‘Woke’ discussion simmers for Democrats
Democrats are battling over whether the party is too “woke” — and whether that cultural debate has anything to do with their defeats in last week’s off-year elections.
The discussion has been simmering under the surface for months, but won new attention when veteran Democratic strategist James Carville blamed “wokeness” for the loss of the Virginia governor’s mansion, which Democrats had held since 2014.
Carville’s side argues the party has lurched too far to the left, and that it is now being defined by GOP attacks on “woke” ideas that aren’t popular with much of the country. They say the party hasn’t done enough to distance itself from slogans like “defund the police.” Very few Democrats support that idea, though many want police reform.
“The AOC-Bernie Sanders elite is not ‘woke,’ they want to guilt, intimidate, and threaten everyone into believing what they believe,” said one prominent Democratic strategist. “They are Trumpian voters by another name.”
Those who agree with Carville blame the progressive wing for bringing down the entire party with activist antics that they say would never work in slow-moving Washington. More broadly, they say the recent election results prove that the country is rejecting the concept outright.
“Here is the political problem,” the strategist continued. “Voters, especially independents, do not share their views or values. If congressional leadership and the White House keep cowing to these out-of-touch views, there will not be much of a party left to lead.”
But critics of Carville say he’s not diagnosing the real reasons why Democrats are losing support.
These voices contend the party’s efforts to be more inclusive with its language and its policies should be championed, and that liberals just need to do a better job winning accomplishments for working people and then messaging the victories accordingly.
If the idea was so divisive and misguided, they argue, Joe Biden wouldn’t have defeated Donald Trump.
“Ultimately, he ran on ‘wokeness,’” said Kara Turrentine, a progressive operative, about President Biden’s winning strategy against former President Trump, who made identity central to his campaign.
“Millions of Black and brown people said, ‘I’m with you’ and they ousted the most racist president of our lifetime,” she added. “Democrats cannot afford to distance themselves because reactionary forces are co-opting the definition of ‘wokeness.’”
Republicans have indeed pinned Democrats as too “woke” for years.
While many in the party say the opposition’s scare tactics around race, religion, gender identification and other personal issues are not based in reality, they also acknowledge the poor perception crafted by the GOP has contributed to some of their most significant losses.
They say that without a coherent messaging strategy, those attacks will proliferate.
“Democrats have worked really hard to be a blank page that people can write their expectations on,” said Corbin Trent, the co-founder of Justice Democrats and former communications director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“That is costly because it allows for the negatives to be painted upon you too,” he said.
In Virginia, Republicans seized on the premise that schools across the country were embracing the idea of teaching “critical race theory” — a scholarly legal theory — to young children.
That’s not happening in Virginia. But it still proved an effective tactic for Glenn Youngkin, who was helped by a debate statement from Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who said he didn’t think parents should “be telling schools what they should teach.”
In the immediate aftermath of the election, critical race theory has been floated as a prime strategy for GOP candidates to use against Democrats in next year’s midterms.
“Clearly critical race theory had an impact,” one Democratic National Committee member conceded.
It appeared to be particularly fruitful with rural and white voters without college degrees, who increasingly seem turned off from the Democratic Party. It is those voters that Carville, the former strategist to President Clinton, is worried that Democrats are losing.
Some Democrats say they are frustrated there isn’t more of a discussion of what to do to turn around the problem.
Multiple DNC members told The Hill they were left longing for a sense of introspection about what went wrong, and that there have been no formal discussions or autopsy about how the party will proceed on the heels of last week’s losses, particularly when it comes to messaging.
“I’ve never seen it more inactive, disconnected and more dead in all my years,” a second DNC member said about the party apparatus. “The chairman should be speaking to the caucuses but everything is defined by emails. There’s no engagement unless it’s for standard meetings.”
Some Democrats believe the burden is on Biden to offer party-wide rhetoric that can work up and down the ballot. Progressives in particular feel that with significant ideological differences fraying their caucuses in Congress, the idea that the president can provide a blueprint for how Democrats talk about their ideas is not only important, but imperative for the party to stay in power.
That thinking is especially true for Democrats becoming disgruntled about how Biden has handled issues important to the diverse communities that helped elect him into office.
But even some voices on the left say the party is becoming too concerned with how things sound and less focused on providing people with much needed relief.
Polling on the terminology is scarce, but according to one survey conducted by The Hill-HarrisX in July, only one third of Democrats are self-described as “woke.”