Anti-Woke Isn’t Enough
Anti-woke liberals weren’t tricked by progressives. They were wrong about liberalism.
Anti-woke liberals are becoming the de facto leaders of the American right. They have brought to it an undeniable infusion of talent, along with first-hand knowledge of liberal institutions and milieus. But they have also carried with them certain assumptions that can hobble the right in its effort to articulate a governing philosophy for the country.
Anti-woke liberals are defined by their skepticism of three progressive causes: Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and transgenderism. In response to these movements, anti-woke liberals propose a return to liberal principles—an embrace of individualism, proceduralism, and neutrality.
We can see this in the anti-woke response to Black Lives Matter, a movement that arose in response to the Ferguson unrest of 2014 and gained new strength after the death of George Floyd in 2020. As the slogan indicates, Black Lives Matter focuses on the particular challenges and demands of black Americans. It thus represents what anti-woke liberals describe as a form of “tribalism” or “identity politics.” This outlook received its most sustained and influential expression in the 1619 Project, published by the New York Times.
Its most eloquent opponent is Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer who lives in Paris. In opposition to the “tribal” claims of Black Lives Matter and the 1619 Project, Williams insists on individual autonomy. As he puts it, “individualism by its very nature is opposed to racism.” His approach is liberal in its rejection of any group identity that might limit individuality. Yet it fails to take account of the fact that people will always seek some form of belonging.
Anti-woke liberals have likewise resisted #MeToo on liberal grounds. They have responded to its notable disregard for due process by insisting that we uphold basic legal protections for the accused. They have pointed out the damage #MeToo has done to our legal system and to the practice of journalistic ethics. In all this, they are correct, but they are wrong to stop there. For like the proponents of #MeToo, they support a liberal ideal of sexual autonomy. In fact, as a more conventional conservatism has long recognized, the public promotion of chastity is the only plausible way to minimize sexual harms. This was the intuition that stood behind parietal rules and criminal penalties for adultery.
Anti-woke liberals have righteously opposed the rise of child sex-change operations. But they have failed to reckon with its connections—institutional and logical—to a rainbow agenda that they otherwise support. It is not just the case that same lobbies that pushed for gay marriage promptly switched to supporting trans causes. Gay liberation, even in its most conservative guise, has required at some level a queering of society, a displacement of what had been the norm. Such a project is logically opposed to any attempt to define and defend what counts as normal.
In fact, anti-woke liberals sometimes speak as though the only problem with binding, padding, tucking, and packing a child is that the child can’t consent. If it could, all those things—along with hormone replacement therapy and surgery—would be unobjectionable. Andrew Sullivan, one of the leading anti-woke liberals, went so far as to compare child sex-changes with circumcision, a practice intrinsic to Jewish identity that is also affirmed—while being transcended—by Christianity. When St. Paul calls Christians to a “circumcision of the heart,” he is not enjoining the spiritual version of an unjust perversity.
Though Andrew Sullivan is a believer, it is worth recalling here that many of the leading lights of anti-woke liberalism were once New Atheists; they oppose “wokeism” no more and no less than they oppose organized religion. In this way, they are fundamentally opposed to what conservatives generally seek to uphold.
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Anti-woke liberals have also decried the politicization of the workplace and economy. CEOs like Jason Fried of Basecamp have banned “societal and political discussions” in the workplace, a move widely celebrated on the right. Liberals assume that individuals can and should leave their politics at the door when they enter the office or factory.
In doing so, they ignore the fact that men remain political and religious animals even when they go to work. As Emile Durkheim argued in the preface to the second edition of The Division of Labor in Society, the medieval guild system—which combined political and religious belonging with economic function—was merely one contingent response to an enduring human need. Romans had likewise organized themselves into professional groups that carried out religious and political functions, including burial of the dead. The problem is not that we have political ideas invading the workplace, but that those ideas are unnatural and need to be replaced.
Liberalism has failed. The progressive movements opposed by anti-woke liberals arose because of its insufficiencies. People need communal belonging. They are rightly embittered by our sexual marketplace. They are correct to believe that work has to be directed at something higher than profit. Anti-woke liberals deny these realities. That is why different leadership is needed for the American right—or any other movement that hopes to stand against woke excesses effectively.