Since the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, progressives have made the argument that taking back the presidency, the Congress, and winning swing states requires that Democrats move to the Left on social and economic issues, aggressively confront structural racism, and stand more firmly with longstanding allies like the teachers’ unions, environmentalists, and criminal justice reformers.
But the election of an underdog Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, as governor of Virginia on Tuesday night, the election of Republicans in state races in New Jersey and New York, and the repudiation of progressives in Seattle and Minneapolis on issues relating to criminal justice, suggest that voters in even liberal cities are turning against progressive policies and ideology, particularly on issues relating to race, education, and crime, as part of a backlash to “woke” ideology.
Some progressives say this is a misreading of the evidence. Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, is a Clinton-era Democrat, who ran on a centrist agenda. Progressive candidates won in other cities around the U.S., including in Boston. And, they argue, it was President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, partly due to the obstinance of moderate Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema to Biden’s budget proposal, that is to blame for the Democrats’ electoral losses.
But progressive efforts to deflect blame don’t stand up under scrutiny. While it’s true McAuliffe ran on a moderate platform, he refused to acknowledge much less renounce the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms, opposed expanded parental involvement, and campaigned with the teachers union. While Boston’s new mayor promotes progressive policies she also supports shutting down open drug scenes. And progressive demands for expanded federal control over regional electricity markets prevented a budget deal from passing before the election, contributing to Biden’s poor approval ratings, and giving Democratic candidates little upon which to campaign.
“I think Democrats have to look in the mirror now,” said CNN contributor, Van Jones, on election night. “I think Democrats are coming across in ways that we don’t recognize, that are annoying, offensive, and seem out of touch in ways that don’t show up in our feeds, in our echo chamber —”
“When you’re talking about ‘our,’” interrupted Anderson Cooper, “you’re talking about Democrats?”
“Democrats” confirmed Jones
“Because,” said Cooper, “it seems annoying to a lot of people.”
Former advisor to Barack Obama, David Axelrod, agreed. “I think the attitude [of Democrats] is important,” he said. “The Democratic Party has become a more college-educated and urban party coalition with minority voters and the messages tend to be moralizing.”
“Moralizing,” agreed Jones. “Self-righteous.”
“It’s, ‘We’re going to tell you what’s right,’” said Axelrod.
Democratic political strategist James Carville was even more blunt. "What went wrong is stupid wokeness,” he told PBS. “Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this ‘Defund the police!’ lunacy. This, ‘Take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools!’... people see that. And it really has a suppressive effect on all across the country on Democrats. Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something.”
In the coming months and years, the rejection by voters of the progressive agenda could extend to climate and environmental issues. Despite gasoline prices remaining high, progressives, including the Biden White House, remain opposed to expanded oil and gas production — at least in the U.S. — to lower them. Meanwhile, progressive climate change policies are increasing electricity prices, increasing blackouts, and resulting in greater dependence on imported foreign oil.
In truth, Carville, Axelrod, Jones and many others, including Obama himself, have been warning progressives that they had become too self-righteous, extreme, and shrill for years. Progressives have waved away, ridiculed, and even denounced such concerns as racist. And even after losing on Tuesday, many progressives took to the TV airwaves to assert that Democratic losses were due to racism.
Progressives appear, in other words, determined to stick with an approach that is making Democratic candidates lose. Why is that?
Democratic and progressive elites often come across as out of touch. “I think Democrats are coming across in ways that we don’t recognize,” said Van Jones, because alternative views “don’t show up in our feeds, in our echo chamber.”
The sociologist Chistopher Lasch predicted as much in his 1995 book, Revolt of the Elites. “The physical segregation of the population is self-enclosed, racially homogeneous enclaves has its counterpart in the balkanization of opinion,” he wrote. “Each group tries to barricade itself behind its own dogmas.” Keep in mind that all of that was happening more than a decade before Twitter.
There is also tone deafness. In 2019 Prince Harry and Meghen Markle, other celebrities, and CEOs flew private jets, which produce eight to ten times the emissions as flying commercial, and stayed in yachts at a Google conference in Sicily to discuss climate change. In 2020, dozens of important policymakers around the world were caught violating their own covid regulations, and sometimes didn’t seem to care. When San Francisco Mayor London Breed was caught on video dancing at a packed night club without her mask on, she demonstrated no remorse. Breed told a television reporter that she was just letting off steam and people should lay off.
Progressives wave away concerns of elitism. Earlier this year, Democratic Socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went, unmasked, to the swanky Met Gala, wearing a dress emblazoned with the words, “Tax the Rich,” and surrounded by masked help, including a man subserviently holding the dress train. Progressive “fact checkers” pointed out that somebody else paid for Ocasio-Cortez’s $35,000 ticket, as though that made her behavior less elitist.
In Apocalypse Never, I wrote that the hypocrisy of Prince Harry and Markle and other celebrities ostensibly concerned about climate change was the ultimate power move because it allowed them to communicate that they followed a different set of rules from the plebes. My suspicions were proven correct in September when the couple once again flew back to L.A. in a private jet after attending a climate change conference in New York. “It’s really not a good look!” scolded Marie Claire. But perhaps it is a good look if good looks are about advertising social status.
A worse look is calling half of the country racist, which is what many progressives and Democrats have done since 2016. Since then, Latino support for Trump and Republicans grew significantly. In Virginia, it was independents and white women who voted for Biden who were decisive, and education, particularly the influence of Critical Race Theory, appeared to be a deciding issue.
Documentary filmmaker Christopher Rufo has brought to light a significant quantity of evidence showing the teaching in schools, and the training of public and private sector employees, of the principles of critical race theory, or CRT for short. These activities include segregating employees and students by race; teaching children and training employees that there are essential differences between races; and claiming that all white people are inherently racist.
The Virginia vote showed that CRT views are highly unpopular with many voters, including African Americans and Democrats. Americans still hold race-neutrality, not race-obsession, as our goal, and reject the progressive moral panic over race and racism. Why, then, do progressives and Democrats insist, simultaneously, and incoherently, both that CRT doesn’t exist, and that it is good?
CRT is an off-shoot of critical theory, the most important Marxist intellectual tradition of the 20th Century. Critical theory includes thinkers including Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, and Antonio Gramsci. Critical theorists, including Gramsci, argued that Marxist socialists should try to occupy key positions in important social institutions, including universities, churches, and labor unions. The idea was that Marxists would have more power to transform social institutions from the inside as NGO professionals, journalists, teachers, professors, university administrators, and corporate human relations officers than as shouty protesters outside the system.
Fast-forward 50 years later, and CRT and climate change have become the dominant ideology of elites, and aspiring elites, known as the professional managerial class, including the progressive nonprofit sector, and the news media. Wokeism is a “luxury belief system” of the ruling class, according to sociologist Rob Henderson. “Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class,” Henderson argues.
“In the past, people displayed their membership of the upper class with their material accoutrements,” he noted. “But today, luxury goods are more affordable than before… When someone uses the phrase “cultural appropriation,” what they are really saying is ‘I was educated at a top college.’.. Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.” [my emphasis].
Progressive, educated, and affluent people “promote open borders or the decriminalization of drugs,” writes Henderson, “because it advances their social standing, not least because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others.”
That’s what’s occurred in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and other Democratic cities. Progressive city council members and District Attorneys are allowing large open air drug markets to to persist so long as they remain in poor, historically black, neighborhoods.
Unlike traditional religion, woke victimology seeks not universal morality, and laws, but rather one aimed at dismantling “the system.” It is for this reason that progressives are narrowly concerned with African Americans killed by the police rather than with the 30 times more African Americans killed by civilians. And the narrow concern among progressives for victims of “the system” is why progressives in San Francisco are allowing hundreds of people to die every year from drug overdose deaths, since the alternative requires working with the system.
Progressive activists on CRT, criminal justice, and climate change don’t believe, in my experience, that they are adherents to a new religion, but rather that they are more compassionate and more moral than those who hold more traditional views. And that lack of self-awareness is part of why victimology is so powerful. But it may also be what makes it politically vulnerable.
Progressives in recent years were on the rise in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and nationally, but the governance of those cities is failing dramatically. Voters in California appeared willing to wave away growing public unhappiness when they rejected a proposed recall of Gavin Newsom in September. But Tuesday’s vote, including a vote in Seattle for a Republican as City Attorney, suggests that even many liberal Democrats are fed up with the “woke” victim-centered ideology that has taken over the party.
A Based Wokelash
A few weeks ago Penguin published Woke Racism by Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, whose book has in common with San Fransicko the view that wokeism is a religion. In Woke Racism, McWhorter humorously ridicules the irrationality, immorality, and supernatural components of woke religion.
McWhorter lampoons its contradictions. If whites move into black neighborhoods they are causing gentrification, which is racist, but if they move out of them they are engaging in “white flight,” which is racist. If whites appreciate black culture, they are engaging in “cultural appropriation,” but if they ignore it they are ostracizing. How can these beliefs, which McWhorter calls “the catechism of contradictions,” be part of the same woke religion? Because they’re all in service of singular goal of calling white people racist in order to gain cultural power.
One question I have long wondered about woke religion is why I could tomorrow declare myself a woman, and be praised for my bravery by progressives, but if I declared myself black, I would run out of Berkeley. Physically speaking, I have far more in common with a black man than a white woman. Why, then, does progressive morality hold that my becoming a woman is not only acceptable but laudable, whereas my becoming black is not only unacceptable but offensive?
After I read Woke Racism, I realized the answer: because progressive trans activists have historically wanted to enlarge the number of people who identify as trans, whereas progressive black activists have wanted to stigmatize blacks for “acting white.” They are an entirely arbitrary and irrational reasons chosen, like McWhorter’s catechism of contradictions, to gain social and political power.
Like other religions, wokeism promotes supernatural views. There is no evidence that climate change threatens human extinction, and yet progressive keep insisting that it does. Racism has declined dramatically over the last 200 years and yet progressives insist that it remains as powerful as ever, just more hidden, like a hidden demonic force. And sex is genetic and biological, and yet many progressives describe it as something that can be simply chosen at will, as though people are just random assemblages of body parts.
Critics including Lasch, historian Michael Lind, and more recently, Democratic analysts David Shor and Ruy Teixeira, have been warning Democrats of the danger of becoming a party of moral relativism, and arguing that Democrats should emphasize the importance of intact families, race-neutrality, and economic growth. These warnings have been validated by strong evidence that the class-focused messages of Republicans, including Trump, have been winning over Latinos, and Tuesday’s elections.
Climate alarmism has long created serious vulnerabilities for Democrats. “Very liberal white people care way more about climate change than anyone else,” Shor told The New York Times. “So when you talk about climate change, you sound like a weird, very liberal white person. This is why policy issues matter more than people realize. It’s not that voters have these very specific policy preferences. It’s that the policies you choose to talk about paints a picture of what kind of person you are.”
And that was the case before the energy crisis. For weeks, the Biden White House has been pleading with the Saudis, the Russians, and other OPEC members to produce more oil and natural gas, even as it has restricted new oil and gas development in the United States. That doesn’t make sense, even to New York Times journalists.
“What we are now seeing in soaring energy prices as we transition away from carbon is also a political risk for environmentalism,” argued conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan recently. “People notice unaffordable energy bills and gas prices very quickly. If they attribute that to the inconstancy of renewables — and in Europe, a sharp drop in winds was indeed a factor — then a populist backlash can happen.”
Will Democrats moderate their agenda and attitudes in response to electoral defeat? Perhaps. Democrats may finally accept the advice of Carville, Jones, and Axelrod, and move away from the fringes and back toward the mainstream. In some parts of the U.S., Democratic candidates may reject CRT by name, embrace oil and gas production, and support greater parental involvement, including school choice, even though doing so would likely be opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, the teachers’ unions, and the Sierra Club.
But the reaction to Tuesday’s election suggest that many other progressives will double down on off-putting attitudes and unpopular policies. After all, the progressive insistence that Democrats spend their social and political capital demonizing their opponents as racist, depicting criminals as victims, and portraying climate change as apocalyptic was never about creating a successful politics. It was about evangelizing for a new religion.