I cannot take you seriously if you use the word "woke" unironically in 2021

To the extent that anyone should care what James Carville thinks , maybe we should ask what he actually means when he starts ranting about "wokeness."

What is “wokeness?”

No, seriously, what does “wokeness” mean? It’s a term you see used constantly in the world of political media, but nobody seems particularly interested in actually defining it. For the most part, it seems to be a catch-all pejorative (if there are examples of people using the term “woke” or “wokeness” or some other variation of the term in a positive connotation in the past couple of years, I haven’t seen it) for “things I don’t like.”

It’s a term you use when you don’t actually have an argument, what I called “rhetorical empty calories” in an article a few years back about Fox News’ obsession with the term “identity politics.” It’s nothing. It’s meaningless. It’s filler. It’s fluff. And most of all, it’s really obnoxious analysis that has no place in the press without a thorough elaboration. Unfortunately for me, it’s everywhere — and still a total void of information.

There are a few things that drove me to write this post, one of which being old-timey Democratic strategist James Carville’s decision to pop up and declare “wokeness” the reason that Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race and ceded ground elsewhere. It couldn’t be that off-year elections don’t tend to go particularly well for the party in national power… It couldn’t be that the Democratic nominee was a former governor with the charisma of a cardboard cutout that got its wish to become a Real Boy… It couldn’t be that Democrats are simply (metaphorically) outgunned and outnumbered by Republicans when it comes to having a coherent communications infrastructure…

No, no, no. It was “wokeness.”

Let’s take a look at Carville’s response to the question “What went wrong?” from PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff:

JAMES CARVILLE: What went wrong is this stupid wokeness.

All right? Don't just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, look at 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, that — people see that.

And it's just — really have a suppressive effect all across the country to Democrats. Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something. They're expressing language that people just don't use. And there's a backlash and frustration at that.

And you're right. Suburbanites in Northern Virginia, suburbanites in Northern New Jersey pulled away a little bit. Youngkin never ran any ads against Biden. And I think what he did is just let the Democrats pull the pin and watch the grenade go off on them.

And we have got to change this and not be about changing dictionaries and change laws. And these faculty lounge people that sit around mulling about I don't know what are — they're not working. Look what happened in Buffalo, again, Seattle. I think the Republicans may have won a city attorney's race in Seattle.

Seattle autonomous zone? Who could even think of something that stupid?

And they're suppressing our vote. And I have got news for you. You're hurting the party. You're hurting the very people that you want to help.

And Terry got caught up. He's a good friend of mine. He's a good guy. He got caught up in something national, and we have got to change this internally, in my view.

Carville has a history of railing against “wokeness,” which he sometimes describes as “faculty lounge politics.” To the best of my extremely limited research capabilities, that seems to be “defund the police” rhetoric (see: PBS NewsHour & a Vox interview earlier this year), taking Abraham Lincoln’s name off of buildings (PBS), the words “communities of color” (Vox), the word “Latinx” (Vox), and Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (PBS).

Okay. That’s… something. Now, it’s worth noting that, to the best of my knowledge, Terry McAuliffe did not run on… well… any of that.

Buffalo re-elected Democrat Byron Brown as a write-in candidate for mayor. Brown lost the Democratic primary earlier this year to India Walton, a socialist. Brown’s win in the general election doesn’t really say much, to be quite honest. He won the race thanks in large part to the larger Democratic establishment’s decision to back him against Walton. Brown’s campaign during the general election focused more on the personal mistakes and failings of Walton, not her policies.

In fact, the only example where Carville’s point about what he calls “wokeness” actually seems to apply is that Seattle city attorney’s race, where the Democratic candidate had a tendency to use her Twitter to call for the end of capitalism, discuss a “DIY guillotine club,” talk about her “rabid hatred of the police,” and call footage of a burning bus in Kenosha, Wisconsin “a good start. Inspiring.”

In that race, the Democratic (technically, all candidates in those races are nonpartisan, but she was the candidate on the left) candidate lost 52.2% to 46.9%. So yes, if Carville’s is saying that Democrats shouldn’t make a habit of running people who tweet things like “cops are serial killers” and “I for sure hate this country,” then yes, I think most people are in agreement that isn’t going to be a winning platform pretty much anywhere — which makes it an odd thing to include in analysis of Democrats on a national level.

The hack gap.

(Here’s where I could go into a big section about the very real problem that is what Matt Yglesias called “the hack gap.” Perhaps I will in a future edition of the newsletter, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with this great video from my friend Carlos Maza:)

So what happens here is that while it benefits political parties to frame the entirety of the opposing party as believing whatever the most controversial member believes (and sometimes not even a member of the party, but just activists who are generally on the same-ish side as that party). This is how you get narratives about Democrats all being pro-looting, pro-rioting, pro-open borders socialists who want to take your guns. And that’s fine if people see it for what it is: political messaging. What’s not fine is when mainstream media outlets and politicians within the party being attacked buy into that false generalization.

There are a lot of Republicans who believe a lot of extremely goofy/awful/dumb/ridiculous/offensive/whatever things. Hell, just looking at Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), you’ve already got a collection of nonsense that includes the absurd and offensive idea that a secret cabal of Jews used a laser in space to start forest fires, that Hillary Clinton had former DNC staffer Seth Rich murdered, claimed that there’s no evidence that a plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11, and that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was fake (she said this in 2018, which isn’t exactly ancient history). Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has introduced bills on multiple occasions to abolish the Department of Education. In 2010, now-Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he was in favor of repealing the Americans with Disability Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (he has repeatedly lied about making these remarks, but they’re very real).

Those are just a handful of completely absurd things that actual Republicans who are currently in good standing with their party have actually said, and hopefully, most people can acknowledge that those are much more outrageous than any actual policy Democrats have come out in favor of or run elections on. The only reason the activist slogan of “defund the police” gets attributed to Democrats as some sort of core tenet of their policy agenda is because news outlets just take whatever slop is being offered up by the right and run with it. And when people point out that these aren’t policies that Democrats actually support (I’ve long said that I wish Democrats were as pro-LGBTQ as Republicans and right-wing media make them out to be, but alas…), the language shifts to buzzwords like “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

This isn’t to say that those words can’t have real meaning or even that they don’t currently have some sort of meaning, but that the way they’re used in popular political discussion is to serve as a blank slate for pundits and impressionable voters to project whatever they want onto it. There’s a reason that the people who use these terms rarely get more specific than that: because they will end up sounding like Carville as he rambles on about activists in Seattle setting up an autonomous zone as though that’s the Democratic party (even though those activists aren’t exactly fans of Democrats, either, to put it mildly) or blaming even vaguer language like “critical race theory” (which no longer actually means critical race theory, but is more or less a catch-all term for anything that doesn’t present history with the same sort of ahistorical lack of integrity that kindergartners get taught about things like the first Thanksgiving or Columbus “sailing the ocean blue”).

Then there’s the matter of conservative outlets just… lying about what politicians say. Here’s a right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group station falsely claiming that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said that Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race because they weren’t “woke” enough. She never said that. At all.

Her thread here is important — and correct.

Another example of someone using the word “woke” in a way that makes my eyes roll all the way to the back of my head happened when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers whined about the “woke mob” criticizing him over the fact that he lied about his vaccination status (against a deadly pandemic disease), put everybody around him at unnecessary risk, and cost his team what should have been a pretty easy win over the weekend against the struggling Kansas City Chiefs. Reflexively whining about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” as Rodgers did is just a way of saying that people should absolutely be allowed to heap praise on him… but never, ever criticize him. Complaining about “the woke mob” is not an argument, it’s a deflection.

I will surely return to this topic to discuss related issues in the near future, but this is probably enough for now. Thanks to all of you who’ve made it this far in the piece. I know it’s a bit of a slog. I find all of this frustrating because I really do care about media and I really do care about politics. Words mean things — or at least they should, and when I see legitimate news outlets offering analysis and insights to politicians that boil down to a nonsense word that virtually nobody has used in a positive connotation (for real, when’s the last time a Democrat said, “We’ve got to get more woke!”? Never?) in years, I can’t help but despair at how badly the fight against propaganda is being lost.