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In September 2023, Harper Collins published Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics, two months after Christopher Rufo’s America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. Both these books tackle the same issue: the US’s Leftist cultural direction, especially since 2015, and what Matthew Yglesias termed the “Great Awokening” in 2019. Razib recently interviewed both authors, and today we release the first of two conversations over consecutive days so listeners can reflect on Hanania and Rufo’s divergent perspectives on one of the major themes of American political culture in the 2020’s.
First, Razib talks to Hanania, who holds a J.D. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from UCLA, about The Origins of Woke. Befitting his legal education, much of the book delves into the knock-on consequences of 1960’s legislation, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Hanania articulates the view that “wokeness” can be defined by the idea that any variation in outcome between groups must be ascribed to discrimination and that entertainment of alternative views (for example, that groups have different aptitudes and/or preferences for specific fields) is tantamount to racism. The Origins of Woke touches upon sex discrimination and the emergence of queer identity politics, but Hanania believes that the central through-line between the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the modern woke era is the black-white racial division in the US, and the fight for racial equality before the law morphing into a campaign for total equity of outcome in all domains of life. Synthesizing his background in law and political science, Hanania argues that a combination of vague initial legal frameworks and an activist bureaucracy have enabled the sharp detour from the original drafters’ intent with civil rights legislation instead into a total revolution of norms. He also points out that much of the framework for the woke revolution was put in place under the conservative Nixon administration, a pattern observed by Pat Buchanan in his 1975 book Conservative votes, liberal victories: Why the right has failed.
One of the major contentions of The Origins of Woke is that excessive focus on Andrew Breitbart’s assertion that “politics is downstream” of culture has led the Right down the wrong path to de facto defeatism. Hanania discusses how the “marketplace of ideas” model ultimately fails given the Left’s capture of all institutions that would arbitrate issues around the culture war. Rather, Hanania clearly believes that the path to the rollback of woke norms across the broader culture is through politics, and in particular the Republican party fully embracing its role as a reactive force against the American legal regime that was seeded in the 1960’s.