Opinion | Is ‘Peak Woke’ Behind Us or Ahead?

No figure is more associated with the ideological revolution that shook elite American institutions in the Trump era than Ibram X. Kendi, the scholar of racism and the definer of “antiracism” as a worldview unto itself. So there’s a symbolic weight to the news that Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, funded by a lavish gift from the Twitter founder Jack Dorsey back in 2020, will be laying off 15 or 20 staff members — confirming the sense (among many liberals, especially) that “peak woke” is behind us, and the revolution has run its course.

Has it? By some definitions, yes. The wave of cancellations and resignations and public-monument removals has receded. The attempts to use “woke capital” to effect progressive change have met strong resistance, and corporations are losing enthusiasm for a vanguard role.

Meanwhile, there is more intellectual and political energy in anti-wokeness now, evident not just in backlash in red states but in this autumn’s roster of new books, which includes critiques of social justice ideology from the socialist left, the center left and the right. The Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action has created new legal roadblocks for Kendi-style progressivism. The mood in elite journalism is less ideologically committed and more skeptical and critical.

But any rollback is also unevenly distributed. I’ve written before about why progressive orthodoxies seem stronger in academia than in the media, but anyone who wants to understand that dynamic should read my colleague Michael Powell’s recent report on so-called diversity statements in higher education. These exemplify a different aftermath for “peak woke” — not the ideology’s retreat, but its consolidation and entrenchment.

Powell’s story starts with Yoel Inbar, a psychology professor who lost a potential job at the University of California at Los Angeles after a group of graduate students protested his opposition to requirements that academic job candidates detail their commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Professor Inbar, a political liberal, had dutifully filled out such a statement himself. But from the perspective of the graduate students, mere compliance was insufficient; his principled critique of the practice made him ideologically unacceptable.

Inbar’s personal story seems like a classic cancellation. But what my colleague’s reporting makes clear is that the spread of diversity statements isn’t really a mechanism to flush out and cancel noncomformists. It creates conformity more invisibly, by training would-be academics to advertise themselves as ideological team players and by screening out job candidates who don’t quite understand the rules of progressive discourse — who imagine, for instance, that advertising their desire to “treat everyone the same” is an adequate anti-racist commitment.

The counterargument is that diversity is an apolitical concept — who could be against it? But imagine that nearly half of America’s large universities, in response to ideological pressure groups, began asking job candidates to produce a statement affirming American patriotism — just as an apolitical concept, folks, something we can all agree is good. And then further imagine that it became clear that some answers — “I think dissent is patriotic,” or even “I love America because it’s a nation of immigrants” — were often penalized as insufficiently patriotically correct.

Most liberals would regard this as rank McCarthyism — or arguably even worse than McCarthyism, since the McCarthy-era loyalty oaths at, for instance, the University of California required only a generic affirmation of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, not a statement of positive ideological belief.

Yet an equivalent exercise in ideological policing has thus far raised strong resistance mostly from red-state governors, tenured troublemakers and free-speech organizations; the liberal professoriate writ large has gone along with it.

There are two points to draw out of this situation. The first is about the present: Many free-speech-oriented liberals have been eager to pivot from worrying about an illiberal left to criticizing the excesses of red-state governors and school boards. But so long as bastions of liberal intellectual life are governed by ideological loyalty oaths, that pivot can only be partial, and Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott can always point a finger back.

The second is about the future. In the Trump years we saw that in an atmosphere of political emergency, when fear of populism or authoritarianism organized every left-of-center thought, many liberals struggled to resist demands of ideological fealty made by movements to their left.

Now the emergency mentality has retreated, and resistance and skepticism are easier. But what if it comes back, whether under a Trump restoration or in some other form?

In that scenario, today’s entrenchment of ideological conformity surely bodes well for tomorrow’s would-be enforcers. If liberals accept loyalty oaths under calm conditions, what will they accept in an emergency? Probably too much — in which case the next peak of wokeness will be higher, the next revolution more complete.