by Gil Duran and George Lakoff | FrameLab
“Woke” has quickly become the most ubiquitous weapon word in American politics. Republicans use the term as a pejorative term to describe Democratic or progressive policies in general. Increasingly, everything Republicans don’t like gets described as woke, and wokeness has become the scapegoat for any bad news, including the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. Some non-Republicans also use the term, mostly to describe a certain type of militant progressive activism.
Despite the rapid adoption of woke as a major frame in American political discourse, it lacks a set definition. This presents some tricky problems. For example, if the word lacks a universal meaning, why are so many people using it? Also: If Republicans see attacking “wokeness” as a key to political victory, why are so many people accepting the frame and playing along?
In this edition of the FrameLab newsletter, we examine how the Republicans have used woke — a term stolen from African American vernacular — to control the political discourse. Woke provides a great example of how the framing wars usually play out in American politics. Republicans frame an issue, choosing specific words or language. Then everyone else falls into the trap by accepting the frame without giving much thought to the underlying strategy.
The strategy nearly always works to further Republican political interests by framing political arguments to suit a conservative version of morality.
An undefined word
Recently, we asked FrameLab readers to define woke. Our unscientific poll elicited hundreds of thoughtful responses with varied definitions. Despite the negative definition of the word when it’s used by conservatives, many readers shared positive definitions of the term.
These definitions were rooted in the basic metaphor of woke, which derives from the state of being awake, aware or conscious. (A new Ipsos poll released last week revealed that 56% of Americans have a positive definition of woke. A majority defined woke as being “informed, educated on and aware of social injustice. Only 39% agreed with the Republican definition of woke as “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”)
After all, there’s nothing inherently bad about being awake or conscious when it comes to social injustice or political issues. Awareness is a positive trait. The opposite metaphor of being awake — to be asleep or unconscious — is generally used as a negative. For example, to call someone “asleep at the wheel” is to accuse them of not paying attention to their responsibilities. But conservatives have reframed the metaphor of consciousness and awareness as a negative, transforming woke into a smear.
Despite understanding the positive connotation of the metaphor, many readers also understood the negative meaning of the word, which denotes a “holier than thou” form of radical politics.
“Though the term originated in the Black community, woke now lacks a standard definition, and is sometimes used as a catchall label for a group of only loosely related ideas,” wrote Olga Khazan in The Atlantic in 2021. “People often use the term to describe neologisms that are more popular among progressives, such as pregnant people, as well as policy choices advocated for by some on the left, such as defunding the police.”
A poll conducted by The Atlantic and the polling firm Leger found little support for some of the radical ideas apparently associated with the word. For example, only 10% of people polled agreed with the idea of using the term “pregnant people” instead of “women” and only 14% agreed with the idea of referring to Hispanic or Latino people as “Latinx.” Only 18% expressed support for defunding police departments.
Woke, as defined by The Atlantic, entails the adoption of unquestionably radical ideas or language with which most Democrats disagree. Of course, the fact that Democrats mostly disagree with these ideas does not prevent Republicans from labeling them as woke.
Conformity, sensitivity, radicalism
For the most part, woke appears to be little more than a single-syllable replacement for “politically correct,” a word that was used in a similar way in the 1990s. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “politically correct” as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Oxford Languages defines the term as “conforming to prevailing liberal or radical opinion, in particular by carefully avoiding forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
Let’s break down these definitions, because they also tell us something about the true meaning of woke. The first element in both definitions is the idea of conformity. The second element in both definitions is the idea of sensitivity — specifically, political sensitivity around issues of sex or race. The Oxford definition also contains a third element, that of “liberal or radical” opinion. When you examine these elements in depth, it becomes quite clear that woke is simply a modern rebranding of political correctness:
Conformity: Conformity — “compliance with rules, standards or laws” — can be a good thing, as in conformity to the law. But for the most part, it has a negative connotation. To conform is to behave as a sheep, mindlessly going with the flow in order to avoid trouble. Authoritarian regimes enforce conformity, requiring people to take loyalty oaths or feign allegiance to oppressive or ridiculous rules. The same can be said of religious movements or cults, which require strict adherence to certain beliefs or rules. The idea of conformity — specifically, enforced or required conformity — is unappealing to most people in democratic societies.
Political sensitivity: As with awareness, sensitivity is generally a positive trait. Sensitivity requires care, empathy and intelligence. In life, we try to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of those around us — our families, friends and colleagues. In politics, we cultivate sensitivity to the needs of other citizens. This sensitivity has allowed us to evolve through many ugly chapters of history and toward a fuller definition of freedom. There is the possibility of being overly sensitive, but this condition aligns more with the next element, radicalism.
Radicalism: To be radical is to be outside of the mainstream or majority. In this context, the word radical has a negative connotation. Of course, radicalism can produce good things as well as bad. Movements deemed radical or subversive have often brought forth great social progress. On the flip side, some radical movements devolve into violence or terrorism, as with the antiwar Weather Underground of the 1960s or the violent pro-Trump Jan. 6 insurrectionists. In its most negative political sense, radicalism entails a tyrannical minority forcing its beliefs onto the majority through intimidation, anti-democratic rule or violence (or all three). In the case of both woke and politically correct, this radicalism is deemed to be liberal or progressive radicalism.
By isolating these three distinct elements, we can get a clearer picture of the political meanings underlying the use of woke. For Republicans, woke means a forced conformity to radical liberal political sensitivity. But they purposely conflate the word with Democratic policies and politicians in general. For example, they regularly label President Joe Biden as woke, even though he’s a mainstream politician usually described as moderate.
What they’re really doing, as many observers have pointed out, is using woke as a dog whistle to unite the Republican base in opposition to social progress related to race, gender and sexuality. They use woke as a kind of anti-virtue signal to telegraph their support for discriminatory and regressive social policies without having to go into troublesome detail.
Their use of woke as a scare word that applies to all Democrats, even Biden, is an example of a “salient exemplar” strategy: Using an extreme example to unfairly smear an entire group, even if the group overtly rejects the extreme or radical behavior. The attack on woke is not just about radical politics. In their definition, to be woke is to have an awareness of the moral nature of current events from a liberal perspective. So, the war on woke is simply a continuation of the long conflict between the two main moral systems in American politics: strict father (conservative) morality vs. nurturant (progressive) morality.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, use woke more specifically to describe a certain kind of bullying or disruptive radical progressive political behavior. But radical politics are hardly confined to the progressive movement.
In fact, Republicans have their own version of woke politics — one that poses a rising danger to democracy. Yet Republicans embrace their own versions of radicalism and wokeness. This glaring inconsistency tells us everything we need to know about what the war against woke really means.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Time to Get Woke About Woke,” posting later this week.Subscribe
- “A History of Wokeness,” Aja Romano, Vox
- “What is ‘woke’?” David Remnick, New Yorker
- “Why conservatives don’t want to say what woke means,” Alex Wagner, MSNBC