About a decade ago, something began building steam in America’s elite cultural and intellectual institutions—universities, national newspapers and magazines, museum boards, award committees. Callout culture, cancel culture, identity politics, social justice, critical race theory, postmodern neo-Marxism, wokeness: whatever you want to call it, it was happening. Wokeness developed new and previously extreme ideas around race and gender, and especially around how people ought to conduct themselves in their everyday interactions when race and gender were considered (and race and gender were always to be considered).
America’s Great Awokening produced cottage industries and small fortunes. Consultants and trainers peddled odd academic theories to multinational corporations, earning millions; authors such as Ibram X. Kendi won massive grants and intellectual prizes. On the other side, public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson emerged in part as theorists of what was wrong about woke culture; conservatives like Ben Shapiro and liberals like Dave Rubin grew their audiences with an anti-woke message.
We can divide political strategies and conceptions of political ideology between those that involve trying to persuade people in their hearts and minds and those that try to gain power practically. In terms of the first approach, I think we’ve hit peak woke, by which I mean that wokeness is on the downswing. The Great Awokening is over, and even the most progressive people are starting to feel a hangover. Consider first the evidence for this proposition, then some of the possible causes.
A central type of evidence that we’ve hit peak woke comes from exhaustion with its mandates within its ostensible political home, progressive activism. This has been brewing for a while, but it was given convincing expression in Ryan Grim’s recent Intercept article, “Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History.” This piece simply demonstrates what anyone regularly talking to veterans in Washington, D.C., Democratic Party politics knows, which is that wokeness frustrates leaders in otherwise influential progressive nonprofit organizations.
It’s important to note that wokeness has had this effect in the progressive world for precisely the same reason that it has exasperated people in academia, journalism, and business. It tears institutions apart from the inside by encouraging people to see minor interactions as conflictual and victimizing, to respond catastrophically to events toward which they should show resilience, and to set up massive bureaucracies to deal with these sorts of disputes. If anything, wokeness is worse for political organizations, because its adherents see the internal politics of the organization as being as important as, or more so, than any external project. So a progressive nonprofit might feel internal pressure to conform to woke standards even as a progressive legislative agenda languishes.
This is what we see in much of supposedly activist academia: aggressive “decolonization” of syllabi and curricula but pointed ignorance of any real political apparatus. My discipline of philosophy is home to a school of thought maintaining that forcing people to use words differently will lead to revolutionary political successes. Few people who promote this kind of academic project as politically useful have any experience in electoral politics or political organizing, even of the traditionally left-wing kind. Politically ambitious progressives are tiring of it.
Market forces also suggest that we’ve hit peak woke. Many journalists, bloggers, and academics are moving to Substack to publish content. Though Substack isn’t uniformly anti-woke and indeed has some woke writers, it’s known for its hands-off approach to content moderation and its respect for viewpoint diversity. Non- or anti-woke Substack writers such as Matt Yglesias, Matt Taibbi, Freddie deBoer, Jesse Singal, Bari Weiss, and Wesley Yang consistently trend on Twitter, and they have tons of fans and subscribers. So a great deal of demand exists for such content, and content creators have left mainstream institutions to supply that demand.
As far as I can tell, the Substack moves have been matched by developments in popular culture, where shows from Cobra Kai to White Lotus to The Chair to The Boys gently mock woke views and practices, while sometimes even valorizing others. And with Donald Trump out of office, much of the incentive to politicize everything, and to make everything woke in particular, has evaporated, notwithstanding efforts by some to turn other public figures, like tech CEO Elon Musk, into Trump-like targets.
Wokeness seems to have lost ground in everyday arguments as well. Seven or eight years ago, when people like me were starting to worry about this stuff, our interlocutors would take on lecturing tones. In my experience, this complacency is mostly gone from political debates; now people on the woke side do a better job of anticipating anti-woke arguments, sometimes even ceding ground to them. The success of anti-woke political pushes, like the furor around critical race theory in schools and workplace trainings, is probably partly responsible for this shift.
Winning hearts and minds isn’t everything, though. The second, more practical, approach still looms large. Wokeness can still retreat to its strongholds: the laws and policies of various institutions that now promote or even require it. Even as college professors become increasingly wary of wokeness, they are evaluated by their adherence to it when decisions are made about tenure or promotion. Universities will still come down hard on such people as Ilya Shapiro and Joshua Katz because those who make decisions about whom to investigate and whom to defend are often true believers in wokeness. And then there is the issue of generational change. Though older progressive leaders may worry about their organizations tearing themselves apart, their young woke stars are eager to take over leadership.
Wokeness presented itself as revolutionary, but usually it was tedious, bureaucratic, punitive, and obtuse. Those very features will make it hard to dislodge institutionally, even as awareness of them becomes widespread. So while we may have hit peak woke in terms of what people actually believe, the mindset will live on for some time to come—as policy.