Why Power Is Getting Woke

The point of politicizing everything is to make you forget what real politics is.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is one of the nation’s top diplomats, second only to the Secretary of State. And one of the most basic, fundamental duties of a diplomat, especially at such a high level, is to manage the image and reputation of a country throughout the rest of the world. And that’s no small or superficial task — a country’s reputation and public image is a core part of its foreign policy. Often referred to in more academic circles as “soft power,” the positive attitudes and feelings that both the leaders and average citizens of foreign nations have toward a country’s culture, people, and political system are one of its major tools for influencing global affairs and managing international conflicts. And it’s generally believed that the more soft power a country has, the less it has to rely on more coercive “hard power” measures like military action, economic sanctions, etc.

So with that in mind, consider the recent controversy-generating comments made by President Biden’s newly appointed UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in a remote address:

I have seen for myself how the original sin of slavery weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles. But I also shared these stories to offer up an insight, a simple truth I’ve learned over the years: Racism is not the problem of the person who experiences it. Those of us who experience racism cannot, and should not, internalize it, despite the impact it can have on our everyday lives. Racism is the problem of the racist. And it is the problem of the society that produces the racist. And in today’s world, that's every society. In America that takes many forms. It's the white supremacy that led to the senseless killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other black Americans. It's the spike in hate crimes over the past three years against Latino Americans, Sikh, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, and immigrants. And it's the bullying, discrimination, brutality, and violence that Asian Americans face every day, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19. That's why the Biden administration has made racial equity a top priority across the entire government. And I'm making it a real focus of my tenure at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

The reason I highlight these comments now is not to litigate them directly, however controversial they are. And they indeed remain controversial, on multiple levels, despite what feels like a thorough cultural revolution in every institutional power center in the country. But I think in this instance there is far more to be learned by setting aside that debate, resting your culture war trigger finger for a moment, and instead asking the question: What on earth could possess America’s UN ambassador to decide to broadcast the message that America is a deeply racist country down to its bones? Even if you were to accept some, or maybe even all, of what she’s saying as being true, what sort of powerful incentives could convince a top diplomat to engage in a highly controversial debate that not only has nothing to do with her job, but is in fact quite literally the opposite of her job description? How did we get here?

Wokeness isn’t radical, it’s repressive

One thing to know about Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is that she isn’t exactly a radical activist storming the gates of power. She is power. Prior to becoming the UN ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield was a Senior Vice President at a “global business strategy” firm called Albright Stonebridge Group, an international lobbying and PR firm for multinational corporations and financial institutions, and perhaps the most powerful and influential of its kind. It was founded and is chaired by former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The main service it offers is to help the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporate and non-governmental entities navigate political and regulatory hurdles in foreign countries (often very poor countries: Thomas-Greenfield headed their Africa practice).

But perhaps an even better example of this phenomenon is the very man who appointed Thomas-Greenfield: President Biden. In the nearly half century he spent in political office before assuming the presidency, Joe Biden wasn’t exactly known for being a social justice crusader. From his tough on crime focus, anti-busing stance, and drug war hawkishness to his open affection for colleagues who were former segregationists and his trademark habit of making politically incorrect gaffes, Biden was about as unwoke of a politician as they came. But that all now seems to have completely reversed: It feels as if not a day goes by where Biden isn’t heard decrying the country’s “systemic racism” while branding every new initiative as a step toward achieving the newly fashionable concept of “equity.”

And while he might be the most high profile (and perhaps most consequential) example, Biden’s overnight conversion characterizes a broader elite “awokening” that seems to have infected nearly an entire leadership class. What could explain all of it?

It’s extremely common to find critics of “wokeness” and critical race theory decrying it as a radical activist- and academic-driven plot to upend the basic foundations of American society. And while it certainly does like to present itself that way, and is even believed to be exactly that by its most true believers, it’s an analysis that fails to explain why every Fortune 500 company, establishment politician, media executive, and entertainer has become an evangelist for these ideas. After all, radicalism is about threatening and upending existing power structures. What we’re seeing now is quite the opposite. Far from seeing these ideas as a threat, the existing power structure is enthusiastically adopting them as something of a ruling class ideology. So unless you think all of these people are critical theory sleeper cells who are just now being awakened to carry out a plot decades in the making, the more likely explanation is that not only are these ideas compatible with power, but something about them must actually lend themselves to protecting and even enhancing that power. In other words, it’s an ideology that seems much more suited not to radicalism, but to the opposite: repression.

The privatization of politics

One of the most conspicuous things about woke politics is that it politicizes everything. It inserts politics into every space, interaction, and relationship. It problematizes, deconstructs, and dismantles. It calls out and it cancels. And above all, it personalizes politics. But in doing so, it redefines politics itself away from something that takes place in the public sphere — as a way of taking collective action to solve public problems and hold powerful people and institutions accountable — and instead into a matter of personal morality, behaviors, and actions. It privatizes, diffuses, and decentralizes politics. Something that we used to do collectively with a set of defined common purposes with clear objectives is increasingly becoming something we do in the office, with our friends and family members, or while sitting alone at home on the internet.

Woke politics makes politics less about what powerful people do, and more about what everyone does. Sometimes it’s even about what dead people did, in which case we might take down a statue if there is one, or just call for a “reckoning” (whatever that is).

But at a certain point, this stops looking like politics at all, and instead a sort of “anti-politics” — something that diverts energy and attention away from traditional political activity and toward something completely different. And when you see the most powerful people in society, from CEOs to elected officials — the people for whom politics is explicitly an accountability and power-limiting mechanism — championing and encouraging this trend, it has to make you wonder at least a little bit: Maybe the point of politicizing everything is to make you forget what actual politics is?

The “awokening” of our elites is also an unburdening

In many ways, I think we can view this woke political moment as the “gig work” revolution arriving at the doorstep of politics itself: Shifting the moral burden of governing a nation and solving its problems away from the people and institutions who hold the power and authority to actually do so and instead onto the masses themselves. It is now all of us who must “do the work.” Where public servants once faced politics as a force for accountability, they can increasingly now passively preside over a country as it educates itself, recognizes its privilege, and “reckons” with its past. Corporations that once existed in a fundamental tension with a political sphere that had the power to regulate them now see that sphere contracted to make way for a privatized political realm that requires them only to emblazon the latest slogan on their marketing materials. Celebrities who once faced scrutiny for their impact on mass culture and can now easily plug into the latest hashtag and effortlessly assume the mantle of moral influencer.

Instead of antagonizing power and holding it to account, wokeness makes it invisible. It flattens everyone, elite and not, into fellow participants in a national religion, one in which those with power merely serve as a ceremonial priesthood whose sole responsibility is to ensure faithful observance. The great “awokening” of America’s elites is also something of a great unburdening — an unburdening from the responsibilities, accountability, and scrutiny that comes with power. Ultimately, it’s an unburdening of a leadership class from a country and its people. The question is: Can any country survive that?

To be continued.

This is the first in a series on this topic, some of which will only be available to INQUIRE subscribers. If you haven't already, subscribe now.