Wokeness Has Replaced Socialism as the Great Conservative Bogeyman

“Big government” just isn’t the effective attack it used to be.

Illustration showing "SOCIALISM" sign, but the shadow of the letters reads "WOKE"
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic

During Barack Obama’s first term, the American right became fixated on the supposed threats of communism and socialism. At the time, it felt like another weird throwback trend from the Cold War, along with flared jeans, gated reverb, or Jell-O molds. The proximate causes were clear enough—huge government spending to bolster the economy (by, uh, bailing out banks, but whatever) and efforts to expand health-insurance coverage—even if fears of a coming socialist America were clearly overhyped.

Seen from today, that moment looks less like a quirky cyclical trend and more like the passing of an era. “Wokeness” has supplanted socialism as the primary bogeyman among conservative politicians and pundits. The eclipse is evident in Google search trends and Fox News time allocation, and it has also been on vivid display over the past week, as leading figures in the Republican Party and right-wing media have portrayed the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank as a case of woke values undermining sound business practices and diversity, equity, and inclusion supplanting the profit motive. Complaints about bailouts have been mostly the province of the left—which objects not to government spending but to helping the wealthy.

As I wrote last week, the claim that DEI crashed SVB makes no sense and is based on practically no evidence. The swiftness with which prominent Republican politicians leaped on the narrative drew some puzzled reactions. “My theory is that a large and growing number of prominent conservatives (politicians, media personalities, etc.) are incapable of even feigning fluency in fiscal policy because they’ve been talking about culture war stuff nonstop for like eight years,” my colleague McKay Coppins wrote on Twitter. He’s right, and the shift is less incidental than intentional, driven by currents both inside and outside of the political right.

Part of this is because capitalism has won—or rather, it continues to win. Insofar as any real question exists about the merits of socialism versus capitalism, the population has long since reached stasis on it. Though self-described democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are still prominent in the Democratic Party, Joe Biden’s more moderate approach is what dominates the party now.

Two other changes have also pushed the socialism charge to the side, at least for the moment. First, after the initial pink scare of the early Obama years, both parties shifted their focus more toward racial politics, a dynamic that continues today. Second, the dominant faction in the Republican Party, embodied by Donald Trump and now Ron DeSantis, has abandoned its commitment to limited government, instead embracing a muscular role for the state—especially in enforcing conservative cultural values against the progressive ones labeled as “woke.”

Defining what conservatives mean by wokeness is, as the writer Bethany Mandel learned the hard way this week, not easily done. For the purposes of discussion here, it also isn’t necessary. Many people use the term in different ways, to describe a general constellation of progressive ideas on race, gender, and sexuality, but what matters is the fact that they are using it, and using it somewhat indiscriminately. After all, most of what an earlier generation of conservatives called “socialism” wasn’t really socialist, either.

The term woke originates in Black slang and is popular in youth culture, both of which are helpful for understanding their interpretation on the right. The election of Obama, the nation’s first Black president, was briefly hailed as evidence that the United States had transcended race, a moment that was followed immediately by race reasserting its central role in American politics. The reaction to Obama included a huge spike in white identity politics (driven in part by rising immigration), openly racist rhetoric, and debates over police killings of people of color. Trump exploited this opportunity, making appeals to racial resentment one of the foremost elements of his campaign and presidency.

Although some characteristics of the wokeness discourse (including critiques of free speech, a focus on equitable outcomes, and critical race theory, the actual academic movement) are somewhat novel, much of the backlash to wokeness is just repackaged versions of old racial backlash (most notably the frequent use of critical race theory to mean practically any discussion of racism) or critiques of political correctness. Because woke vernacular, like support for progressive causes, is especially popular among younger people, wokeness has also become a battlefield for fighting old generational conflicts between the more liberal young and more conservative older generations.

In perhaps a more subtle shift, right-wing figures may be less inclined to complain about overweening state power because some conservatives have now embraced the possibilities of big government. One form this takes is support for entitlements. Paul Ryan, a dominant intellectual figure in the Obama-era GOP and a man who had dreamed of capping Medicaid since his keg-drinking days, is now a lone voice in the wilderness. Donald Trump beat the GOP presidential field in 2016 in part by promising not to cut Social Security or Medicare, and that view has become mainstream. This year, leading Republican figures in Congress vowed not to cut them, either, which is probably good politics though it renders their budget-slashing aims basically impossible. Fiscal conservatives find themselves marginalized in the party.

But some conservative politicians and pundits have also warmed to the idea of using the state to punish their ideological opponents—just the sort of behavior they warned about under totalitarian communist regimes. Tucker Carlson, the right’s leading media figure, endorses the use of the state to harass the COVID-cautious. DeSantis, a former Tea Party stalwart, has reinvented himself as a lite authoritarian, eager to wield government power to tell private companies how to conduct their business. He’s not alone. Republicans across the country are seeking ways to bully companies out of environmental, social, and governance approaches, deriding them as woke. The irony is that in many cases these companies are adopting the trappings of progressivism not out of any deep ideological commitment but instead because they see it as a business advantage.

Meanwhile, conservatives warning about censorship of conservative views have turned to speech codes and trying to force tech companies to host certain viewpoints at the insistence of the government—oxymoronically pursuing censorship in order to save free speech from wokeness.

“Socialism” has faded as a rallying cry because this conservative movement can hardly pretend to be horrified by big government, and it has learned that its voters aren’t especially interested in cutting spending programs, either, at least the ones that benefit them. Attacking wokeness fills that void—we might even cheekily call this the GOP’s successor ideology—with an alternative that is malleable enough to apply to nearly any situation. But as the SVB story demonstrates, the malleability is also a weakness. If wokeness is an explanation for everything, it is also an explanation for nothing. Although it’s a good way to gather a range of cultural resentments, it offers little in the way of policy ideas to improve lives, even in contrast to vague promises such as trickle-down economics. No one has yet provided any explanation of what an anti-woke bank-regulation regime might look like—and no one will. This is an attack suited to a party that exists only to campaign, with no interest in actually governing.