wavered in their commitment to free-market economics, with many now seeing a role for the state in supporting family formation and providing economic incentives against abortion; for their part, many free-marketeers, Hanania among them, have gravitated toward full-spectrum libertarianism on social issues. The key propagandistic role Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other conservatives have lately attempted to assign anti-wokeness was a response to this fracturing. Perhaps what was needed to get the fusionist band back together was a new iteration of the Red Menace. Wokeness seemed to fit the bill.
When DeSantis looked like a shoo-in for the GOP nomination a year ago, it seemed conceivable that anti-wokeness would become the central plank of the party platform. On the campaign trail, the Florida governor described the Sunshine State as “where woke goes to die” and spearheaded a bill called the Stop WOKE Act. Yet DeSantis’s all-anti-woke, all-the-time messaging didn’t succeed at propelling him to the nomination. Whatever the reasons for his failure, wokeness was ill-suited to be the new Soviet threat for a few reasons. Rather than a foreign enemy, it is at its core an internal negation of the American national creed—a disaffected worldview that sprang from deep roots in American soil and has long maintained a certain appeal in some precincts. What has changed is that prestigious institutions and educated people have embraced it in larger numbers than ever before.
Mounk, Rufo, and Hanania all wish to reanimate aspects of the shared American creed that to varying extents have waned in influence or fallen into disrepute: universalism, tolerance, colorblindness, meritocracy, competition, the market, and so on. But none offers a fully convincing account for why the disenchantment with these values happened in the first place. For all three, it was something like an accident—a series of philosophical wrong turns for Mounk, a set of nefarious intellectual influences for Rufo, the unintended consequences of a particular piece of legislation for Hanania. But what if all of these developments—the dramatic shifts in the ethos of the American elite in academia, corporations, and the courts—weren’t causes but symptoms of a deeper transformation? What if they are just one manifestation of the disillusionment that slowly overtook the nation as it lurched from one crisis to the next in the years after the “End of History” era in the 1990s?
Between 9/11, the 2008 crash, and the global and domestic tumult of the past decade, the memory of the nation’s Cold War mission receded further into the past, and various attempts to articulate new animating visions—whether that of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century or the 2008 Obama campaign—failed to translate into a durable new creed. Imperial overreach and blowback soured the public on spreading democracy with cruise missiles, and the wrecking of the middle class in the financial crisis, even as the banks were spared, dampened faith in social mobility. As political disaffection and civic breakdown eroded the demos, elite opinion gravitated toward fatalism, and moral entrepreneurs supplied it with a bracing doctrine of indelible racial sin.
This worldview conveniently assigned the professional class a permanent and expanding role in managing the ultimately incurable misery at the core of the American project. Equally convenient was that it sidelined the concrete historical and political causes of that misery—especially any in which the Democratic Party played a role—in favor of abstract metaphysics. Compared to the brief messianic period of the 2008 Obama campaign, it permitted a certain level of cynicism about his political party’s aims, while still ensuring that Democrats would fall by default on the correct side of the divide between oppressor and oppressed. Not only that, racial pessimism proved useful for the neoliberal wing of the party to weaponize against the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Recall Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question: “If we break up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Better, presumably, for the big banks to beef up their DEI trainings instead.
As Americans compete over the diminishing returns of a decadent, hollowed-out empire, in which the super-rich seem to be the only clear winners, some have found it made good sense to pursue their interests not as citizens seeking their share of the American Dream, but as members of the identity groups into which they have been divided up by law. Doing so could allow the tokens of moral grievance to be cashed in for favors dispensed by oligarchs and politicians. Even those without the right identity credentials have found they could function well enough as brokers and middlemen in this arrangement.
This—as the accounts offered by Michaels, Reed, deBoer, Rufo, and Hanania all hint at in different ways—is the collective self-interest at work behind the neo-woke paradigm. In a context in which other opportunities for advancement have become more and more scarce, race-based (as well as sex-, gender-, and sexuality-based) grievance offers a means of extracting rents within the regime initially put in place by civil-rights law.
It follows that the war over wokeness isn’t fundamentally—as Mounk and other liberals would have it—a battle of ideas, but a fight for control over bureaucracies. This seems to be the project Rufo has in mind in his work as an activist, which often amounts to an effort to counteract the incentives driving identity politics. Banning CRT in state institutions is one way he and his allies have pursued this goal; more recently, they have waged a campaign to discredit the scholarship of Harvard’s first black, female president in the hope that it will make institutions reconsider prioritizing minority representation over other factors in hiring. On a distinct but complementary track, Hanania’s political recommendations entail using executive and judiciary authority to roll back the legal frameworks that encourage the leveraging of identity for status and gain: affirmative action, disparate impact, and so on.
Neither of these approaches, however, necessarily alters the nation’s long-term political and economic trajectory toward deepening material inequality. Hence, such reforms may reorient the identity regime, rather than ending it—for instance, giving us a version of it in which whites, men, and other “privileged” groups can cash in their own tokens. This prospect has been raised in intra-right debates about whether whites and men should embrace their own version of identity politics, rather than appealing to meritocracy as they contest preferences that disadvantage them. The racialist fringes of the right have long advocated for this position, taking white prison gangs as a model of collective self-interest amid brutal zero-sum competition.
Rufo rejects this approach, but other New Right influencers like the blogger Scott Greer make the case for versions of it. Greer argues that the right should “dispense with delusions” and accept that “‘anti-woke’ policies benefit whites”—much as progressives arguing against such policies often allege—and that such policies should be supported for this reason. This advocacy of grievance politics for whites in effect ratifies the conclusion that capturing a share of the declining dividends of a waning US imperium is best achieved through the rhetoric of ethnic solidarity. Proponents of rugged individualism à la Hanania or civic universalism of the Mounk or Rufo variety may struggle to prevail as long as structural incentives seem to point in this direction.
A distinct dissent comes from “class-first” leftists like deBoer, Reed, and Michaels, who argue for organizing politically on the basis not of race or ethnicity, but the collective material self-interest of working-class people. Empirically, their assertions—for instance, that the majority of people of all races are in the same boat economically and would thus benefit from the same policies aimed at rectifying inequality—are hard to dispute. But attempts to build political movements along these lines have repeatedly sputtered out or been reabsorbed into identitarian agendas in recent years. The first was Occupy Wall Street’s invocation of the 99 percent, a big-tent slogan that in practice translated into a movement that alienated all but a few with its fetishization of process over concrete goals. The second was the Sanders campaign, which lost out twice to the Democratic establishment and the activist groups that have become its clients and ideological enforcers. It isn’t clear the class-first cohort has any response to these failures other than to keep trying.
“All amount to a bid to revive moribund coalitions.”
The different factions of the anti-woke coalition all make much of the fact that the majority of the population is alienated by the excesses of identity politics. Rufo and Hanania both argue the Republican Party is well-positioned to capitalize on this discontent by mobilizing voters on behalf of candidates and initiatives that will scale back affirmative action, discrimination law, and other diversity initiatives. For their part, universalists like Mounk take heart from the fact that most Americans retain some loyalty to older liberal values of colorblindness and equality before the law. Meanwhile, class-oriented leftists see potential in the majority of voters prioritizing concerns over wages, housing, and the cost of living above the symbolic conflicts pursued by identitarian activists.
But the fact that none of this has translated into a durable electoral coalition for the right or the left shows that the public remains up for grabs; to date, no faction has fully capitalized on mass disaffection from the elite consensus. Wokeness may not have a great record at the ballot box, but judging by the GOP’s stumbles in 2022 and DeSantis’s disappointing campaign, neither does anti-wokeness, at least when made into the center of the political program. This isn’t surprising: Those who are highly mobilized in opposition to elite progressivism tend to be elites themselves, directly engaged in struggles over the control of institutions. Those without a direct stake in these struggles may find the ideological leanings of these institutions distasteful but will likely turn their thoughts to other issues in the voting booth. As for the programs on offer from the critics of wokeness, all amount to a bid to revive moribund coalitions: fusionist conservatism, liberal universalism, left populism. Thus far, all have failed to reassert themselves as a potent political force. That seems unlikely to change.
A week after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, an open letter in The New York Review of Books called on “the international community to commit to ending the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.” Topping the list of signatories was none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates. Before the war, Coates participated in the Palestine Festival of Literature and visited Jerusalem and the West Bank. In subsequent public appearances, he has commented on the common experiences of Palestinians and black Americans. At a November event in New York, he shared his impressions of the Occupied Territories: “As I saw communities that I can only describe as segregated, I said, ‘This is Chicago. It’s Baltimore. It’s Philadelphia.’” He added: “I don’t mean to center the whole world on America. We have a tendency to do that. But my lens is my lens.”
The cycle of the culture war that Coates helped initiate around a decade ago brought the “color line” back to the center of public discourse. In the climactic moment of 2020, this preoccupation radiated across the entire world, functioning, in effect, as a new form of American soft power. On the surface, to be sure, wokeness took the form of a critique of race relations in the United States. But by setting the terms of an overarching moral narrative powerful enough to bring crowds into the streets worldwide, America asserted its continued global hegemony. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the Biden administration’s ability to align Western opinion on its side—and reconsolidate NATO in the process—confirmed this reality.
The Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath, however, have called into question whether the United States can still keep the world in thrall to its moral vision. After the initial massacre of Israelis, a shared resolve on behalf of those killed briefly held sway across much of the world, with Washington again assuming leadership. But as the war in Gaza drags on and civilian casualties mount, fractures have appeared, and the American political establishment has struggled to keep public opinion in line at home and abroad. In a speech two weeks after the initial outbreak of conflict, President Biden attempted to reassure the public that supporting the Jewish state as well as Ukraine while continuing to deter China’s growing threat to Taiwan was all feasible: “We are the United States of America. Nothing is beyond our capacity.” It would probably be difficult to find many Americans of any political persuasion who nodded heartily to Biden’s statement.
Over the past decade, the Democratic Party has largely outsourced the construction of galvanizing narratives to its activist base. For as long as Trump was the common enemy, this arrangement worked well—and it may work again in the event of his return to power. But the lining up of the party establishment behind Israel has put it at odds with a progressive movement entirely aligned with the Palestinian cause. The 2020 coalition uniting left activists with centrist politicians and donors will remain split as long as the Middle East dominates headlines; major Democratic politicians aren’t going to do a photoshoot in keffiyehs anytime soon.
The collapse of the woke alliance between progressives and centrists is mirrored by that of the anti-woke alliance. Some on the left who were critical of just about every left-wing cause of recent years have, at least temporarily, returned to the fold during Israel’s latest war. This isn’t surprising: Left alignment with Palestine long predated all of the “current things” around which internet-era culture-war disputes have revolved. Moreover, given the undeniable scale and severity of the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, it is plausible to see the Palestinian cause as having nothing to do with the panics stoked by activists—“literal fascism,” “trans genocide,” and the like—even if it now attracts many of the same activists who helped do the stoking.
What the emergent post-Oct. 7 left most closely resembles is the antiwar left of the Bush era, which was full of passionate conviction but ended up amounting to little in the end other than a get-out-the-vote operation for Barack Obama, who went on to stay the course of Bush’s foreign policy, a few details aside. Part of the reason for this is that if you see the exercise of US power abroad as fundamentally illegitimate—as do most of today’s protestors, even more than those of 20 years ago—you are unlikely to be able to offer any vision of how to wield it to different ends. Hence, you have already surrendered before the fact to other factions without the same qualms.
The center and right flanks of the anti-woke coalition, for their part, have reconstituted something like the War on Terror coalition of liberal and conservative hawks. The defense of the West, of democracy, of civilization against an external enemy has become rhetorically central once again. Nonetheless, compared to the post-9/11 moment, what is absent is an overarching account of the aims of American power, other than rearguard defensive action. Say what you will about the Project for a New American Century, at least it was an ethos. The fact that the ideological mobilization is occurring in support of a nation whose leadership increasingly has little use for Western liberal shibboleths adds a further layer of irony to the situation.
The celebration of Hamas’s atrocities by some progressive activists offered an opportunity to brush aside these details and highlight once again the extremism of the woke left. Figures including Mounk and Rufo have devoted considerable effort to doing so. But certain fissures have emerged on this end of the anti-woke coalition, with some discarding their advocacy for free speech and procedural neutrality altogether and calling for curtailments of pro-Palestinian speech and activism on university campuses, including the expansion of speech codes, long anathema to all critics of the campus left. Even when they haven’t explicitly promoted such policies, anti-woke pundits have given credence to the sorts of claims they might have ridiculed previously, such as college students claiming that certain phrases make them feel “unsafe.”
“Right and left alike are currently mobilized to assert competing claims to victim status.”
The fact that the right and left alike are currently mobilized to assert competing claims to victim status points to a bitter truth: Identity politics isn’t going anywhere. Appeals to identity to extract limited concessions from power will likely be deployed more than ever in the years to come by members of all political factions. This is especially true as long as America lacks both an economic settlement that benefits ordinary people and a compelling account of shared national purpose. Wokeness, in mistaking some of the particulars of American history for a metaphysical condition, has helped make the past decade of politics particularly toxic and futile. Anti-wokeness, in confusing symptoms of America’s degradation for causes, has failed to offer any real alternative.