Eric Kaufmann joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his book The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Eric Kaufmann. Eric is a professor of politics and the director of the Center for Heterodox Social Science at the University of Buckingham, and he’s an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He’s the author of several fascinating books, including White Shift: Populism, Immigration, and The Future of White Majorities. His writing on policy, culture, demographics, education, free expression has appeared in City Journal and in many other publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and other outlets.

Today we’re going to be discussing his brand-new book, The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism, which was published last month. So Eric, great to have you on 10 Blocks again.

Eric Kaufmann: Great to be back, Brian.

Brian Anderson: In this very interesting new book, you write that the West is going through a wave of leftist ideological enthusiasm. You call it the third awokening. And a strain of radicalism has clearly swept our institutions, as you described. This has, among other unfortunate effects, produced a crime wave, worsening educational system, border chaos, social division, and more. So just to get some definitions down, what, in your view, does it mean to be woke? And how does this third awokening relate to earlier radical waves?

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, really good questions. The first answer there is that woke, I believe, has an analytical value, it does describe something real in the world if used correctly. My definition is the making sacred of historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups, that is woke in a sentence. And out of that arises a sort of fuzzy ideology, which says it is an outrage if we have anything less than equal outcomes between, for example, Black and white or male and female. And also, if any of the marginalized groups or the most sensitive member of them, even hypothetically, is offended by anything that is said by somebody who’s not of those groups, then that also constitutes an outrage, and that speech must be censored, and the individual excommunicated or canceled.

So, we have those two prongs, equal outcomes and emotional harm protection for sacralized minority groups. And that’s sort of been driving a lot of what we’ve seen in terms of cancel culture, the attacks on history, and even gender ideology.

Brian Anderson: Young people, I think it’s fair to say, are generally more woke than older people. This is certainly the case in the United States. What are the ramifications for this? Are these young people likely to become more moderate in their political views as they get older or perhaps get married, have families? Or is this something that’s going to be plaguing our social order for years to come?

Eric Kaufmann: Regrettably, I think it’s the latter. And the reason for that is that the data, the survey data, and there’s a lot of survey data in my book, the data are very striking, and they show that young people are between two and three times, but certainly twice as likely to be woke, that is to be progressively illiberal as older people. And even if we’re just comparing people who identify as liberal or even very liberal, the young liberals and the older liberals vary dramatically in their degree of willingness to accept controversial speech.

For example, we’ve heard the survey data, the Harvard–Harris poll that finds under-25s split between support for Hamas or Israel. That kind of headline has, we’ve heard of that kind of thing. But if you actually look at, for example, surveys of college students, now you’ll see 70 percent expressing approval for the idea that if a student offends, or if a professor offends anyone in the class, that person should be reported to the administration. We see 85 percent support for the idea that anyone who, a visiting speaker who says that BLM is a hate group or transgender is a mental illness should not be permitted on campus to speak. So we have very high levels of progressive intolerance among this young generation, and those are substantially higher than amongst the older population.

So if we’re comparing it to something like McCarthyism, people talk about woke fading away, is it just a fashion? And I very emphatically argue with the book that it is not, that it is kind of in the DNA of our post-1960s moral order. So with McCarthyism in 1953, the younger population was becoming, was at the leading edge of a more liberal wave that would see the end of that red scare. Whereas right now, actually what we see is the younger population is considerably more likely to support the kind of cancel culture that has rocked our institution since 2015. So the idea that that’s somehow going to end just because tech firms cut back on DEI and Claudine Gay has been fired and a few other things I think is fanciful, actually. So I’m a bit more pessimistic than others.

Brian Anderson: A hyper, as you just noted, a kind of hypersensitivity about racial minorities, particularly blacks emerged in the public conscience during the ‘60s, probably began earlier. Suddenly, racial minorities became not regarded as equal, but almost as kind of sacred victims. And public morality would henceforth require avoiding statements or actions that might offend members of these particular groups. And again, I think African Americans were at the core of that new value system that emerged.

Now in the decades since, as you noted, and as you write in the book, this elevated status has been extended to other identity groups, women, gay people, and most recently, I think transsexual people. I wonder, what were the key moments in the extension of this race taboo, I guess you could call it? Is that an accurate way of portraying it, as I’m laying it out, that this was the foundation for the wokeism that we see today?

Eric Kaufmann: You’re absolutely right there. I argue in the book that the anti-racism taboo, which comes in the mid-1960s, very suddenly in public life—Paul Krugman has a piece in the New York Times in 2013 describing how one summer, he grew up on Long Island, and all of the statues of black coachmen were suddenly painted white in just one summer. And I think that dramatic big bang, that’s the big bang of our moral order. And the anti-racism taboo is the center of our moral universe in a way.

And then it provides the template really for other identity movements who can try and capture some of that sacredness, some of that magic, which essentially makes your opponents cower because they don’t want to be tarred with the radioactive brush of being called a racist or subsequently, and with somewhat less power, a sexist or a transphobe or a homophobe. But that is kind of the template that comes out of that seminal moment.

So I hear people say, “Oh, well, things were fine in the 2000s, and suddenly, we had this great awokening,” to quote Matthew Yglesias. And my argument very much in the book is no, actually we have a continuity here. You can go back and look at, for example, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the black family being shelved by the Johnson Administration in 1965. That’s kind of the first shot in this, the first cancellation, if you like, because that was seen as offensive to a group which cannot be offended.

Now, it’s one thing to have an anti-racist norm, which is, we’d all agree, a good thing. But when that has no bounds and it becomes a taboo, which is meant to excite our disgust reaction and sort of lead to a very black-and-white view of the world, it’s a simple red-line tripwire. You cross that line, you are an outcast. Now the question is who gets to define what is racism? What we see is because of the power of this taboo, the definition keeps inflating and expanding to the point now where so-called microaggressions, like mispronouncing somebody’s name or saying anyone make in America now are enough to get called racist.

And it makes sense in a way. This is such a powerful weapon to shut down debate and get your way. Of course, it’s going to be used by new groups. So yeah, I guess I would just place a lot of emphasis on that mid-‘60s to late-‘60s taboo and that there’s a lot of continuity. So the book’s entitled The Third Awokening. By the way, my UK title is Taboo, so that tells you what I place a lot of emphasis on.

But the Third Awokening just means we’ve had an upsurge of emotional energy and enthusiasm from the cultural left since 2015, but it’s actually the third wave. The first wave was in the late-‘60s. We had campus occupations, we had Black Panther militancy, we had the SDS. They would occupy administrative offices and demand 50 black professorships, that every black student be admitted, that there’d be black studies instituted, which is the beginning of black studies courses, by the way. And we had clamping down on free speech of military recruiters and of conservatives. That was happening in the late-‘60s.

The late-‘80s, early ‘90s, we get political correctness. We have talk about the Eurocentric curriculum, “Hey, ho, Western Civ has to go,” speech codes, multiculturalism, that is sort of wave two. And all of these first two waves are very connected to wave three when we see cancel culture and DEI and microaggressions and safe spaces. All of that I believe is connected, it’s just that it is much larger in the third wave and that it spreads off campus in a way that was much less true in that second, first wave.

Brian Anderson: Many critics, Eric, attribute the rise of wokeism to extreme currents of the radical left, to Marxist theory, postmodernism, sort of academic ideas that have radiated from the campus into the broader culture. But you also would say more traditional liberals have played an unfortunate role here, that they bear some of the responsibility for our current cultural situation. I wonder if you could say a bit about that. How did the left liberal worldview play a role in the rise of these various waves, especially the latest?

Eric Kaufmann: Well, yeah, this is a sort of central argument in my book. We’ve seen quite a few books, people like Chris Rufo, Francis Fukuyama, James Lindsay, Yascha Mounk have written books really that sort of suggest that there is kind of a Marxist root. You had the failure of class-based Marxism. And then in the ‘60s, a number of intellectuals beginning perhaps with C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse and others decide that identity groups such as inner-city African Americans and the Third World masses would be the agents of radical change. So they invested their utopian hopes in those groups.

Now, I think that’s all true, and you can definitely trace those intellectual connections. But the fact of the matter is that the modal view in, say, a university on the faculty or in an arts council or in a charity tends to be center-left or liberal-left rather than Marxist-left. The Marxists are a significant group. They could be up to 20 percent in social science faculties. But without the support of that 50 to 60 percent liberal-left group, just thinking about universities, and I’ve done surveys in this, so you’ve got that majority on the faculties and they’re the ones who eagerly hire the radicals like Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis and Bill Ayers from that first wave. They’re the ones behind radical chic. They’re the ones behind, for example, mandatory diversity statements, which are supported almost two to one by social science faculty in top American universities. So this is not something that is just a few Marxist radicals.

And the reason I would argue that left liberalism is very supportive of this is that there is a lot of overlap really between the kind of radical worldview and the left liberal worldview in terms of what they see as the highest values. Those values, I would argue, are a set of moral intuitions around majorities are bad, fearful, and scary. Minorities need to be protected, are in some ways more romantic and interesting and virtuous. So minorities good, majorities bad is the sort of basic emotional orientation of both groups.

Now, they have a different approach to getting there. The revolutionary radicals would rather make, are impatient for revolutionary change, want to overthrow the system, and there’s more of a politics of envy and vengeance there. But if you take the kind of bleeding-heart liberal element, their view is not that we’re going to impose through authoritarianism instead of, for example, fixed quotas the way Ibram X. Kendi would propose it. But it might be, instead of saying we need 13 percent African Americans in every elite position in America, what they would say is, “Well, we don’t have enough African Americans and we need to do better, we need more.”

So there’s this open-ended, unboundedness to the left-liberal project, which is always, we need more inclusion, more diversity, more equity, without specifying actually where the lines are. So what you get with the left liberals is this evolution, these evolving and ratcheting of, so we start out with affirmative action. It initially means equal treatment, it comes to mean goals and timetables. You then get disparate impact. The idea that any sort of outcome which is not equal from, say, a test like an SAT represents a form of indirect discrimination. So you’re getting this movement, this constant concept creep as Nick Haslam, the psychiatrist calls it. The meaning of a term like racism gets inflated and inflated and inflated over time. All of this is in keeping with that unbounded left liberal, open-ended worldview.

So you can get to radicalism and extremism either through some kind of a revolutionary march to the institutions or through a kind of evolutionary ratcheting. And I just think that evolutionary ratcheting, that’s what brought us affirmative action, speech codes, DEI, and much of the apparatus that is really driving cancel culture. Whereas there’s no question critical race and gender ideology is important in this story, but I think it only worked because it dovetailed with that left liberal evolutionary extremism.

Brian Anderson: As your subtitle of the book suggests, this new book has a normative argument. You envision a post-woke world in which resilience, human flourishing, replace the cultural socialism and fragility that we’re seeing in this latest wave of radicalism. And you’ve sketched out a 12-point plan to bring about a transformation toward a post-woke universe.

As you see it, though, and here is where your position might be distinguished from that of some on the right, you believe the government intervention is necessary here, that libertarianism or market forces are not going to be enough to diminish the power of wokeness. So I wonder if you could sketch out just briefly what this positive argument is that you’re making and why you think a government intervention is going to be necessary here.

Eric Kaufmann: Yeah, there’s a number of components there. The first is, I think we need a political vocabulary, something like we had during the Cold War where we contrasted the free world with communist world. This idea of economic socialism in which everyone must be absolutely equal, and force must be applied to ensure that there is absolute equality, that was the sort of communist outlook on the economy. And the opposite outlook was that, hey, if we actually allow free market, we’re going to get human flourishing and we’re going to get growing of the pie and an increasingly wealthy economy.

So economic socialism versus economic wealth was the framework. And I think we need a similar framework for culture. We need to counterpose cultural flourishing and wealth to cultural socialism. So cultural socialism is the regime we’re in now where there’s an insistence on equity, equal outcomes by race, gender, and other characteristics. That pursuing that, in my view, leads to an immiseration and a demise of human flourishing in so many ways. And we need to be making the argument for cultural wealth and human flourishing.

So the economists have this idea of a pie, the more evenly you slice it up, the less it grows or the fact it might even shrink. Whereas similarly with a cultural pie, the more you insist on equal numbers of minorities in every Shakespeare play, in every article, in every television series, and the more that you insist on equality also in terms of history and the role that groups played in history, so you’re going to denigrate whites and men and try and inflate the role of minorities and women to have this equal-looking history. The more you push that agenda, the more divided your society will be. The less freedom of speech, the less emphasis on objective truths, the less we have equal treatment, due process, social cohesion, a whole other set of goods. So it’s an immiserating project, and we need to get that moral vocabulary kind of trenched, I think, among those trying to resist this stuff.

Now, in terms of the practical politics of it, you’re right. Elected government is the only institution really that the majority, and by majority I mean the roughly two thirds of the U.S. population that would take a sort of anti-woke position on most free-speech and national heritage issues, that majority only has a voice through electing a government. That’s its only chance. All the other institutions, by and large, are captured by those who have this cultural socialist outlook.

One of the reasons, the way I think about society as not just government and citizens, that kind of Madisonian, which is kind of the traditional classical liberal or American conservative worldview, is you’ve got to resist the government because that’s what’s going to oppress you. Actually, I think what we have are three layers. There’s government, there are institutions, which would include the administrative state, but also schools, universities, and even to some degree, private corporations and institutions in the middle, and then you have the citizenry. And a lot of the threats to freedom of speech and truths and others, a lot of the indoctrination is coming out of this middle layer of institutions which is being pressured or infiltrated by woke activists. And therefore, in that situation, you need, if you have control of government, you need that government to be entering into and reforming and regulating these censorious and oppressive institutions.

Now, if you go back in liberal theory to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, they were aware of this. They came from a more chaotic time than the 18th century framers of the American Constitution and were aware of the threat that private violence posed, private actors posed to people’s liberty. And this is where there is a role for the government in guaranteeing people’s natural rights against predation from private censorship, as Jonathan Turley puts it.

So yes, we have a problem therefore of censorship and oppression or authoritarianism coming out of the institutions and administrative state. So that’s one of the reasons I argue that in the 12-point plan, we need a very focused conservative movement that is willing to use power at both the federal and state levels, for example, to enforce political neutrality in civil service, in government, in schools, for example, non-indoctrination. And in order to do that, there’s going to have to be a sustained effort to take on the bureaucracy, whether it be the education establishment, etc.

And I put a lot of emphasis on educational reform. And here I would say again that school choice and the libertarian solutions, in my view, are not going to have any real effect on this. It’s a bit like comparing Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and getting ahold of a major legacy institution as compared to startups like Gab and Parler, which however important, really didn’t move the needle much. Most parents aren’t aware of what’s taught in the schools in terms of content. They’re aware of how a school does in terms of success in getting its pupils into good universities, but they won’t be aware of the subtler qualitative stuff.

We also know, I also know from surveys that I’ve used, they show up in the book, that exposure to critical race and gender theory doesn’t differ between public and private schools. And even those who are homeschooled are only somewhat less likely to have encountered concepts such as patriarchy, many genders, white privilege, systemic racism, pseudo-scientific concepts from gender and race ideology.

So again, I think that this can only really be done by a Ron DeSantis-style government intervention, preventing schools from indoctrinating the ideas of critical race theory. And in addition, actually going further and really trying to shake the curriculum. Again, DeSantis is a leader in this when he, for example, rejected the African American studies AP, advanced placement with all the critical race theory that was on that.

But I would go further and say, schools, you should be teaching about slavery and American conquest to the West and so on. But there should not be a discussion of those topics without putting that in the context of, for example, slave trading in Africa, indigenous slavery on the West Coast, atrocities or genocide committed, imperialism by the Aztecs, by the Comanche, the Iroquois, and others. Just so that people understand that we’re talking about a world in which not just American land is stolen, but all land in all nations is. All nations are built on stolen land.

And that’s just partly to take the sting out of, the emotional sting. A lot of American young people have this very distorted view of the past. So in a survey I cite, over seven in 10 under-25 Americans believe that native peoples lived in peace and harmony prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the new world. And that’s exactly the kind of misperception we need to correct.

Brian Anderson: Well, it’s a fascinating book, Eric, and I encourage our listeners to run out and pick it up and read it. It’s called The Third Awokening: A 12-point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism. It’s been out for about a month. You can check out Eric’s work on the City Journal website, We’ll link to his author page in the description. And you can find him on X @epkaufm. You can find City Journal on X as well @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as I usually say, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Eric Kaufmann, thanks very much for the very interesting discussion.

Eric Kaufmann: Brian, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks a lot.

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