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Understanding what ‘woke’ means isn’t the same as viewing it positively

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 perhaps in part because he’s still engaged in a knockdown, drag-out fight with one of his most hated foes: “woke.”

It’s likely that, over the past few years, DeSantis has disparaged “wokeness” more than he has his 2022 opponent in his reelection bid, former governor Charlie Crist (D). DeSantis signed the Stop Woke Act into law and, at multiple points, has insisted that Florida is “where woke goes to die” — an odd formulation given how Florida generally welcomes those looking for a nice climate in which to live out their final years.

What “woke” means in DeSantis’s formulation is volatile, contextual. Generally, he uses it the way people used to use “politically correct”: as a pejorative meant to suggest that someone was being ridiculously oversensitive about a subject. With “woke,” though, the subject is almost always race or sexuality. And DeSantis, unofficially running for president for a few years now, has made it a favorite punching bag.

On Wednesday, USA Today published new polling conducted by Ipsos that suggests this strategy might be flawed. Americans were significantly more likely to say that they understood “woke” to mean “being informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices” than to say that it means “being overly politically correct.” This, the paper’s headline offered, suggested that Americans see “woke” as more of a positive than a negative.

“The findings raise questions about whether Republican campaign promises to ban policies at schools and workplaces they denounce as ‘woke’ could boost a contender in the party’s primaries but put them at odds with broader public opinion in the general election,” Susan Page wrote of the findings. In other words: Is this another example of the Republican Party moving to an extreme that damages them in a general election?

Maybe. But there are two caveats worth considering. First, it’s probably not fair to equate understanding of “woke” with favorable assessments of it. And, second, that we’ve been through a similar rhetorical debate before — and Democrats didn’t exactly benefit.

To the first point, consider the details of the Ipsos data. Yes, Americans are more likely to say that it refers to awareness about social justice than to say that it’s about being overly politically correct. But, at the same time, they were slightly more likely to view being described as “woke” as an insult than a compliment.

How do we reconcile this? In part, it probably reflects that people understand how “woke” is deployed as an insult by people like DeSantis. But then consider that 37 percent of Republicans describe “woke” as being about social justice awareness — and that 60 percent of them see “woke” as more of an insult than a compliment.

USA Today frames “being informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices” as “positive” in its headline, but many Republicans (and other Americans, certainly) don’t see that awareness as a positive. To use an over-the-top counterexample: If you ask someone what racism means, they might be able to answer correctly but that doesn’t mean they view racism positively. Republicans can know what is meant by woke and disagree that adhering to the components of wokeness is valuable. Indeed, they are 46 percentage points more likely to see “woke” as an insult than a compliment.

Now consider the second point. In 2020, the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis spurred a new activism around systemic racism (awareness of which is certainly encapsulated in most definitions of “wokeness”). Some proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement advocated for a policy summarized as “defund the police,” which, like “woke,” was seized by Republican leaders as a point of attack against Democrats.

In July 2020, Monmouth University released a poll showing that most Americans understood that the extreme framing of “defund” — that most proponents wanted to do away with police entirely — was inaccurate. Even two-thirds of Republicans said that they understood “defund the police” to mean that resources should be reallocated to reduce the risk of violent confrontation.

This does not mean that those Republicans therefore viewed “defund the police” as a positive. Over the course of the year, the term was often deployed as a point of attack against Democrats. It was identified after the 2020 elections (however accurately) as a contributor to Democratic losses in close elections.

Even if people understood the intent of the phrase, it was still used as an attack, perhaps quite effectively. An important outcome given the attention now paid to “woke.”

It’s also important to recognize that people are energized by different phrases or arguments in different ways. It may be the case that both Democrats and Republicans understand what’s meant by woke or even see it as a positive trait. But it is also clearly the case that some large segment of Republicans see “wokeness” or social justice advocacy more broadly as entirely unacceptable. One common pejorative on the right is to deride “social justice warriors,” people whom they view as performatively interested in issues of equality. There’s political energy to be wrung out of that anger.

It may be the case that a lot of Republicans are fairly indifferent to “wokeness” in the abstract. It’s also clear that there’s value for people like DeSantis in activating the subset of Republicans who get very animated against it.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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