Wokeness, most observers would agree, can be defined as the progressive worldview that views all racial and sexual disparities as proof of discrimination, and rejects liberal procedural traditions in favor of a totalizing politics that seeks to dismantle those disparities and silence dissenters. But nobody seems to agree on where it came from. Is wokeness an intellectual, religious, psychological, economic, legal, or institutional phenomenon? Its emergence over the last decade or so has been attributed to everything from academic intellectual trends, declining religiosity, victimhood psychology, corporate self-interest, white-collar class interests, the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and the copycat tendencies of large organizations. These all seem to have some explanatory power, but none seems on its own to account for the phenomenon fully. Let’s consider each in turn.
Ideas have consequences. The idealist account sees wokeness as the offspring of long-gestating intellectual trends. The specifics might vary, but the broad story tends to be the same: influential thinkers developed a critique of reason, objectivity, and neutrality that conquered the ivory tower before infecting everyone from Democratic Party politicians to the editors of Teen Vogue. Whether it was Immanuel Kant, Theodor Adorno, or Jacques Derrida, some philosopher started the process by arguing that humans had insufficient grounds to believe things they once took for granted, since those beliefs were filtered—and distorted—by limited individual faculties, cultural biases, or “systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.” That critical posture toward established truths challenged the foundations of Enlightenment civilization and encouraged a vision of the world as divided among “oppressed classes” and an “oppressor class.” In an American context, the critique took various forms, with radical feminists arguing that the legal system was “a medium for making male dominance both invisible and legitimate” and critical race theorists maintaining that racism represents “the usual way [American] society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.” These kinds of arguments eventually entered public debate as default explanations for inequalities in American society; American institutions came to be seen solely as vectors of subjugation.
Idealist accounts leave something important unexplained, however: How did these ideas spread? In a review of James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s Cynical Theories, a representative idealist account, critic Park MacDougald notes that the book never explains how people came to be persuaded by fundamentally unpersuasive arguments. “At times, Pluckrose and Lindsay write as if these theories are free-floating ideas developing according to their own internal logic. At times, they are analogized to a virus jumping the ‘species gap’ from academia to activism. And at times, there’s no clear agent at all, as when they write that Evergreen State ‘got overtaken by the ideas of critical race theory,’” MacDougald writes. “But how does a college get overtaken by ideas? And why one set of ideas instead of another?” The idealist account, on its own, seems unable to answer these questions.
Psychological accounts. Two explanations argue that wokeness has gained traction in response to specific changes in Americans’ psychology. One posits that wokeness resembles a religion, filling a spiritual vacuum in American life. Author John McWhorter argues that “third-wave antiracism . . . has actually become a religion,” complete with a clergy in the form of writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a creed holding that “racism is baked into the structure of society,” and a creation myth involving the African slave trade. Another sees it as a byproduct of the infantilization of young Americans by well-meaning but overprotective parents. In the best-selling The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt blame “safetyism”—which puts a premium on protection of feelings and punishes severely actions or words that inflict emotional harm—as a proximate cause of political strife on college campuses. Lukianoff and Haidt weren’t offering a catch-all theory of wokeness, but their story—that an overprotective mode of parenting that took hold in the late twentieth century produced a generation of hypersensitive kids, who then entered a bureaucratized college system willing to meet their demands for “safe spaces”—is a reasonable stand-in for those who view wokeness as a form of political activism common to millennials and zoomers.
Still, neither theory seems dispositive. First, pathologizing particular ideas or beliefs as the product of a specific psychological makeup is a reductive and unfalsifiable move (as with the notion, dating back to Adorno in the 1950s, that the political views of American conservatives are merely symptoms of an “authoritarian” personality type). Neither the religious nor the victimhood argument quite succeeds on its own terms: wokeness tends to go awry not by making unverifiable supernatural claims but by making false empirical ones; and psychological changes seem insufficient to explain why woke students came to adopt an identity-based obsession with statistical disparities as opposed to, say, a militant socialist politics. And woke beliefs aren’t held only by true believers or college students. Since Haidt and Lukianoff’s book appeared in 2015, wokeness has expanded its domain: older book-publishing executives turn down stories from authors of the wrong race, executives at white-shoe law firms create DEI training programs, and the country’s leading corporate brands create affinity groups and endorse claims about race and gender that the vast majority of their customers would reject.
Incentives. Into this breach step two materialist explanations, alleging that woke politics in the corporate environment serves the incentives of economic actors. First is the “woke capital” thesis, which maintains that executives adopt a woke posture—moving operations out of red states, endorsing the outlandish rhetoric of diversity trainers—to make money. Maybe a company’s endorsement of the idea that the United States is founded on the plunder of black bodies enables it to attract more talent, as it’s hiring from a small pool of young people with top-notch educational credentials, whose worldview tends to be similarly woke. Maybe a company’s declaration of a solemn commitment to social responsibility allows it to exploit a growth field, as in the creation of ESG funds by financial firms. Or maybe executives are preempting a potential anti-capitalist upsurge from the political Left. Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times that “corporate activism on social issues” serves to “justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone . . . in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.” Former biotech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy develops the argument in Woke, Inc., offering a potted history in which corporations nervous about growing redistributionist sentiment on the left following the 2008 financial crisis struck a bargain with identity-obsessed activists, taking up their cherished claims in exchange for being left alone.
This, too, seems insufficient. As Josh Barro notes, corporate employees aren’t motivated by profit alone: they might introduce politics to the workplace because of their own political views. Indeed, many high-profile instances of corporations groveling to activists and stifling internal dissent from the company line were driven from below, not above. The ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for his opposition to gay marriage, Google firing James Damore for his memo on innate gender differences, the New York Times buckling to a staff revolt over a Republican politician’s op-ed, Bon Appetit disbanding its video department over staff allegations of unequal pay, and the CEO of Disney attacking a Florida law on sex education in elementary schools only after a staff revolt: in all these cases, the pressure seemed to come from within the organization.
Another materialist account, the “woke labor” thesis, promises to explain such cases. In short, a glut of well-educated but insecure white-collar workers use their control over corporate resources to push a political agenda that they not only agree with but also depend upon for job security. In City Journal, Malcom Kyeyune writes that America’s culture wars can be understood by examining the class interests of mid-level managers who don’t own capital but retain control over how it is deployed. What seem like earnest arguments for a company allegedly dogged by a toxic culture to submit to an audit or scale up its diversity-training initiatives actually constitute calls for a “massive expansion of managerial intermediation in previously independent social and economic processes.” These managers simply want to create more work for themselves (and other members of their guild). Cancellations of dissenters therefore function as labor market discipline, forcing the unwoke to exit the sector.
But how can economic incentives explain the great many cancellations that have little to do with material gain, as in hobbyist communities like knitting? These cases suggest an ideological dimension to wokeness that the materialist explanations cannot capture. Explicit instances of coordination between corporations and activists also tend to be lacking. And, after all, woke boilerplate tends to identify capitalism as one of many interlocking systems of oppression that keep minorities down.
Institutional accounts. The legalist account ties wokeness to various American civil rights laws whose vagueness, and selective enforcement, cowed organizations into compliance with an ever-expanding array of prohibitions on free speech and political disagreement in order to avoid the prospect of litigation.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marks the beginning of this history. Its bans on discrimination according to race and gender were soon expanded by the Supreme Court to include anything that had a disparate impact on protected groups. Meantime, affirmative-action programs expanded across government and higher education, on the assumption that disparities among groups wouldn’t exist absent discrimination—a central claim today. What we think of as “political correctness” is really “a name for the cultural effect of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights law,” argues Christopher Caldwell, which enabled “government censorship . . . through a civil court system that had seen its scope and punitive capacities enhanced by civil rights law” and threatened litigation that terrified employers into “privatizing the suppression of disagreement.” In Inventing Equal Opportunity, Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin writes that the “continuing ambiguity of compliance standards led management writers to advocate permanent antidiscrimination offices to track legal shifts.” This legal enforcement mechanism explains a great deal of corporate behavior, as political scientist Richard Hanania observes: from human-resources departments that police uncouth opinions at the office to corporations suddenly declaring their support for trendy causes when the prospect of government intervention is raised.
A rigorous thesis with much explanatory power, the legalist account nevertheless seems to leave a few things unexplained. First, one might expect people and organizations hounded by an intrusive government apparatus to get with the program only begrudgingly, doing the bare minimum to remain in compliance. But woke organizations zealously go above and beyond what’s compulsory, saying and doing things that even the vague and expanding civil rights regime doesn’t require. Second, the legal structures alleged to be the culprit for organizational wokeness have been around for decades—yet the intensity of the culture war has ramped up considerably only in the last few years.
To the rescue comes a sociological modification of the legalist account. The concept of institutional isomorphism explains the maddening tendency of organizations to update their operations for the newest woke dictates, whether it’s a sudden expansion of the LGBTQ+ acronym or the need to release increasingly shrill statements about racism being endemic to American life. The sociologist Gabriel Rossman describes in City Journal how “organizations go beyond their core competencies to imitate market leaders and to meet the demands of their trading partners, the regulatory state, and key employees.” Institutions go woke not just because they’re coerced to do so but also because peer institutions are doing it. Meantime, as Charles Fain Lehman explains, late-twentieth-century efforts to remain in compliance with civil rights laws soon gave way to a “business case” that diversity would itself bring benefits to the corporate bottom line. “The transition from compliance to diversity marks the moment at which race-conscious corporate policy became unmoored from rational purpose and mutated into a myth,” Lehman writes, noting that the evidence underlying the business case was never strong. And once such race-conscious policies became a myth, they were free to accumulate new tenets as myths do.
Each explanation for wokeness’s rise has gaps that invite corrections or modifications. Left with a set of theories that don’t seem to work on their own but complement each other well, one could embrace a synthesis: a perfect-storm view, in which all these different phenomena happen at once. Thus, a certain brand of overprotective parent raised a generation of kids susceptible, in an era of declining religiosity, to morally urgent ideologies. The theory-suffused academy was happy to supply such an ideology, which these kids took up with gusto upon arriving on campus, despite its evident shortcomings. When they graduated and started entering the white-collar work force, litigation-averse corporations—already seasoned in adjusting their behavior to comply with civil rights laws—happily indulged the political demands of this socially engaged class of workers. And, thanks to the immense cultural power of well-educated Americans and the economic power of large companies, that ideology became increasingly visible, and eventually all but inescapable.
This multifactor explanation may strike some as overthought and extravagant, but a complex account, involving many different proximate causes, somehow fits such a nebulous, yet expansive, phenomenon as wokeness. Skeptics of wokeness tend to point to the difficulty of defining it and explaining its causes, but such imprecision would be expected if it was really a number of different but interrelated and overlapping phenomena, each with its own set of causes.