It feels decadent to turn one’s attention to the domestic American scene in the immediate wake of the Hamas onslaught against Israel, which as of this writing has claimed some 1,200 lives, most of them civilians, many of them women, children, and elderly. Still, it must be said: Events in the Middle East have revealed, more starkly than ever before, the moral squalor of the identity left—and thus opened space for a reformist new center in US politics.
Many of those who spent the last few years promoting #Defund, “intersectionality,” and similar concepts refused to condemn Hamas’s butchery—that is, when they didn’t celebrate it. The Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter tweeted, “I Stand With Palestine,” along with a picture of a paraglider, an allusion to how Hamas terrorists descended upon an outdoor party, murdering some 260 ravers. Yale American Studies professor Zareena Grewal declared: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America promoted a Times Square rally at which murderers were hailed as liberators.
The leaders of this left tendency now find themselves mumbling, backtracking, and awkwardly clarifying, while the Democratic establishment drops the hammer. In New York, site of the most consequential intra-Democratic squabbles, center-left officeholders led by Gov. Kathy Hochul have been taking turns slamming the DSA. Following a public outcry, at least one Harvard student group retracted its support for a statement that blamed Israel for the killings, while Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Mich.) renounced his DSA membership.
This turn is only the punctuation mark on a longer process of decline for the complex of ideas and practices that came to be known as “woke.” It may not feel like it from the vantage point of online culture warriors, to be sure, and any given day brings some new woke inanity that can’t but prompt eyerolls (“Researchers Say That LA’s Bird Species Are Remarkably Segregated,” reported the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday).
Nevertheless, as Stony Brook sociologist Musa al-Gharbi has argued in these pages, there is good reason to believe that woke is on the wane. Employers are increasingly telling employees who agitate the workplace with boutique identitarian concerns to take a hike. Netflix is rehabilitating once-banished comedians. The New York Times shrugged off a group letter criticizing its coverage of the trans movement for being insufficiently affirming, and the paper’s use of certain woke buzzwords, such as “structural racism,” is on a downward trajectory.
A logical consequence of this is the inexorable slide into irrelevance of anti-woke. Peak wokeness came in 2020 and 2021, which saw racial unrest coincide with a pandemic and lockdowns to create an especially febrile cultural atmosphere. In response, numerous celebrities, politicians, and media companies framed identity leftism as an existential threat (to classical liberalism, the West, Judeo-Christianity, or some mishmash of the three). If the anti-wokesters paid scant attention to the structural role of wokeness in neoliberal political economies, and yearned for little more than the restoration of the Lost Eden of 2013, it didn’t stop them from capturing eyeballs and subscription revenue.
More recently, it became harder to sustain the anti-woke economy—and that was before the identity left committed political seppuku by cheering Hamas. Ron DeSantis’s failed presidential bid was a telling datapoint. For the Florida governor, there seemingly was no issue, foreign or domestic, to which the answer wasn’t: Fight the Woke. If Twitter’s anti-woke stalwarts had set out to grow an ideal candidate in a laboratory, they couldn’t have done better than DeSantis—yet GOP voters continue to reject him in favor of Donald Trump, who, for all his faults, has confessed to being fed up with the right’s “woke” talk.
This is all no doubt tragic for those who bet media and political careers on endless anti-woke antagonism. But it’s good news for those who recognize that the country is badly in need of reform, and that in America, serious reforms always happen in the center—between left and right and in coalitions of mutual interests. For the Jacksonians, the reforming center consisted of Northern proletarians, Western and Southern smallholders, and aspiring capitalists who felt stymied by the established “money power.” For New Dealers, it was a combination of urban ethnic Catholics, farmers, and the reform-minded high gentry. The Great Society added African-Americans excluded by the New Deal. And so on.
As Michael Lind has argued, the politics of the reforming center aren’t the same as milquetoast “centrism.” It isn’t about merely splitting the difference between the existing left and right or a kind of “no-labels” politics. Rather, the reforming center is formed by groups with fundamentally opposing worldviews that nevertheless converge on a shared discontent, and are prepared to horse-trade and compromise toward comprehensive solutions.
Thus, for example, Republican populists concerned about family flourishing might form a reforming center with serious progressives to lift wages. Conservatives might be inspired by an older, patriarchal ideal, in which the labor market makes it possible for the sole breadwinner, typically the husband, to provide for the whole family—a vision that may well be anathema to the labor left. Nevertheless, the end result might be the revival of wage boards, collective bargaining, and similar means for generating a high-wage economy. Likewise, conservative reformers might come around to the left’s childcare proposals, provided family-based care is subsidized alongside federally funded centers for mothers who prefer to work outside the home. It isn’t a perfect win-win—it’s a win-enough.
Or consider the questions raised by the Hamas attacks. GOP nationalists and Democratic internationalists might disagree about the scope and purposes of US power. But both camps must agree that a new age of industrial warfare has dawned, and readiness means restoring American manufacturing capacity (and all that goes with it, not least industrial workforce development geared toward the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the new robotics). If they fret that Democratic industrial policy overemphasizes the green transition, Republican reformers will take a seat at the planning table and counter-propose constructive alternatives—rather than offer no plan at all, as is currently the case. Bipartisan industrial policy: win-enough, even if neither side is thoroughly satisfied.
The nation desperately awaits the rebirth of a Republican Party that is once more at peace with the scale of governance demanded by complex societies: the party of Eisenhower and Nixon. For now, much of this reforming energy would still come from center-left Democrats, our true party of government. But imagine how much more palatable and enduring the reforms would be if the Democratic Party’s leaders had the courage to once and for all extirpate those among them who pine for “decolonizing” Israel and America.