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Sunday, May 28, 2023
May 28, 2023

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Leubsdorf: The GOP’s war on ‘woke’


It’s hardly a secret that politicians like to define their opponents with simplistic, negative code words that can offset their positive messages and turn off potential voters.

For the 2020 Republicans, that word was “socialist,” as they sought, with some success, to make mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden into the ideological kin of self-proclaimed democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

For the Biden White House, the target is the “MAGA Republicans,” an effort to link all shades of Republicans with the anti-democratic extremism of former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.

Now, as Republicans launch their 2024 effort to regain the White House, they are trying to label every Democrat policy and politician as “woke” and turn a historically positive definition of openness, diversity and racial justice into a code word for left-wing extremism.

It’s part of a broader GOP assault against the transformation of American society that has seen wider acceptance of racial and sexual diversification and more open discussion of attitudes toward the transgender community and America’s legacy of slavery.

Though many are doing it, the anti-woke campaign has become most associated with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who clearly hopes it can be a vehicle he rides into the presidency.

“Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis proclaimed in November as he celebrated his 1.5 million-vote reelection triumph.

It’s a term he uses against liberal or even mainstream policies with little restraint. DeSantis says his efforts to curb teaching about injustice and racial inequality in schools is an effort to rid them of “woke ideology.”

More recently, DeSantis has started to take his anti-woke crusade national, preparatory to announcing his presidential candidacy later this year.

But DeSantis is hardly the only GOP hopeful using the new conservative code word.

“The antidote to woke America is freedom,” former Vice President Mike Pence told an audience last year at the University of Virginia, declaring “wokeism is running amok in universities and schools.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate, said in an article for Fox News, “we must do everything we can to stop the spread of wokeness throughout our armed forces.”

Confusion about the use of the word “woke” is understandable, since it has been used by both advocates and critics of the “diversity, equality and inclusion” policies it’s designed to champion.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “woke” as being “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

In a 1938 song, African American singer Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”), in a song about the nine Black “Scottsboro Boys” accused of raping two white women, advised everyone “best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Over the past decade, however, opponents have given negative connotations to a word designed to illustrate the positive breadth of American diversity, often racial or sexual.

Targets include the Black Lives Matter movement, designed to spotlight police abuses mainly against Black Americans; critical race theory programs that explore the role of racism in American life; the more open discussion of issues of gender diversity; and even the impact of environmentalism on economic decision-making.

The anti-woke counterattack has been spurred to some extent by the aggressive advocacy of some of its more outspoken left-wing concepts like the “1619 Project” stressing slavery’s impact on American history and the aggressive inclusion in school curricula of sex education and awareness of racial inequities.

In a broader sense, its critics are signaling to the more conservative elements within the country’s shrinking white majority that they want to roll back the clock to an era where these issues were neither openly discussed nor accepted as valid influences.