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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Let Them Eat Anti-Wokeness

The war against wokeness is not just a culture war.

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(rblfmr/Shutterstock)

Republicans disagree about the war in Ukraine, the results of the 2020 election, and the merits of free trade, but they are united in their opposition to wokeness. This is especially clear in the debate over issues like Drag Queen Story Hour, rapid onset gender dysphoria, and sex changes for children. As new ideas about gender upset conventional ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman, the right has entered a new culture war.

Critics of wokeness have treated it as a matter of bad ideas (“the woke mind virus”). But this is to ignore one of the most important factors behind its rise, the economic background of an ethical revolution. And it means that the most popular solutions to wokeness—concentrated in the intellectual, educational, and cultural spheres—will prove insufficient.

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Wokeness has spread for material as well as cultural reasons. Its rise reflects the increasing inaccessibility of middle-class life and the decline of the bourgeois order. When young people struggle to buy a home and start a family, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a loosening attachment to heteronormativity.

It is remarkable that 20 percent of Generation Z identifies as LGBT. But this fact becomes less surprising when one considers some other trends. According to an estimate from the Institute of Family Studies, 20 percent of women born in the late 1980s will never be married. If present trends hold, nearly a third of women now in their 30s will die childless.

These numbers are likely to look even worse for members of Generation Z. If many of them are abandoning the conventions of heteronormativity, that is in part because the world in which those conventions made sense has begun to disappear.

Buying a house has become increasingly difficult. The vast majority of millennials rent their homes, and almost half of people 18 to 34 pay more than 30 percent of their incomes in rent. The Republican Party’s older base tends to benefit from rising home prices—but the same trend hurts young people who might otherwise feel competent to form families.

Instead of denouncing young people as woke freaks, Republicans should help them achieve middle-class security by making marriage and homeownership easier to achieve. (Removing tax penalties on marriage would be the very first step toward this end.) If they fail to do so, their successes against wokeness are likely to prove fleeting.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than in Florida. Ron DeSantis is running for president on his string of successes in turning back unpopular woke proposals. But as Peter Thiel recently noted, Florida seems to be following California in succumbing to rising home prices. Florida may be “where woke goes to die,” but if its young people are unable to buy homes, even there wokeness will one day be revived.

If the early days of the Republican primary are any indication, the right has little interest in addressing these deep problems. A few figures, ranging from Mitt Romney to J.D. Vance, have advanced serious proposals that would help Americans form families, but they remain in the minority.

Does that mean that wokeness is here to stay? Not necessarily. One can already see brewing in the livelier corners of the online right an alternative to wokeness that doesn’t rely on the revival of family life. Impish pseudonymous accounts relentlessly mock woke pieties, but in their place they propose a kind of individualist, misogynist, and anarchist ethos that disdains family life as stultifying. With varying levels of seriousness, these figures defend pornography, denigrate heterosexual coupling, and valorize the man unbound by obligations.

No doubt some people are called to feats of individual heroism—a lesson that can be gleaned from the lives of the saints, as well as from secular history—but marriage and family life will be the way most people find fulfillment in life. It’s significant that the wealthy continue to marry and have children, an indication that the post-family future imagined by some isn’t generally regarded as desirable.

Like progressive ideas on gender and sexuality, the individualism of the dissident right can be seen as a compensation offered to people who have been unable to form families. Its misogyny appeals especially to unmarried men who lack stable and successful relations with women. Its individualism valorizes what might otherwise seem pathetic: the solitary existence of the gamer and poster who slays dragons online and vanquishes enemies with a keyboard.

Even so, critics of the dissident right are often too quick to dismiss its appeal. Like wokeness, it speaks to present circumstances. No amount of denunciation can change that fact. Until something is done to make a stable, middle-class life widely available, anti-family ideologies will continue to find a wide audience.