Semafor’s David Weigel, covering former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on a campaign swing in New Hampshire, hit upon the Republican Party’s biggest challenge heading into the 2024 cycle: its inability to connect with issues that actually matter to Americans.
Haley made an appearance at the Politics and Eggs forum, which “provide[s] New Hampshire and New England business leaders with a chance to meet with major party presidential candidates.” When Haley launched her campaign, she declared wokeness a “virus more dangerous than any pandemic,” and she clearly thought bringing that same message to a bunch of “New England business leaders” was a wise choice. Like just about everything else, she was wrong.
The cold reception was evidence that she’s been in her Fox News bubble for too long, and that even ostensible allies don’t find cruelty and bigotry particularly funny or salient. Businesses certainly don’t appreciate Republicans getting all up in their, er, business. And for a crowd that likely has described itself for years as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” attacking a major company over one teeny Instagram post qualifies as neither.
None of this is particularly revelatory. We’ve been writing about what a loser issue “anti-woke”nonsense is for the Republican Party: “A new USA Today/Ipsos poll found that a 56% majority of Americans view the term ‘woke’ in a positive light, connoting being ‘informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.’ Three-fourths of Democrats viewed the term that way, as did 51% of independents and more than a third of Republicans.”
Conservatives have long been able to control the narrative and turn words like “liberal” toxic. Yet when it comes to “woke,” they’re flailing.
The reason is simple: While they once focused on convincing the broader public about their issues with a single-minded ability to clearly define their boogeymen, their media bubble has them turning inward. They agitate themselves into a tizzy, happy to ignore an outside world that remains perplexed at the hysteria and oftentimes simply bored.
Ultimately, for a party that once pretended to talk about the issues that “real America” cared about, they’ve surrendered any such pretenses. You can bet that just about every Republican disapproves of the word “liberal,” or “Joe Biden.” But when one-third of Republicans are okay with ‘woke,’ you know you have a problem. Woke is just not that offensive to most people.
For example, young Republicans are aghast at the Republican Party’s approach to the culture wars. “We don’t really use ‘woke’ as our term,” Evan Masse, a student at the Community College of Rhode Island, told Rolling Stone. Another young conservative told the magazine that “woke” was a term that “an out-of-touch uncle” might wield at Thanksgiving. “I think a lot of older folks use it if they don’t really know what they’re referring to. It’s a catchall colloquialism.”
This kid is 100% correct. Conservatives have no idea what they’re talking about when using woke. We’ve seen this time and time again: conservatives challenged to define the term and failing disastrously.
The problem for Republicans is that “woke” has become “anything we don’t like.” It was easy for Republicans to enforce rigid message discipline when Rush Limbaugh and Fox News controlled the narrative. Given the current civil war raging on the right, it’s now impossible for them to do so. The word is so devoid of meaning that even Republicans are using it against each other.
Offering a scorching rebuke of what he called the “woke right,” U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, continued to distance himself from some firebrand conservatives, accusing them of helping to sow manufactured division in the party.
In an interview with The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin for The Texas Tribune Festival, the two-term congressman admonished “alt-right” politicians and their supporters for wanting “to wear a jersey and just scream at the other side.”
And hey, have you heard the one about Fox News being woke?
“Fox News employees are allowed to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, rather than their biological sex, and permitted to dress in alignment with their preferred gender. They must also be addressed by their preferred name and pronouns in the workplace,” reported The Daily Signal, the news operation of the archconservative Heritage Foundation, in a story headlined “Leaked Policy Exposes Fox News Stances on Woke Ideology.” They breathlessly reported that “These are just a few of the policies outlined in the company handbook, dated January 2021, a copy of which was shared with The Daily Signal. Fox also offers to help employees come up with a ‘Workplace Transition Plan’ to ease their gender transition at work.“
When everything is “woke,” then nothing is. Republicans are screaming the word, expecting the broader American public to be just as agitated as they are over nonsense like a trans influencer drinking Bud Lite on an Instagram story, or an M&M spokescandy looking less sexy than before, or something-something Dr. Seuss.
There is a symbiotic relationship happening here between the loudest Republican voices and the right-wing media. These nonsensical issues are a lot more fun to rant about than actual policy discussions around topics like health care or climate change. It's so much easier to grab that primetime spotlight (and accolades from the deplorables) if you want to pick a fight with a Muppet.
The Republican presidential field can’t escape this trap, as it’s the only way these hopefuls remain relevant with the conservative media outlets that give them visibility. But to the average American voter? Their words will remain an incomprehensible code which they’ll continue to have zero interest in cracking. Trans kids in bathrooms or in sports or whatever new manufactured outrage emerges will be just as useful to Republicans winning elections as it was in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
That is to say: Keep it up, please. It sure beats the hell out of Republicans talking about things voters actually care about.
We speak with Anderson Clayton, the 25-year-old chair of North Carolina’s Democratic Party. Clayton has a big-picture plan for 2024, and explains the granular changes needed to get out the vote on college campuses and in the rural communities of the Tar Heel State.