ANALYSIS: Wokeness has peaked, but it's not going anywhere, experts argue

Academics and research scientists are asking whether American culture has moved beyond 'peak woke' amidst a greater tolerance of heterodox ideas and as cancel culture is on the decline.

One expert, however, argues that so-called 'Awokenings' are cyclical and leave lasting changes in higher education and other institutions even after wokeness has peaked.

Academics and research scientists are asking whether American culture has moved beyond “peak woke.” 

Recent reports show greater tolerance of heterodox ideas as cancel culture and social justice-oriented research and journalism are on the decline. The reports also suggest, however, that this is not the last time that leftist ideas will exert an ideological stranglehold on education, major corporations, and the media. 

The so-called “Great Awokening” began around 2011 and “lasted about 10 years,” according to Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi. “In my forthcoming book, I show that there were three previous periods of rapid normative and discursive change (’Awokenings’) among knowledge economy professionals,” he told Campus Reform

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Al-Gharbi previewed his argument in February articles published by the Heterodox Academy (HxA) blog and Compact Magazine, as well as an extended analysis on his website. He suggests that, by almost every measure, the woke fervor is coming to an end. 

Other experts seem to agree. Analyses of tweets and articles in The New York Times, released by research scientist David Rozado in the same month, document the downward trend in buzzwords such as “sexism” and “systemic racism.”

In his blog Marginal Revolution, George Mason University Economist Tyler Cowen wrote on Feb. 19 that measures of wokeness do not depict “a world where woke will just keep on taking more and more ground.” Cowen pointed out that, as workers in the technology sector experience massive layoffs, jobs in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) “are taking the brunt of the blow.”

Before documenting the fall of wokeness, al-Gharbi’s analysis describes its rise: calls “to get people fired for saying the wrong thing,” “DEI initiatives,” and other markers of the Great Awokening among knowledge workers–those in fields like tech, finance, education, journalism, arts, entertainment, design and consulting (and students who aspired to these professions).”

He told Campus Reform that “’Awokenings’ are, at bottom, … a conflict between established knowledge economy workers and underemployed and aspirant knowledge economy workers.”

“People who are trying to establish themselves as elites but whose prospects do not match their aspirations lean on social justice discourse to condemn the system that failed them and to demand that existing elites be replaced by people like themselves,” he continued. 

The institutions where left-leaning knowledge workers have influence are showing signs that they are past peak wokeness, according to al-Gharbi’s analysis. Social media companies, for instance, are “reinstat[ing] the accounts of Trump and other controversial right-aligned personalities.” 

Left-leaning outlets are covering issues such as gender-affirming care for minors with more nuance and chiding their journalists when they criticize colleagues for not towing the ideological line. Al-Gharbi also noted “significant declines in the quantity of scholarship produced on identity-based bias and discrimination in recent years.” 

There are even “vibe” changes, he wrote, among Millennials and Gen-Zers who are tired of the humorlessness that accompanies wokeness. 

Al-Gharbi’s forthcoming book does argue that wokeness is cyclical, according to his interview with Campus Reform, so its decline could be temporary–if it is declining at all. 

Rozado’s analysis of tweets shows a rebranding of wokeness. Social justice-related words “with positive connotations,” such as “inclusion,” “equality,” and “safety,” are “not decreasing in prevalence on Twitter.”

Meanwhile, “racism,” “misogyny,” “homophobia,” and other words “suggestive of bad behavior/processes” show a moderate decline, according to Rozado’s “tentative hypothesis.”

“This suggests that the jury is still out in terms of whether the Great Awokening is winding down,” he wrote. 

Even when they do eventually come to an end, periods of Awokening exacerbate partisan politics. Al-Gharbi told Campus Reform that institutions including higher education and the media often shift to the left “in an enduring way.”

“However, they don’t tend to correlate with meaningful or enduring benefits for the genuinely marginalized, vulnerable or disadvantaged in society,” he added. 

Based on al-Gharbi’s argument, wokeness coincides with a similar fervor on the right. 

“We’re now seeing significant appeal for politicians like DeSantis,” al-Gharbi said. He described the way in which right-leaning voters–dissatisfied with the left’s capture of higher education, the media, and other institutions–will see “gains at the ballot box.”

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“[Awokenings] also often give rise to new right-aligned platforms … from think tanks (as an alternative to universities), to right-aligned television and other media outlets, to the current movements for right-aligned social media platforms,” al-Gharbi continued. 

“Many of these endure and exert cultural influence even after the right-aligned counter-movement itself runs out of steam.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly. 

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.