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The Weakness of Conservative Anti-Wokeness

Woke, Inc.:
Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam
by Vivek Ramaswamy
Center Street, 2021, 368 pages

In our political culture, there is no issue quite like wokeness. The conversation it provokes tends to be about everything and nothing at the same time. It is central to our politics because Republican resistance to it is perhaps the single greatest force binding the American Right together. And while the mass messaging of Democratic politicians tends to focus more on health care and jobs, in institutions that the Left con­trols, like academia, it punishes opposition to wokeness more stringently than any other heresy.

At the same time, the conversation is, in a sense, not actually about anything. CPAC can hold entire conferences on the theme of “cancel culture” without producing any real policy suggestions. Although at the state level, politicians will occasionally address narrow issues, like whether to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, there is no concrete anti-wokeness agenda that conservatives hope Republicans will implement the next time they return to power in Washington.

While voices on both left and right have argued that the United States is going through a cultural revolution more extensive than anything we have seen since the 1960s, it remains a kind of background noise to our political culture. Into this debate steps Vivek Ramaswamy with Woke, Inc., a book that combines features of an autobiography, a work on policy, and a cultural critique.

As a practicing Hindu, a son of immigrants, and a successful biotech founder—but also a conservative—his is a uniquely American story. And it is an endearing one, written by an author who is widely rumored to have a future in politics, with the kind of résumé and background that Republican strategists dream about. Indeed, as the party suffers a long-term brain drain among both its leaders and its voters that has only accelerated since 2016, intelligent conservatives should hope Ramaswamy has a future in their party. Unfortunately, however, when Ramaswamy puts forward policy suggestions for responding to our cultural drift toward identity politics and more stringent forms of speech restriction, he re­veals the larger shortcomings of the anti-wokeness movement.

Using Greed to Rein In Corporate Power

One of Woke, Inc.’s main targets is “stakeholder capitalism.” This is the idea that, contra Milton Friedman, corporations should not simply seek out the most profit, but serve the common good. Ramaswamy is strong­ly against the idea.

Corporations are an artificial creation of government, given special rights. Perhaps the most important of these is limited liability, which means that the owners of businesses do not (in general) have to worry about being financially responsible for any damages caused by the oper­ation of the business. If we did not have corporations offering such pro­tections, the argument goes, too few people would take the risk of starting a business.

The problem with these special rights is that corporations can become too powerful. One check on this possibility, whether intended as such or not, was to ensure that corporations were legally responsible to their shareholders, effectively mandating that they seek to maximize value for them. Paradoxically, greed could rein in corporate power, as it would put most kinds of social engineering and political activity in conflict with fiduciary duties. Of course, as Ramaswamy acknowledges, sometimes these fiduciary duties can incentivize antisocial behavior, but based on his own personal experience, he thinks such instances are rare. Moreover, even when it is good business to lobby for a narrow cause, only a small minority of political activity can plausibly be connected to a positive business outcome. In the author’s view, then, shareholder pri­macy limits corporate political activity, while the concept of stakeholder capitalism allows businesses to push a broad social agenda. As business moves away from the “Friedman Doctrine” and toward stakeholder capitalism, Ramaswamy worries about concentrated power, corporations cynically adopting political causes to distract from bad behavior, and what happens to social cohesion as more of life becomes politicized.

One of the most visible debates around growing corporate political activism concerns Big Tech censorship. Here, in contrast to politicians like Senator Josh Hawley, who have teamed up with left-wing activists to demand that government use antitrust as a cudgel with which to punish internet platforms, Ramaswamy sensibly urges caution. As Woke, Inc. points out, not only is the antitrust strategy legally questionable, but it would also do nothing about censorship, the issue that moti­vates most conservative concerns over the power of Big Tech in the first place. While Republicans may have other reasons to be angry at Big Tech, the direct link between antitrust and limiting censorship has yet to be established. Instead, Ramaswamy recommends conditioning Section 230 liability protections on corporations operating their platforms ac­cording to First Amendment principles—meaning that they can avoid liability for posts on their sites only as long as they do not censor constitutionally protected speech.

Fighting Woke Capital by Empowering the Woke

One could argue that shareholder primacy, which gained prominence in the 1980s and ’90s and remains the dominant principle of corporate management today, has done little to stem the rise of wokeness in recent years. Yet Ramaswamy’s arguments are logical and straightforward, and likely to find a favorable audience among conservatives. His other policy suggestions, however, are on shakier ground, and may even make the problems he identifies worse. Ramaswamy is a sharp critic of relatively unpopular woke excesses, but seems unwilling to directly confront the more challenging issues at their foundation. In the end, his policy ideas demonstrate why fighting the woke phenomenon is so difficult, and why politicians who have tried to do so have had little to show for their rhetoric, both in law and in the wider culture.

One of Ramaswamy’s main proposals is expanding civil rights law to cover political beliefs. He argues that this can be done without passing new legislation and relies on the kind of creative legal argumentation usually associated with those on the left who advocate for a “Living Constitution.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) already bans dis­crimination based on religion. Relying on Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the Supreme Court decision that wrote gender theory into federal law, Ramaswamy argues that if an employee can’t be fired for opposing gay marriage on religious grounds, a different person who has the exact same views, minus the religious beliefs, must have similar pro­tections. Otherwise, the law would give fewer protections to an indi­vidual based on the fact that they are secular, which is impermissible under the CRA. Similarly, Ramaswamy recommends that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) define wokeness as a religion, in which case an employer can’t force such beliefs onto work­ers.

While these suggestions are clever, they fundamentally miss the root causes of wokeness and the reasons why it has come to dominate our culture. To understand this development, it is necessary to explain a little bit about how we got here. The CRA is best known for ending Jim Crow and the right to privately discriminate. Yet as it evolved under various administrations and the courts, it also became the legal basis for enforcing ideas, practices, and behaviors across American institutions that have now morphed into what we call “wokeness.”

Building on the CRA, a series of Executive Orders forced institutions to become conscious of race and sex. The two most important of these were one issued by President Johnson in 1965 that imposed affirmative action requirements on government contractors, and another by Presi­dent Nixon in 1969 that did the same for the federal government. These actions coevolved with innovations coming out of the bureaucracy and the courts. Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) made it more difficult for employers to engage in any kind of hiring practice or performance evaluation that creates a disparate impact by race, in this case intelligence tests. The idea of a “hostile work environment,” also coming out of the CRA, ended up covering everything from the most egregious forms of sexual harassment to off-color jokes, and even political opinions. As Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin points out in his book Inventing Equal Opportunity (2009), the human resources bureaucracy, and ulti­mately the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) complex, arose in response to employers trying to make their way in a world where gov­ernment and the courts were always on the lookout for “discrimina­tion,” a term whose definition was unclear and continually expanding.

Notice the deep cultural effects that such laws and regulations were sure to have. To know whether a practice has a “disparate impact,” an employer must classify everyone they come into contact with through the interview process or on the job according to race and sex. Forms asking people to identify themselves became a normal part of the private and public sectors, and practically every decision an institution faced became a potential landmine. The HR bureaucracy created to manage all of this began to have its own interests and act accordingly.

The main components of wokeness can be traced to legal developments in the 1960s and 1970s: among them the ideas that disparities imply discrimination; that offensive speech must be curtailed; and that people must be conscious of race throughout their daily lives. Surely wokeness has intensified in recent decades, but civil rights law can help explain why no institution wants to be the one to stand up to woke mobs. If every other company is making investments in DEI and invit­ing critical race theorists to speak, how does it look if yours is the one business that does not? This can be seen as a collective action problem, in that while businesses would have fewer costs if they did not have extensive HR and diversity bureaucracies, every individual company has an incentive to do at least as much as everyone else to prove to governments and the courts (as well as NGO activists, elite university grad­uates, the media, and so forth) that they are sufficiently fighting “dis­crimination.” One way to understand the “Great Awokening” of the last decade is that culture, aided by social media, is finally catching up to fundamental assumptions of the law.

At the level of major institutions, ignoring race and sex is for all practical purposes illegal today. Fighting woke capital effectively, and also woke government and woke institutions more generally, would have to begin by changing that, and at the very least requiring explicit evidence of discrimination for there to be a violation of civil rights law.

Ramaswamy goes in the opposite direction, essentially thinking that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” But to protect conservatives, he needs to rely on the same courts and bureaucrats who created wokeness in the first place. These are the people who took the CRA, which explicitly banned discrimination based on race and sex, and interpreted it to mean that discriminating based on race and sex was mandatory through affirmative action. The doctrine of disparate impact takes it further, and often requires explicit and conscious discrimination against whites and men to ward off the possibility of even unintentional harm to women and minorities.

Thus, any attempt to protect political speech in the workplace will run up against already established civil rights law. And given what we know about institutions like the EEOC, it is not difficult to predict how this would end.

One can see this in the case of James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired for circulating a memo on differences between men and women. Ramaswamy presents this case to demonstrate why we need civil rights law to protect against political discrimination. What goes unmentioned is that Damore was employed in California, a state that already prohibits discrimination based on political views. He actually did sue on those grounds, and in response many legal observers argued that Google needed to punish Damore, because otherwise it could have been liable for creating a hostile work environment for women.

Eventually the case was settled, so perhaps it is good that California bans discrimination based on politics, and the plaintiff in this case was at least able to get some relief. Maybe it will make Google think twice the next time it wants to fire someone for political speech. But what is notable is that an antidiscrimination law applied to political beliefs has not stopped tech companies based in California from going woke. And I’m sure that Google still fears being sued for gender discrimination far more than it does angering the next white male engineer with a dissident opinion.

The fundamental problem with Ramaswamy’s solution is that it assumes that legal arguments are all that matter, rather than who is being empowered by a particular policy. Any expansion of civil rights law ultimately funnels power and resources to trial lawyers and the HR industry, along with bureaucrats in the EEOC and their equivalents at the state level. Make no mistake: defining practically every belief a person might have as “religious” in nature will only create more of a need for such people, both in government and in the private sector. This might be tolerable if someone had a plan to encourage more conservatives to go into fields like civil rights enforcement, but that does not seem like a realistic option.

It is easy to see why ideas like banning political discrimination can be so appealing. The civil rights movement is the closest thing America has to an object of national religious reverence. It is therefore much safer to argue that we haven’t gone far enough in ensuring nondiscrimination than to argue that we have gone too far. This is one reason why Republi­can politicians haven’t even been able to hint at realistic solutions to wokeness, despite the fact that it is probably the single issue that most animates their base. Conservatives’ acceptance of the worldview under­lying wokeness can also be seen in their recent adoption of talking points based on antidiscrimination principles to argue against vaccine mandates in the private sector.

A similar problem exists with Ramaswamy’s recommendation that the United States require national service during high school summer break as a way to bring the country together. He argues that exposing American students to people of different backgrounds and giving them a common mission will create a sense of appreciation and shared purpose. But the only institution that can rival the civil rights bureaucracy in the promotion of woke ideology is public education, which shapes Ameri­can youth according to the beliefs and ideas coming out of the most radical corners of academia.

A great accomplishment of the conservative movement has been making options like homeschooling and private schools more realistic for parents. Conservatives have shown little ability to constrain or reform left-wing bureaucracies, even when Republicans win elections. Thus, parents have come to realize that the answer to public school indoctrination is to avoid public schools. While elite liberal private schools have gone all-in on wokeness and grab most of the headlines in conservative media, many more private schools teach a Christian morali­ty regarding gender and sexuality that would be illegal in a typical public school.

As with civil rights law, it would be a fundamental mistake to go in the opposite direction and give government more control over people’s lives, in this case children. Who precisely would run the national service program? Who gets to decide what counts and what doesn’t? Most likely, it would end up like public education, which has become a constant battleground over culture war issues like gender ideology and critical race theory, with the Left usually winning. Ramaswamy suggests high schoolers work with the police, which would be embraced by one half of the country and seen as incipient fascism by the other. Liberals would surely have their own definitions of “national service” that con­servatives would find equally distasteful. Such a program would be fun­damentally in conflict with the author’s goal of depoliticizing American life, taking away summer as a respite from the culture war fights over exactly what government should have children do with their time.

In his discussions of stakeholder capitalism and Big Tech censorship, Ramaswamy argues that socially oriented corporations and stronger antitrust law only empower forces hostile to conservatism, like activist organizations and liberal lawyers. He should have applied this lesson—that who possesses authority can matter just as much as, if not more than, what an objective reading of the law would suggest—more broad­ly. Ramaswamy’s muddled approach reflects the larger dilemma faced by conservatives: On the one hand, the American Right has shown little appetite or aptitude for creating its own activist government to pursue conservative goals. On the other, its efforts to limit government bureaucracies may have strengthened corporations, but they have not empowered the private sector to become more conservative; in fact, business has gone in the opposite direction.

What’s the Problem with Wokeness?

For a work that centers around the problems with wokeness, Woke, Inc. tells us surprisingly little about why wokeness is bad. Yes, the author is concerned that it distracts and divides us, and that conservatives feel put upon by the ideological conformity demanded by major corporations. But one way out of that division is for the opponents of wokeness to simply give up. If two sides are fighting a war, the most natural path to peace is for the weaker side to lay down its arms, not for the one that’s winning to surrender. From the book, one never understands why that isn’t an option.

In some cases, Ramaswamy himself uses racial disparities as a justification for his own preferred policies. While he says he rejects theories of “systemic racism,” he argues for national service during the summer on the grounds that minorities fall further behind when they’re out of school. There are a few problems with this argument, most notably that it is unclear how most forms of national service would close any gap. (It is also unclear that kids doing worse on tests in the short run has much to do with real intellectual achievement anyway, since it is quite obvious that the function of schooling is mostly some combination of daycare and signalling.)

Putting that aside, once you justify a policy as necessary to close gaps, you beg the question of why you are not doing more to achieve equality. The fact of the matter is that liberals are not imagining differ­ences in test scores, income, and incarceration rates between racial groups. There is no evidence that government can realistically close these gaps, though it can force a more balanced distribution of jobs through affirmative action. If anti-wokeness is to mean anything, it must oppose such policies, and that is difficult to do while portraying the anti‑woke agenda as the one that will eliminate statistical disparities.

Ramaswamy’s arguments might have been more effective had he offered an alternative vision, such as one championing freedom and excellence. Sometimes, that will promote equality of outcomes, but often it will not, especially when the metrics are based on contrived census categories.

A Politically Convenient but Flawed Theory of Wokeness

Unwilling to acknowledge wokeness as rooted in civil rights law, or to question fundamental premises regarding the causes of inequality, Ramaswamy proposes a theory of its origins that is somewhat bizarre. The author echoes many on the populist right when he argues that wokeness was created in response to Occupy Wall Street. To distract people from demanding economic redistribution, this argument goes, corporate fat cats promoted activism focused on race, gender, and sexual orientation. This theory appears to be based on nothing but the observa­tion that Occupy Wall Street occurred before corporate wokeness took off. There is no evidence that any individual ever actually thought this way.

Nor does the theory even make sense on its own terms. Why would wokeness be a distraction from economic redistribution? Politicians and organizations that embrace identity politics also tend to be most in favor of redistribution. The Biden administration has been highly conscious of race (for example in its campaign rhetoric and cabinet selection), while also being to the left of the Clinton and Obama administrations on economics and government spending. At the same time, states with the most liberal racial and social policies tend to have the highest taxes on the rich, and those that share Ramaswamy’s opposition to identity poli­tics tend to create the most business-friendly environments. If corporations wanted to distract people with wokeness simply to benefit their own bottom line, why not encourage them to become Republicans, who at least want to cut their taxes?

Moreover, if wokeness does in fact distract people from pursuing socialism, then why shouldn’t conservatives support it? Ramaswamy is in the strange position of being a capitalist who is criticizing corporations for defending capitalism! If big business didn’t distract people with talk of systemic racism, maybe we would have a true socialist government, and our standard of living would collapse. When you combine the fact that Woke, Inc. does not present a strong case against wokeness with its implicit argument that wokeness saved capitalism, taking these ideas seriously would imply that conservatives should embrace gender ideology and policies designed to dismantle the patriarchy.

Readers might suspect that Ramaswamy does not have much confi­dence in his own story on the origins of wokeness. Nonetheless, it is a politically convenient theory, and it allows one to avoid the uncomfort­able questions about civil rights overreach and the actual causes of racial and gender inequalities.

Anti-Wokeness as Institutional Pluralism

Displacing a civic religion that has captured every major institution in the country is not going to be easy or come without political costs. Ideas like national service and applying antidiscrimination laws to political views seem achievable because they sound good and would likely poll well. But that does not mean they will be effective, and serious resistance to the cultural and legal trends that conservatives oppose will have to focus on the ultimate sources of the problem. Repealing the Civil Rights Act, as Christopher Caldwell recommends, is probably not realistic, and it would be a mistake to reject its original goal of eliminating state-sponsored racial discrimination. But some expansions of civil rights law, like disparate impact and hostile work environment, are easier targets, and many of the necessary changes can be done through the executive branch and the courts, where conservatives have a fighting chance.

Of course, rolling back civil rights law and supporting more school choice will not “solve” wokeness, any more than one can “solve” a perceived problem with conservative Islam in Afghanistan. A worldview that has captured every institution, from the federal government and health organizations to fashion magazines, is not going to be extracted from American society. There is no getting around the fact that liberals care more about politics and show higher levels of engagement. As long as this is true, institutions will respond to greater pressure coming from one side, both internal and external.

What rolling back civil rights law and supporting private education can do is create alternative spaces where conservative communities and institutions can at least survive, before potentially expanding and influ­encing the wider culture. This might be a depressing message, but when one side controls virtually everything, survival is the best any remaining opponents can realistically hope for in the short term. Given the current state of affairs, expanding the scope of civil rights law and national service move in the opposite direction, giving government bureaucrats more of a say in private affairs and over how children spend their time. That would mean fighting wokeness on its own territory, with a greater dependence on institutions where conservatives are heavily outnumbered.

The implications of this understanding of the causes of wokeness is that the conservative movement has to a certain extent gotten it right, even if it has not prioritized the issues that would be most effective in pushing back the cultural tide. School choice and stopping civil rights overreach should not simply be things leaders might get to once they’ve enacted the latest tax cut or launched a new war. If the American Right is actually motivated by cultural concerns, then conservatives need to pressure their leaders to reflect their own priorities, not those of the donor class, and develop coherent policy approaches to achieve them.

To date, this has for the most part not occurred, and the failure to connect cultural concerns to policy goals could be seen throughout the Trump presidency. In particular, how did the anti-PC president do so little on affirmative action, given the extent to which the entire system rests on executive orders? Moreover, the Covid-19 crisis, the behavior of teachers unions, and the demand for stimulus created a once-in-a-life­time opportunity to take money out of the hands of public education and give it to parents. Instead, GOP leaders and conservative pundits did little more than demand that public schools reopen, and although some Republicans did argue for school choice, President Trump ended up signing two stimulus bills worth over $3 trillion that did practically nothing to advance their causes. Under Biden, many Republicans have given their assent to further Covid stimulus without getting much in return. In fact, the bills have given more money to public schools, even as teachers unions continue to demand over-the-top safety measures and less in-person learning, making the United States an outlier among developed nations in the extent to which it has allowed Covid-19 to disrupt the lives of children.

The Trump administration, to its credit, killed an effort to add a Middle East category to the census. Any gain in statistical knowledge from more fine-grained classification would have been outweighed by the creation of a new victim group and the lawsuits and handwringing over inequalities that would result. The existence of the category of “Asian American Pacific Islander” and the refrain #StopAAPIHate show the extent to which government categorization can shape culture. A true anti-wokeness agenda would go a step further, however, with the understanding that the less government knows about the racial makeup of the population, the better. Countries like France and Canada, where governments and institutions are less likely to or sometimes even banned from collecting racial data, tend to be less prone to woke excess­es.

The Supreme Court in recent years has given more room to religious freedom, and some of the decisions in this area should be applauded. But understanding the evolution of civil rights law should make conservatives dread the ultimate implications of Bostock. If wokeness is a big enough social problem to make it a central concern of the conservative movement, then conservative jurists must be willing to defend the view that the right to privately discriminate on some matters of identity is a much lesser evil than giving activists and bureaucrats more tools with which to shape institutions according to their values. Whether the conservative movement sees the current LGBT agenda as something like the pre-1964 civil rights movement, with a minority justifiably fighting for basic rights, or the post-1964 movement, involving increasing infringements on the freedom of others, matters a great deal to how it approaches issues like legislation and court decisions surrounding transgender issues.

It is beyond the scope of this review to show what a comprehensive anti-wokeness agenda would look like. For now, conservatives must realize a few basic points: wokeness is rooted in civil rights law; the public education system shapes the culture; politicians can be held accountable for what they do about wokeness; any victory will be limited given the power disparities between the Right and Left; and the Right must move in the direction of more institutional pluralism, not less.

The Need for a New Conservative Elite

Ramaswamy deserves credit for at least trying to advance the discussion surrounding wokeness in a serious way. That is more than can be said about most politicians and media figures on the right concerned with these issues, who are more cultural commentators than serious thinkers.

Perhaps it is too much to expect Ramaswamy to come out of the biotech world with fully formed ideas about the relationship between civil rights law and modern wokeness. This is something that conservatives should have spent the last half century educating people about, and yet they have fundamentally failed. Criticisms of the excesses of the 1960s tend to occur at the most abstract level—blaming the Frankfurt School or “Cultural Marxism,” while mostly ignoring American law—or simply rewriting history to pretend that civil rights was a movement that came from the political Right, having only been recently corrupted by liberals rather than one that sought equality of outcomes from the beginning.

More broadly, opposition to wokeness has suffered from two inter­related flaws: lack of human capital and lack of ideas. Conservative politicians and media personalities who make wokeness a defining issue for their audiences tend to be the least substantive people on the right. There is therefore a vicious cycle, in which the anti-woke are poor thinkers, so they have flawed ideas that they present in unappealing ways, which leads to a selection problem in which more individuals with bad ideas join them.

Intelligent people can adopt new ideas, while the incompetent and the cynical are less likely to correct their flaws. Wokeness has won for a variety of factors, not the least of which is the low capabilities and poor strategy of its opponents. Those on the left who want to raise taxes, enact gun control measures, or expand access to abortion meet fierce resistance from the other side. People with conservative views on these issues have been able to organize and make their voices heard in the political process.

The same cannot be said for opponents of identity politics and cancel culture, despite the important role they play in right-wing media. Con­servatives know something is wrong, but they do not know how to fix it. Republican politicians have therefore gotten the best of all worlds in recent decades: they can rail against liberal social engineering, without their voters expecting them to actually do anything about it.

The failures of the Trump era have made clear that elites exercise an outsized influence on policy and culture, and a party that is capturing a small and shrinking share of that elite has no hope of creating the kind of society it wants, no matter how often it wins elections. Given this reality, recruiting and appealing to people who are smart and idealistic has to be a top priority for those hoping to create a healthier and more effective political Right.

Ramaswamy clearly meets both of those criteria, which is more important than having the policy details of an anti-wokeness agenda perfectly worked out as he dips his toes into the political water. I hope he one day plays an integral role in a new conservative elite that not only recognizes the problems the country faces, but is willing and able to do something about them. If at some point Ramaswamy wants to make opposition to wokeness central to his political career, and be the first major thinker in the Republican Party to put forth substantive ideas on how to resist it, the path is certainly open.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 4 (Winter 2021): 171–83.

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