WASHINGTON — Republicans, looking to dent President Joe Biden and win back Congress next year in part by rousing a voting base animated by culture war issues, have increasingly settled on a single word to describe what it is they stand against: "woke."
Conservatives en masse have blasted "woke" companies that spoke out against Republican-led voting restrictions — a move that publicly aligned much of corporate America with Democrats on the issue, even if many of the businesses stressed their beliefs that access to the ballot shouldn't be a partisan issue.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., promoted his coming book on Twitter by saying "the woke mob" — those who called for his original publisher, Simon & Schuster, to drop it in the wake of his efforts to overturn the election — wanted to prevent anyone from reading it.
And former President Donald Trump, in a recent interview with Fox News, said the Biden administration is "destroying" the country "with woke."
The word has appeared in dozens of Republican speeches, tweets and other statements of late. Republicans said it is less a coordinated messaging push and more of an instinctive sense that the label would work as shorthand to denigrate a progressive worldview — and it's a word they're hearing from their voters, too, as it buzzes around conservative media.
Yet lawmakers and operatives who spoke to NBC News varied in how they define the idea, while others said they didn't know much about "wokeness" at all.
"I guess it's just instinctual — like you know when you see it," a Republican Senate aide said of what is meant when something is deemed to be "woke," adding: "It's more talking about a particular worldview of racial, social hierarchies and social leveling and things like that. If you're using it the right way, it does have a distinct meaning, but there is also obviously a tendency to just call any and everything 'woke' when it might mean 'liberal,' and those don't exactly mean the same thing."
The aide added that anti-woke messaging is "everywhere now" because "it kind of works to say it."
"And I don't think people maybe exactly know why," this person said. "It's just like you see something working and you're just going to keep going with it."
An 'odd critique'
"Woke," which has a long history in Black culture, was propelled into the mainstream in 2014 by activists protesting after Michael Brown, a Black teenager, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. "Stay woke" was a warning to be vigilant as Black Lives Matter protests were met with considerable police force. It evolved to encapsulate a broader social justice mantra — to be "woke" is now defined as to be cognizant of racial and social injustices.
Among conservatives, "woke" has been adopted as term of derision for those who hold progressive social justice views. In particular, the word's right-wing connotation implies a "woke" person or entity is being performative or phony. It's directly linked to language like "political correctness" and "cancellation" — which are also at the forefront of conservative messaging.
Candis Watts Smith, a co-author of the book "Stay Woke: A People's Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter," said the idea of wokeness "is about freedom, justice, equality, access to voting."
"When people talk about being woke or becoming woke, they're talking about being well-informed and well aware of systemic oppression and injustice," said Smith, a political science and African American studies professor at Penn State University. "And so it's an odd critique on Republicans' and conservatives' part to suggest that being woke is a bad thing."
But, she said, conservatives "are actually expert at weaponizing language."
"And to say 'being woke' is silly or ridiculous, If you do it enough, it'll work for some people," she said of changing the word's connotation.
Polling the idea of "wokeness" is difficult, but there are sharp partisan divisions over some racial and social justice issues. For example, a recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that while 79 percent of Democrats agree with the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement, just 16 percent of Republicans do.
An NPR/PBS/Marist survey this month asked Americans whether they support or oppose American companies' and professional sports teams' using their platforms to "influence political, cultural, or social change" — the main targets of the GOP's recent anti-woke campaign.
Just 36 percent of Americans — 53 percent of Democrats, 32 percent of independents and 17 percent of Republicans — support companies' doing so, while 57 percent of Americans — 38 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of independents and 79 percent of Republicans — said they oppose such efforts. The numbers were only marginally different for sports teams: 40 percent supportive and 55 percent opposed.
"Wokeness" — as South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick defined it — encapsulates socially progressive views that have "grown off of the campuses, if you will, into first the corners of the Democrat Party, and it's slowly just taking over."
The 'clarion call'
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been at the forefront of anti-wokeness messaging in response to the corporate backlash over voting laws. He has blasted "woke corporate virtue signaling," and, in a recent New York Post op-ed, criticized "woke talking points," "woke progressive craziness," "woke cultural issues that tear at our national fabric" and "woke, toxic nonsense."
But even though his opinion piece called on Republicans to stop supporting "woke" corporations, Rubio had only a vague sense of what that might mean in terms of a policy shift.
"I don't know when I became aware of it," Rubio said of the word "woke," adding: "That's more of a clarion call to Republicans who have been tied to the sort of libertarian view of the economy that we shouldn't be playing a role in that."
For others, "wokeness" has been a hot topic with voters. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said he hears about the subject at town hall after town hall, describing opposition to wokeness as a backlash to conversations around racial and social issues in the U.S.
"I think the wokeness is overreacting to a lot of issues," he said. "I think that most Americans, the super-majority of Americans, are not racist, and people were overreacting here."
Yet some were less aware of the concept. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he doesn't know what "wokeness" means when asked whether he agrees with his colleagues that it is a major concern.
"Concerns about wokeness?" asked Inhofe, 86. "I cannot answer that, because frankly I don't know what you're talking about."
It's not just conservatives who have used "woke" as a pejorative. It has also been used by more moderate Democrats in describing perceived progressive overreaches. In an interview with Vox, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville lamented "faculty lounge politics" and said: "Wokeness is a problem, and everyone knows it."
"It's hard to talk to anybody today — and I talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party — who doesn't say this," Carville continued. "But they don't want to say it out loud ... because they'll get clobbered or canceled."
He cited as an example some Democrats' use of the term "Latinx," which surveys show most Latinos don't use.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who said he has "never understood" what the word "wokeness" means, urged his party to keep its eyes on economic issues.
"Republicans are going to play to culture issues, and they're going to play to divisiveness, and they're going to play to hate and turning people against one another," Brown said. "And it's up to Democrats to keep the focus on jobs and keep the focus on health care and your kid being able to go to community college."
Meanwhile, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, rolled his eyes when asked about Republicans' rhetoric about wokeness, saying it is "just an attempt to distract everybody" from their lack of economic policy ideas.
"It's become a catch-all — I don't even know what they're describing, other than it seems to me that they really don't want to talk about the very popular bill that they all unanimously opposed," Schatz said, referring to Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief law.
On the right, the focus on "wokeness" has come hand in hand with an anti-"woke" agenda that GOP state legislatures have moved quickly to approve, passing bills to limit public schools' use of The New York Times' "1619 Project" — which argued that America's true beginnings date to the year enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, emphasizing the role of slavery and the Black experience in U.S. history. They have also passed measures to limit the teaching of critical race theory, bar transgender athletes from competing in girls' and women's sports and enhance criminal penalties for people arrested at protests.
Seth Cotlar, a history professor at Willamette University in Oregon, said the fervent adoption of "woke" is "a continuation of these longer trends in Republican political messaging to white voters."
"To me, 'woke' is the idiom of white backlash in the contemporary political era," he said, adding: "It basically takes what is just a kind of normal, usual process of cultural change — which is always happening in modern cultures, especially our own — and it kind of pathologizes it. It gives it a name that you can attach to it that enables you to dismiss it."