Republican are leaning on the term “woke” to lambast out-of-touch liberalism run amok, but Americans don’t agree on what the word means.
A plurality of Americans (40%) would consider it an insult to be called woke, including 42% of independents and 60% of Republicans, according to a recent national survey. That’s compared to 32% of Americans that would feel complimented if called woke, with 46% of Democrats and 32% of independents responding that way.
The USA Today/IPSOS poll also revealed that 56% of Americans define the term as someone “informed, educated on or aware of social injustice.” Another 39% said the term describes someone who is “overly politically correct and police others’ words.”
The pollsters didn’t elaborate on where was the overlap of Americans who define woke as “informed, educated on or aware of social injustice” and also felt it was an insult.
“Woke is a zingy, catch-all term. It’s used to describe anything that fits a far-left agenda,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist who works with Young Americans for Liberty to mobilize center-right youth voters. “But by being so broad, much like critical race theory, it becomes difficult to identify exactly what it means and so you wind up with multiple definitions.”
In conservative circles, anything can be labeled woke. Corporations and the entertainment industry that show support for transgender individuals are deemed woke. So are Big Tech companies, climate change activists and medical professionals that urged vaccination and mask-wearing during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who says his state is where “woke goes to die,” defines the term as “slang for activism” as well as “a general belief in systemic injustice.”
Democrats interpret the term differently, saying it has nothing to do with ideology.
“You never hear Democrats or progressives identify as woke,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “We use terms like progressive or moderate.”
Woke along with “awake” became popular among Black civil rights activists in the early 1920s. Both terms were used to urge black Americans to be cognizant of injustice as well as threats posed because of their race.
“Stay woke,” in particular, became famous via a 1938 song named “Scottsboro Boys” by Black folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. The song tells the story of nine Black teenagers who were convicted for allegedly raping two White women in Alabama in 1931.
Despite scant evidence, nearly all of the teenagers were convicted and sentenced to death. While each would eventually be released, the case sparked widespread outrage within the Black community.
“I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open,” Ledbetter, who is better known by his stage name, Lead Belly, sings in the song.
The term woke was similarly used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It fell off in the early part of the 21st century, before being revived in the mid-2010s by the Black Lives Matters movement.
During former President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, the word was adopted by Republicans and conservative pundits to describe the ideological agenda of the far left.
“Woke had a specific meaning among Black activists, but if you weren’t part tuned into that movement, you wouldn’t know the term,” said Shana Kushner Gadarian, a professor of political opinion and communications at Syracuse University. “Once political leaders and the media began using the term, it gained wider exposure. That explains why there are conflicting views of what the word really means.”
The GOP’s appropriation of the term has largely worked as evidenced by the plurality of Americans who consider it an insult.
The word also is viewed more favorably by younger voters than older voters, more than a third of whom (38%) say they don’t know what “woke” means.
Among Americans aged 18 to 34, 43% said they view woke as a compliment, compared to 23% of those aged 50 to 64 and 19% of Americans 65 and older.
Americans aged 50 to 64 are also more likely than younger voters to view wokeness as being overly politically correct, with 48% holding that view. By comparison, 33% of those aged 18 to 34 and 37% of those aged 35 to 49 had that same definition of woke.
The vast majority of Democrats — 78% — said being woke means being informed, while 56% of Republicans said it means being overly politically correct. Compared to Democrats and Republicans, independents were more divided on the definition with 51% saying it involves being informed and 45% saying it means being overly politically correct, according to the pollsters.