I’ve written about aspects of the Great Awokening several times in this newsletter. But what exactly is the Great Awokening? I would describe it as the rapid adoption of woke ideology by journalists, academics, politicians, business leaders and other elites in the English-speaking world, beginning in around 2012. But that begs the question: what is woke ideology?
I’ve previously defined it as a belief system “which sees identity groups like sex and race as the primary units of society; which attributes to some groups the status of victims and to others the status of oppressors; and which posits that various ‘structural’ and ‘systemic’ forces stymie members of the former groups while conferring ‘privilege’ on members of the latter”.
Of course, these aren’t the only tenets of woke ideology, but I’d say they’re the most important ones. Another element of woke ideology, which follows logically from the propositions above, is a fierce hostility to any claims about biological differences between groups. Sexes and races are held to be “social constructs” that society has made and can remake. Hence woke ideology is to some extent a culmination of the centuries-old leftist project of breaking down “arbitrary” social barriers in the name of equality. (First it was nobility; then class; now it’s gender and race.)
However, there are some complications. For example, although sex and race are both “social constructs”, transgenderism (going from one sex to another) is considered good, whereas transracialism (going from one race to another) is very bad. Note that even going from the “oppressor” gender (male) to the “victim” gender (female) is permissible within woke ideology. But woe betide anyone going from an “oppressor” race (white) to a “victim” race (black). The woke have yet to provide a satisfying explanation for this contradiction.
Okay, woke ideology’s a recognisable thing, you might say. But is the term ‘Great Awokening’ really justified? Aren’t we just talking about a gradual change in culture, associated with rising tolerance, openness and diversity? In short, no; since the change has not been gradual. As I’ve argued previously, the Great Awokening constitutes the most rapid change in elite culture in recent history (possibly ever). I will now go through six quantitative indicators that illustrate the pace and suddenness of this change.
Social attitudes among white liberals/Democrats
The first indicator is social attitudes among white liberals/Democrats in the United states. (Note that the following charts were taken from an article by Eric Kaufmann, and were I believe originally created by Zach Goldberg.) As the first chart indicates, between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of white liberals who disagree with the statement that blacks should work their way up without special favours went from about 23% up to 46%. In 2016, white liberals were therefore more likely than blacks to disagree with this statement.
As the next chart indicates, between 2012 and 2018, the percentage of white Democrats who say they’d like to see immigration increased went from less than 20% up to 56%. Once again, white Democrats are now substantially more pro-immigration than non-white Democrats in general, as well as black Democrats in particular.
In a separate analysis, Pew Research has shown that supporters of both main parties have shifted away from the centre on social attitudes over the last fifteen years. (Democrats have moved left, while Republicans have moved right.) However, the shift among Democrats on issues relating to identity groups – notably racial minorities – has been particularly stark. And in this article, The Economist notes that both white and non-white Democrats have become substantially less favourable to white people (measured on a feeling thermometer) since the late 2000s.
Left-right tilt of Democratic Party manifesto
The second indicator is the left-right tilt of the Democratic Party manifesto. The chart below (taken from this article) is based on data from the Manifesto Project. Researchers code manifestos for the presence of traditionally left-wing themes and traditionally right-wing themes, allowing them to assign each manifesto an overall score on the left-right axis. For example, the phrase “an economy that gives everyone a chance” is coded as left-wing, whereas the phrase “self-discipline and enterprise” is coded as right-wing.
The chart above indicates that the Democratic manifesto moved substantially to the left between 2009 and 2016, whereas the Republican manifesto pretty much stayed put. It should be noted that, even in 2016, the Democratic manifesto was only positioned slightly to the left of the median Western party. However, this presumably reflects the fact that, while the Democratic Party is quite centrist on the economy (when it comes to tax rates and regulation), it is one of the wokest parties in the world with respect to identity issues.
Left-right position of Supreme Court justices
The third indicator is the left-right position of US Supreme Court justices. The chart below (taken from here) is based on data published by two political scientists, Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn. These researchers derived a moving ideological-position rating for each justice, based on whether the relevant individual voted to affirm or reverse in a case, and which other justices voted to affirm or reverse in that case. The researchers’ method is somewhat arcane, and is not without its limitations (see here for a good explanation and critique).
Nonetheless, Martin-Quinn scores are sufficiently good measures of ideology that they have been featured in the The Economist, the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight, and the original paper has been cited over 1,400 times. Overall, they suggest that liberal justices have shifted to the left over time, whereas conservative justices have more or less stayed put (with the exception of Roberts, who has shifted to the centre). This isn’t the most compelling indicator of the Great Awokening, but it’s consistent with the other evidence.
Speaker disinvitation attempts at US universities
The fourth indicator is speaker disinvitation attempts at US universities. The chart below (taken from this article) plots the number of attempts made by students and/or faculty to have a speaker disinvited from giving a talk on campus between 2000 and 2017. It’s based on data collected by FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The blue lines correspond to attempts made by left-wing activists; the pink lines to attempts made by right-wing activists.
As the chart indicates, the number of attempts made by right-wing activists has remained constant at a relatively low level. By contrast, the number of attempts made by left-wing activists has increased over time, particularly since around 2012. In his recent report for the Centre for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, Eric Kaufmann plotted the data up to 2019, and observed that the number of attempts made by left-wing activists remained elevated in 2018 and 2019 (albeit at a slightly lower level).
Google search interest for woke terms
The fifth indicator is Google search interest for woke terms. The chart below (taken from this article by Zach Goldberg) plots the level of search interest for nine key phrases in the woke lexicon between between 2004 and 2019. It shows the average number of searches for each term over the time period in question, relative to all searches made over that time period. In each case, search interest rose in the mid 2010s, suggesting that the relevant concepts became more ingrained in the public mind.
Of course, these aren’t the only terms for which search interest has risen over time. Others that have seen a particularly dramatic increase in search volume include: ‘implicit bias’, ‘intersectionality’, and ‘cultural appropriation’. (You can try out your own searches here.) Again, this particular indicator isn’t as compelling as some of the others, but it fits with the overall picture.
Newspaper word usage frequencies
The sixth indicator, which I would call the pièce de résistance, is newspaper word usage frequencies. (Note that the following charts were taken from a recent paper by David Rozado, Musa Al-Gharbi and Jamin Halberstadt; though similar ones have been published by Zach Goldberg.) As the first chart indicates, the frequency with which the New York Times and the Washington Post (the two most prominent US newspapers) use various woke terms has skyrocketed since 2010. In 2019, for example, the NYT used ‘white supremacy’ 4196% more than nine years before.
The second chart indicates that this tendency is not unique to America’s “newspapers of record”. It shows the same trends averaged across 47 popular media outlets (including both left and right-wing sites). Once again, the increase in use of terms like ‘white supremacy’, which were previously almost unheard of, is genuinely remarkable. Even well known terms like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ have increased in usage by over 200% in just the last nine years.
Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that the actual amount of racism, sexism and “white supremacy” has increased to anything like the same extent as the lines in these charts. In fact, many attitudinal measures of racial prejudice (such as willingness to vote for a black president) have been decreasing over time. And as you probably remember, there was a black president from 2008 to 2016. One therefore can’t explain the changes in word usage frequency as a straightforward response to rising prejudice in the wider society.
The Great Awokening is the most rapid cultural shift in the English-speaking world in modern times. It has given us Social Justice, cancel culture, Diversity Inclusion and Equity, the decolonisation movement, Black Lives Matter, and a whole lot more. The pace and suddenness of the Great Awokening are evident in six quantitative indicators: social attitudes among white liberals/Democrats; the left-right tilt of the Democratic Party manifesto; the left-right position of Supreme Court justices; speaker disinvitation attempts at US universities; Google search interest for woke terms; and newspaper word usage frequencies.
Image: Tony Webster, The fallen Christopher Columbus statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol, 2020
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written three more posts since last time. The first asks whether we should be surprised that case numbers have been falling in England. The second notes that one of the world’s leading coronavirus experts has said, “If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2, your luck may eventually run out.” The third notes that, in terms of excess mortality, Europe’s third wave was a blip.
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Could much of this quick adoption be due to the fact that affluent, progressive Americans are not much affected (economically, for example) by the changes?
Immigration for example, brings the promise of cheaper household labor, and also labor in general as its supply goes up via legal and illegal immigration. However, it does affect working class people of any color.
Corporations, too, can use wokeness as a great corporate reputational laundering tool. And unlike Occupy Wall Street, it really does not ask much of corporate business models. At least no yet. One could go on.
Identity, seems to me, is a mask that class wears to obscure itself.