The Woke Semantics Project

Tracking the ever expanding meaning of a political weasel-word.

When most people hear about “woke” politics, what generally comes to mind is a very particular way of talking about identity, expressed in a very particular agenda and set of political concerns. For example, woke politics are not ordinarily understood to be focused on poverty in general, but only on the way it intersects with issues like racism, sexism, disability, and so on. Similarly, wokeness is also associated with identitarian deference, a practice that has emerged from a controversial interpretation of standpoint theory. These observations about the popular understanding of woke are just descriptive, not prescriptive; whatever one thinks wokeness ought to be or is in some ideal sense, this is how most people tend to understand and use the concept.

In the sphere of political media and messaging, however, this has clearly begun to change. Pay close enough attention, and you’ll see the word “woke” used with reference to just about anything opposed by the Republican Party. The effect, of course, is to lump together a smaller set of ideas and practices — some of which socialists have rightly criticized — with a much broader agenda. Democrats also benefit from this shift when socialists, in defense of politics associated with “wokeness” that they are rightly on board with (EG, opposition to bigotry), unwittingly or misguidedly support other points of “wokeness” that they ought to oppose (EG, capitalist women running for office).

Moving forward, I’ll be using this post to keep track of innovative new uses of the word “woke”, if only to demonstrate that a process of semantic generalization is indeed taking place. Since this is going to be a sporadic and sometimes tedious project I won’t send out emails with every new update, but I’ll send out a tweet from @carlbeijer for anyone interested.


WHAT IS WOKE?

SOCIALISM - “Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it…we can’t just say ‘Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what, so let’s just run as out-and-out socialists.’ That’s not the smartest thing to do.” - (James Carville, Vox)

HIGH CORPORATE TAXES - “The woke left turn of much of corporate America has us thinking about a long-ago Journal headline: Down With Big Business…Take Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s endorsement of a higher corporate tax rate.” (Down With Big Business, Again. The Wall Street Journal 4/15/21)

REGULATION - “The woke left turn of much of corporate America has us thinking about a long-ago Journal headline: Down With Big Business…Big businesses also know they can afford the higher costs of new regulation.” (Down With Big Business, Again. The Wall Street Journal 4/15/21)

SINGLE-PAYER HEALTHCARE: “The woke left turn of much of corporate America has us thinking about a long-ago Journal headline: Down With Big Business…The Chamber of Commerce supported HillaryCare in 1993 until it imploded. ” (Down With Big Business, Again. The Wall Street Journal 4/15/21)

PRICE CAPS: “The woke left turn of much of corporate America has us thinking about a long-ago Journal headline: Down With Big Business…he drug companies are back on the political menu again this year, which illustrates the limits of an appeasement strategy. ” (Down With Big Business, Again. The Wall Street Journal 4/15/21)

ANTI-IMPERIALISM: “The foreign policy version of wokeism is believing that the CIA or Israel or Western powers control all world events and that local actors have no sovereignty or agency.” - Zaid Jilani

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND PORK-BARREL SPENDING: “This is a woke politics bill that is being paid for with hundreds of billions of dollars of pork-barrel spending…the Green New Deal, elements of it across this across this bill. The climate change agenda, it’s stuffed into this bill…” - Rep. Josh Hawley

DENSE HOUSING: “Over the last few years, the WCC [woke cancel culture] has attempted to erode the integrity of single-family neighborhoods without a lot of success. Their argument for increasing density has been the need for more affordable housing. A few woke cities took the bait.” (Woke cancel culture attacks single-family zoning by Ken Calhoon.)


Find a use of “woke” that you think should be included on this list? Send it to me here!