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"Woke": a Republican campaign weapon?

The Republican battle for the presidential nomination has begun and, with it, efforts to further weaponize the term “woke.” Some pundits say fighting wokeness will be a main Republican tactic in 2024. Gov. Ron DeSantis seems determined to make it one.

“We must fight ‘the woke’ in our schools. We must fight ‘the woke’ in our businesses. We must fight ‘the woke’ in government agencies. We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”

DeSantis has defined woke as a “war on the truth” and a “form of cultural Marxism.”

Last November DeSantis signed a Stop WOKE Act prohibiting teachers from making students feel they are personally responsible for historical wrongdoings because of their race, sex, or national origin. WOKE was capitalized as an acronym for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.”

And the button wars have started. You can now find a lapel pin defining woke as “a fake state of awareness only achieved by dummies that try to find injustice everywhere except in their own behavior.”

Now the opposition has a handicap–moderates don’t give candidates points for attacking others. So we get rather bland buttons saying simply “woke” or the more defensive, “woke is not a bad word.” Some may secretly prefer a defense with more edge: “woke–person who isn't an asshole.”

Using “woke” as a pejorative hasn’t paid off for the Republicans in past years. A USA TODAY/Ipsos poll released in March found 56% of Americans–including ¾ of the Democrats and ⅓ of the Republicans–believe “woke” means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.”

Only 39% chose the leading GOP definition, “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”

One possible scenario is that an anti-woke message will go over well in Republican primaries but bring failure in a general election.

When I look at how the term has evolved, however, I’m not so sure. At first, Republicans used woke to attack those who saw that black people had been treated unjustly in the past. Then the attacks broadened to include those who felt that women should have equal rights plus the right to decide when they had children.

Neither issue was a winner for Republicans. Blacks may make up only 14% of American voters, but the majority of whites believe they deserve to be treated equally. Similarly, a majority of voters feel women should have equal rights in the workplace and the right to abortion.

Republicans made a swipe or two condemning woke corporations, that is, those who claimed to offer employees rights and decent pay and/or to protect the environment. When Mark Cuban says “DEI'' is good business, he’s referring to diversity, inclusion, and equity. But the many Americans who resent corporate power welcome a little wokeness.

But this year, Republicans are tying wokeness to acceptance of trans people and calling for boycotts of businesses–like Target and Bud Light–who have catered to that market.

Trans people do not have the support of the majority. They make up only 0.5% of the U.S. population–that’s one person out of every 200. Chances are high that many people don’t know a trans person much less care about one. The entire LBGT community makes up only about 4% of the U.S. population.

On May 30 Robert Reich pointed out that this lack of support makes trans people the perfect scapegoat. And Republicans need scapegoats. Attacking the unpopular deflects attention “from the near record share of the nation’s income and wealth now going to the richest Americans.”

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