Wokeness is about making historically marginalized groups sacred. This religion reinforces an ideology I term “cultural socialism,” which holds that the highest aim of society is to equalize outcomes for disadvantaged identity groups and protect them from harm, such as hearing America described as “a land of opportunity.” How did this ethos, which hides under innocuous labels such as “diversity” or “inclusivity,” wind up as the pinnacle of our culture? What can we do about it?
These questions are the focus of two recent books, Christopher Rufo’s best-selling America’s Cultural Revolution and Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke, which seems poised to enjoy Rufo-level success. They set out two different accounts of how the radical left conquered the culture. Hanania focuses on affirmative action and cancel culture, emphasizing the evolution of civil rights law from equal treatment to equal results, free speech to speech suppression. Rufo concentrates on Critical Race Theory (CRT), tracing it to Marxism’s cultural turn from class to identity in the late 1960s. The two accounts, evolutionary and revolutionary, institutional and cultural, complement and contest each other.
The two represent a new generation of Millennial intellectuals who made it on the internet, outside the usual system of institutional gatekeepers. Though neither define themselves as national conservatives, the authors find common ground in rejecting the laissez-faire claim that governments should stay out of the cultural fight. Both maintain that the decentralization of authority from democratically elected legislatures to unaccountable managers and educators permitted a cultural revolution to take place under the radar. Rufo calls for a counter-revolution to “lay siege” to ideologically-captured institutions. Hanania sets out a detailed policy manual pointing Republican politicians and lawyers to the precise levers they need to pull to undercut cultural socialism’s power.
The Child of Civil Rights Law
Hanania’s path leads from a misspent youth of online trolling, via a PhD and postdoc in political science at Columbia, to establishing his own countercultural social science think tank, the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI). He has emerged as one of the country’s most innovative, contrarian, and controversial pundit-wonks.
His new book, The Origins of Woke, approaches the problem from a legal and policy perspective. He views culture wars as “long wars,” warning that there will be no victory day over woke, only a hope that, having lost Millennials and Gen-Z, we can recover sufficiently to sway those coming up behind them. This is the work of decades, not an administration.
He defines wokeness as an ideology with three pillars: disparity equals discrimination, speech must be restricted to achieve equality, and a full-time bureaucracy is required to enforce these edicts. Instead of purposeful activists pushing neo-Marxism or postmodernism, Hanania views the rise of woke as a largely unintended byproduct of bipartisan civil rights laws. While Chris Caldwell briefly made this point in his Age of Entitlement (2020), Hanania develops the argument in much greater depth.
He draws the reader’s attention to four critical innovations in civil rights law. Namely, “Federally-mandated affirmative action, disparate impact, harassment law, and Title IX as a tool to regulate education.” Affirmative action, based on the logic that disparities equal discrimination, entrenched the idea of equal results over equal treatment. The Duke v. Griggs Power (1971) ruling established the doctrine of disparate impact, which developed into the view that any organizational practice that results in worse outcomes for protected races or genders, such as a performance test, constitutes a form of discrimination. This, Hanania argues, led to an attack on merit in the workplace, schools, and colleges. Later, in the mid-1980s, harassment law enshrined the idea that free speech must be suppressed to eliminate subjectively-defined “hostile environments” for protected groups. Finally, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal assistance. This ultimately led to the abrogation of men’s due process rights on campus and the micromanagement of relations between the sexes.
Once civil rights agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) were established, they empowered bureaucratic activists to take control of the process and issue guidelines. The need to comply with the new diktats to avoid liability resulted in the multiplication of equality bureaucracies at every level of government and in most large organizations. Liberal Supreme Courts of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s took the lead from administrative practice, creating a ratchet of restrictions that fueled the growth of compliance bureaucracies.
Each step built on the previous as the system evolved toward woke. Civil rights law protected those complaining of discrimination but not the falsely accused. Then a 1978 ruling allowed successful plaintiffs to recover legal fees while defendants could not. A succession of civil rights bills passed with bipartisan support, expanding the scope of liability. The 1991 Civil Rights Act, for example, paved the way for class action lawsuits. This created a gold rush as civil rights lawyers targeted wealthy firms. The 5,000 discrimination claims filed with the EEOC in the ’70s ballooned to 100,000 by 2010. The endpoint was a suite of outlandish decisions, as when a judge ordered Tesla in 2021 to pay black claimants Owen and Demetric Diaz $15 million despite the fact the firm took punitive action against the (mainly African-American) employees who used racial slurs in Diaz’s presence.
Firms not only have to pay punishing sums, but are ordered by EEOC to train their employees in the latest EDI doctrine. Diversity training becomes a means for organizations to signal compliance and avoid liability. The steady devolution of lawmaking authority from Congress to administrators produces a paradoxical situation whereby organizations must violate the text of the law (non-discrimination) to satisfy activist interpretations of law. Colorblindness is now illegal, quips Hanania.
What really makes this book required reading, however, is its comprehensive blueprint for a political insurgency. Hanania argues that change must start with the Republican Party as the left currently has no incentive to reform. He identifies a series of “low-hanging” legislative actions to deliver maximum impact. A new Republican administration, he argues, should immediately amend two executive orders (11246 and 11478), banning affirmative action in federal hiring and contracts. It should issue executive orders defining disparate impact as limited to intentional discrimination. Civil rights rules should be changed to narrow the definition of discrimination to individual-level bias, abolishing the “structural discrimination” regime.
Meanwhile, Title IV and Title IX can be used to choke off anti-white, anti-male, and anti-Asian discrimination in schools and colleges. Conservative legal activists, adds Hanania, should bring a case to overturn Griggs v. Duke Power, ending disparate impact. They should target the 1978 Christiansburg Garment v. EEOC ruling, thereby enabling defendants as well as plaintiffs to collect legal fees. Red states should defund DEI bureaucracies and create legal causes of action so citizens can disincentivize bureaucratic activists from resisting the law. Longer-term, the EEOC and OFCCP should be abolished.
The woke regime is built on administrative innovation, notes Hanania, and can thus be swiftly unwound. His prescriptions are powerful and detailed, but why has the Right been asleep? The book explains how successive Republican administrations acquiesced in the leftward shift of the law because affirmative action, education, and free speech questions were not important to them. From 1964 until 2008, significant numbers of GOP Senators and congressmen voted with the Democrats. For instance, President Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 but 73 of 167 Republicans in the House voted with the Democrats to override his veto.
Republican politicians faced no NRA-style lobby to repeal affirmative action or limit the scope of civil rights. They feared being called racists in the press, and most were animated mainly by economic, religious, and foreign policy priorities. Only with polarization after 2008 did civil rights issues divide cleanly along party lines. This ended the creep of equality law, but did not reign in the administrators. Ultimately the course of the battle will turn on whether conservatives can mobilize around culture war issues and link this to a conservative policy movement akin to the Federalist Society’s legal activism. In order to defeat woke, it must become “as unthinkable for a red state to support race or sex preferences through taxpayer money as it would be to fund abortion.”
Where Hanania focuses on the incremental evolution of affirmative action and political correctness in government and organizations, Christopher Rufo concentrates on utopian cultural revolutionaries and their bottom-up conquest of education faculties and schools.
Rufo is a well-known conservative activist, filmmaker, and writer. He first made a name for himself on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, calling on President Trump to ban CRT in federal government training. He popularized the use of the term CRT to refer to a set of derivative pseudoscientific concepts such as “whiteness” and “systemic racism” which stem from a body of quasi-conspiratorial theories first formalised by Harvard law professor Derrick Bell and black feminist activists in the 1970s. As of this writing, 18 states have banned CRT or limited how race and sex can be taught in schools, with legislation pending in other Republican states and in many school boards. The teaching of critical race and gender theory is now an important wedge issue for the Republicans, playing a key role in Glenn Youngkin’s surprise gubernatorial victory in Virginia in 2021, and in the success of Ron DeSantis.
America’s Cultural Revolution is a stirring account of how revolutionary, often violent, Marxist radicals transposed their utopianism from the working class to racial (and later sexual) minorities. The book emphasizes the role of key historical figures and organizations with roots in the tumult of the 1960s: Herbert Marcuse and the Weather Underground, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, and Paolo Freire and his acolyte Henry Giroux. Rufo traces a direct connection between these revolutionaries and their latter-day exemplars, Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Rufo argues that these utopian intellectuals sought to capture society from below by commandeering institutions of socialization such as schools and universities. From this beachhead, they would spread to other meaning-making centres in what German Marxist Rudi Dutschke termed a “long march through the institutions.” Dutschke drew on the insights of the Frankfurt School and Antonio Gramsci, who posited that a cultural transformation was needed to re-educate people out of the hegemonic ideology of the capitalist regime. Only then could they acquire the political consciousness needed to overthrow the system and install socialism.
Rufo’s account begins with Marcuse, who, despairing of the Western working class, turned to the energy of Third World Socialism, Black Panther radicalism, and the 1968 student revolts for inspiration. Instead of the orthodox “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Marcuse dreamt of a “dictatorship of the intellectuals” who could join hands with “outcasts and outsiders” to make a revolution. In effect, he invited Marx’s lumpenproletariat into history. His One-Dimensional Man (1964) became a bible of the counterculture, and while his Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno reacted against the anti-intellectualism of young protestors, Marcuse embraced them as a harbinger of the new utopia.
Dubbed the “ideological leader of the New Left” by Weather Underground terrorist Bernadine Dohrn, Marcuse rubbed shoulders with their leadership and that of Black Panther radicals like H. Rap Brown. The rioting and vandalism in America’s inner cities in the late 1960s blighted neighborhoods and sent crime soaring, hindering black progress. Together, the Weathermen and black militants conducted some 4,330 bombings, resulting in 43 deaths. The Weather leadership gushed that it would have to kill 25 million people to achieve its aims. The organization styled itself the “white revolutionaries inside the oppressor nation” and their manifesto, Prairie Fire, spoke of the United States as founded on white supremacy and “white-skin privilege.”
Marcuse envisioned the university as the “first revolutionary institution,” the nerve centre from which the revolution would spread. As if on cue, many comrades settled into cozy academic sinecures. Dohrn landed at Northwestern, Bill Ayers, who bombed the Pentagon and the Capitol, wound up at Columbia, and Angela Davis, who participated in a courtroom siege that left the judge and three others dead, was handed a position at UCLA. Davis, a Black Panther, successfully recast herself as a latter-day runaway slave resisting a system of white supremacy.
Rufo convincingly draws a line between violent Panther radicalism and the Black Lives Matter movement. For instance, Panther leader Stokely Carmichael coined the concept of “institutional racism.” The Panthers’ Ten-Point program called for affirmative action, the release of “all Black and oppressed people” from jail, and the teaching of its revisionist racial ideology in schools. The Black Lives Matter movement of the 2010s merely reiterated these slogans, seeking to abolish the police and prisons while demanding “culturally relevant education.” BLM leader Patricia Cullors, meanwhile, studied with the Weather Underground’s Eric Mann and lauded the influence of Davis and the Panthers.
For Rufo, BLM in the 2010s represents Panther radicalism repackaged from masculine Black Power to feminine therapeutic victimhood. Guilt and shame replaced anger and fear as BLM sought to key into the new sensibility and mediascape. Its three-stage playbook, he observes, begins by anchoring on a symbolic event like a police shooting, then proceeds to charges of “systemic” racism or brutality as justified by radical academics on the basis of flabby bivariate statistics like death disparities. It concludes by calling for revolutionary actions like “defunding the police” and abolishing prisons. The predictable result is bloodshed and misery.
Force, in the guise of student occupations and emotional blackmail, has repeatedly won concessions from elite institutions. Protesters demanded the establishment of Black Studies departments, initially at San Francisco State University in 1968. Affirmative action arose in part in response to violence, creating positions for radicals like Eldridge Cleaver or Derrick Bell. Bell’s cynical approach to the Constitution, which interpreted its liberal universalism as a smokescreen for a hidden agenda of white supremacy, gave birth to CRT. Avowedly activist, the new paradigm openly prioritized politics over truth.
How did CRT reach the schools? For Rufo, the trail from academia to schools runs through the critical pedagogy of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian Maoist educator. Freire sought to “decolonise minds” with socialist propaganda, refusing to acknowledge the humanitarian and economic disaster of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Having failed in the developing world, he established contact with American academics in the 1980s, influencing leftists like Henry Giroux and his numerous disciples. Their campaign to promote Freire’s pedagogy of liberation was to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Giroux’s initial plan was to place a hundred like-minded radicals in academia. From there, the movement spread to encompass numerous institutes and publications. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writes Rufo, became ubiquitous in teachers colleges, the third most cited social science book of all time.
Rufo traces a direct link from Panther ideology through CRT to critical pedagogy. The end result was an explosion of CRT content in American education. California’s Ethnic Studies curriculum, for example, mainstreams the pseudoscientific idea of “structural racism” in the state’s public schools. Here was the institutionalization of Cleaver’s ecstatic 1960s observation that “growing numbers of white youth are repudiating their heritage of blood and taking people of color as their heroes and models.” For Rufo, the terminus of this doctrine of “white evil and black despair” is nihilism, a bureaucratic redistribution of property, and the destruction of the country’s founding ideals of equal treatment and individual liberty.
Rufo concludes with a call for a counter-revolution, a “new vocabulary” to overturn the narrative of American evil. Euphemisms must be exposed, DEI bureaucracies dismantled, and corrupt institutions broken up or abolished. America must dethrone the 1968 revolution and restore the spirit of 1776.
Revolutions or Institutions?
Hanania and Rufo greatly enhance our understanding of the woke phenomenon, but contain important omissions.
Rufo makes a convincing case that a cultural variant of revolutionary Marxism shaped the message and tactics of BLM and Antifa. It furnished the vocabulary and shock troops for the conquest of public education. Yet Rufo does not explain the demand side: why Angela Davis or Patricia Cullors were feted in the press, why universities fell over themselves to hire violent radicals, why a majority of Seattle voters supported defunding the police, and why so many young whites marched with BLM. Without the backing of left-liberals animated by a politics of compassion and guilt rather than revolution, the radicals would be screaming into the void.
Hanania’s institutional approach, meanwhile, smuggles culture through the back door on a number of occasions. One can easily imagine a scenario in which conservative bureaucrats and judges interpret civil rights laws narrowly. Judicial and administrative activism is therefore ideological, even if magnified by the left’s numerical dominance of administrative professions. The “culture is downstream of law” perspective similarly fails to explain why professors and corporations continued to push DEI even after affirmative action was scrapped, as in California, or curtailed, under Reagan.
Finally, neither book has much to say about pivotal left-liberal shifts in public consciousness. In my forthcoming book, for instance, I argue that the anti-racism taboo is a critical juncture that came to be expanded, weaponized, and transposed to other identities. How did “Chicano” morph into “Latinx,” and why did academics redefine bullying and trauma to encompass hurty words and life’s disappointments? Neither can be explained by cultural Marxism or civil rights law. Instead, they emerged from the incremental evolution of a left-liberal moral order.
The woke phenomenon lies at the center of a new culture war that is redefining American, and Western, politics. These books are indispensable for anyone hoping to understand it.