The Problems with Anti-Wokeness
Those opposed to the social revolution need to understand how we got here, and present an alternative vision.
In American Affairs, I review Woke, Inc., by Vivek Ramaswamy. I find him an interesting and compelling figure, but I think that his critique of wokeness and solutions to it demonstrate the larger problem with anti-wokeness as a political program.
One of Ramaswamy’s main proposals is expanding civil rights law to cover political beliefs. He argues that this can be done without passing new legislation and relies on the kind of creative legal argumentation usually associated with those on the left who advocate for a “Living Constitution.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) already bans discrimination based on religion. Relying on Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the Supreme Court decision that wrote gender theory into federal law, Ramaswamy argues that if an employee can’t be fired for opposing gay marriage on religious grounds, a different person who has the exact same views, minus the religious beliefs, must have similar protections. Otherwise, the law would give fewer protections to an individual based on the fact that they are secular, which is impermissible under the CRA. Similarly, Ramaswamy recommends that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) define wokeness as a religion, in which case an employer can’t force such beliefs onto workers.
While these suggestions are clever, they fundamentally miss the root causes of wokeness and the reasons why it has come to dominate our culture. To understand this development, it is necessary to explain a little bit about how we got here. The CRA is best known for ending Jim Crow and the right to privately discriminate. Yet as it evolved under various administrations and the courts, it also became the legal basis for enforcing ideas, practices, and behaviors across American institutions that have now morphed into what we call “wokeness.”…
At the level of major institutions, ignoring race and sex is for all practical purposes illegal today. Fighting woke capital effectively, and also woke government and woke institutions more generally, would have to begin by changing that, and at the very least requiring explicit evidence of discrimination for there to be a violation of civil rights law.
Ramaswamy goes in the opposite direction, essentially thinking that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” But to protect conservatives, he needs to rely on the same courts and bureaucrats who created wokeness in the first place. These are the people who took the CRA, which explicitly banned discrimination based on race and sex, and interpreted it to mean that discriminating based on race and sex was mandatory through affirmative action. The doctrine of disparate impact takes it further, and often requires explicit and conscious discrimination against whites and men to ward off the possibility of even unintentional harm to women and minorities.
Thus, any attempt to protect political speech in the workplace will run up against already established civil rights law. And given what we know about institutions like the EEOC, it is not difficult to predict how this would end.
One can see this in the case of James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired for circulating a memo on differences between men and women. Ramaswamy presents this case to demonstrate why we need civil rights law to protect against political discrimination. What goes unmentioned is that Damore was employed in California, a state that already prohibits discrimination based on political views. He actually did sue on those grounds, and in response many legal observers argued that Google needed to punish Damore, because otherwise it could have been liable for creating a hostile work environment for women.
Eventually the case was settled, so perhaps it is good that California bans discrimination based on politics, and the plaintiff in this case was at least able to get some relief. Maybe it will make Google think twice the next time it wants to fire someone for political speech. But what is notable is that an antidiscrimination law applied to political beliefs has not stopped tech companies based in California from going woke. And I’m sure that Google still fears being sued for gender discrimination far more than it does angering the next white male engineer with a dissident opinion.
The fundamental problem with Ramaswamy’s solution is that it assumes that legal arguments are all that matter, rather than who is being empowered by a particular policy. Any expansion of civil rights law ultimately funnels power and resources to trial lawyers and the HR industry, along with bureaucrats in the EEOC and their equivalents at the state level. Make no mistake: defining practically every belief a person might have as “religious” in nature will only create more of a need for such people, both in government and in the private sector. This might be tolerable if someone had a plan to encourage more conservatives to go into fields like civil rights enforcement, but that does not seem like a realistic option.
Another problem with the book relates to the weakness of the moral case against wokeness. Ramaswamy grants the legitimacy of closing disparities between groups as a goal of public policy, while I argue that conservatives should be pushing for an alternative vision.
For a work that centers around the problems with wokeness, Woke, Inc. tells us surprisingly little about why wokeness is bad. Yes, the author is concerned that it distracts and divides us, and that conservatives feel put upon by the ideological conformity demanded by major corporations. But one way out of that division is for the opponents of wokeness to simply give up. If two sides are fighting a war, the most natural path to peace is for the weaker side to lay down its arms, not for the one that’s winning to surrender. From the book, one never understands why that isn’t an option.
In some cases, Ramaswamy himself uses racial disparities as a justification for his own preferred policies. While he says he rejects theories of “systemic racism,” he argues for national service during the summer on the grounds that minorities fall further behind when they’re out of school. There are a few problems with this argument, most notably that it is unclear how most forms of national service would close any gap. (It is also unclear that kids doing worse on tests in the short run has much to do with real intellectual achievement anyway, since it is quite obvious that the function of schooling is mostly some combination of daycare and signalling.)
Putting that aside, once you justify a policy as necessary to close gaps, you beg the question of why you are not doing more to achieve equality. The fact of the matter is that liberals are not imagining differences in test scores, income, and incarceration rates between racial groups. There is no evidence that government can realistically close these gaps, though it can force a more balanced distribution of jobs through affirmative action. If anti-wokeness is to mean anything, it must oppose such policies, and that is difficult to do while portraying the anti‑woke agenda as the one that will eliminate statistical disparities.
Ramaswamy’s arguments might have been more effective had he offered an alternative vision, such as one championing freedom and excellence. Sometimes, that will promote equality of outcomes, but often it will not, especially when the metrics are based on contrived census categories.
I also discuss other things that have been on my mind, like the problem with the theory that the Great Awokening was a plot by capitalists to distract from economic issues. It’s not only false, but if it were true, I argue then maybe we should cheer wokeness on!
Moreover, if wokeness does in fact distract people from pursuing socialism, then why shouldn’t conservatives support it? Ramaswamy is in the strange position of being a capitalist who is criticizing corporations for defending capitalism! If big business didn’t distract people with talk of systemic racism, maybe we would have a true socialist government, and our standard of living would collapse. When you combine the fact that Woke, Inc. does not present a strong case against wokeness with its implicit argument that wokeness saved capitalism, taking these ideas seriously would imply that conservatives should embrace gender ideology and policies designed to dismantle the patriarchy.
The piece ends by sketching an outline of what a more effective anti-wokeness agenda might look like.
A very important piece. Read the whole thing here.
I'm glad you're pushing back against the idea of wokeness as a capitalist plot. Too many people on the right are indulging an aspiration toward a sort of anti-woke/anti-capitalist alliance. The wokest politicians and CEOs are pretty consistently the most anti-capitalist politicians and CEOs as well. Lenin had a better understanding of capitalist behavior than many conservatives today: corporations will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. They aren't nearly 'class-interested' enough to make use of wokeness the way they're accused of making use of it. I kind of wish they were that clever and farsighted.
1. Some conservatives think that affirmative action or special protections for conservatives will blow lib minds and leave them speechless and confused. In fact, it's very easy to construct a rationale for why blacks should get affirmative action but not conservatives ("were supply siders taken to America in chains?") and liberals will use these rationales. No one will be persuaded. The whole heart of woke ideology is that different groups need different levels of protection.
2. As a slightly different matter, I do support state laws that provide civil-service level protection for everyone against being fired for off-the-job political speech unrelated to the job. This is far more ideological defensible: conservatives shouldn't be fired for their views because no one should be fired for their irrelevant political views, not because conservatives are a protected class. I acknowledge the case of Damore shows such the limits of such protections but Damore, it should be said, expressed these views in a memo to colleagues rather than on his Facebook page, which is a slightly different issue.
3. All anti-woke pundits should have, as a short of affirming post-it note, "California Proposition 16 failed by 14 points" at their desks. There is probably a supermajority in this country in favor of colorblind meritocracy. Stop eating ivermectin and win elections on this principle, and the tide may turn.