Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Is Attacking ‘Wokeness’ Ron DeSantis’s Superpower—Or His Kryptonite?

It turns out that swing voters are kind of meh about the War on Woke.
by Rich Thau
January 26, 2023
Is Attacking ‘Wokeness’ Ron DeSantis’s Superpower—Or His Kryptonite?
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

On January 3, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spent nearly an eighth of his inaugural address—a full 198 words—trying to define the word “woke”—just so he could spend the next 35 words condemning it.

There’s no doubt these 35 words were powerful, direct, and unambiguous. Below is the official transcript prepared by DeSantis’s office. Note the two exclamation points in it:

We reject this woke ideology. We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy! We will not allow reality, facts, and truth to become optional. We will never surrender to the woke mob. Florida is where woke goes to die!

But is DeSantis’s message truly getting through when it takes six times as long to explain wokeness as it does to reject it? Would someone who heard only these 35 words in a news report have any idea what he’s attacking?

Judging from the 13 Trump-to-Biden swing voters across Florida we focus-grouped on January 10, the answer may be no.

Setting DeSantis aside for a moment, most of our respondents—who remember, live in Florida—either had no clue what “woke” means or completely disagreed with each other on the term’s meaning.

Asked for a definition, Katie, 42, from Bradenton, replied, “I just heard it used so many different ways. I honestly kind of just ignore it to be honest.”

Emily, 33, from Debary, said, “When I think of woke, I mean the past.”

William, 37, from Orlando, opined, “To me, a woke person is pretty much somebody who’s trying to start problems over [what] I’m not going to say [is] a non-existent problem—but they make it a bigger deal than it really is.”

Steven, 59, also from Orlando, described a woke person as “Ignorant, really, really ignorant—the people that come up with things that have nothing to do with anything.”

After seeking this elusive definition of “woke,” which only a few could express accurately, we played for respondents the entire section of DeSantis’s inaugural address where he discussed what’s wrong with being woke. Afterwards, only 3 of the 13 said he conveyed what they felt. The reactions sounded like this:

“I like DeSantis, [but] a lot of his policies just seems like . . . he shouldn’t go so heavy on the woke. Seems like it’s almost like he’s fighting against an invisible boogeyman in a way. I wish he would just concentrate more on putting the focus on what he wants to do and what the policies are. . . . He’s appealing to someone out there who might be afraid of that wokeness,” said Chris, 47, from Winter Garden.

“I understand he’s pandering to his base,” added Jason, 51, from Delray. “But it’s just a little bit too much. It’s attacking without naming specific groups. And there’s legitimacy on both sides. But to say that one side has no legitimacy is silly to me.”

Katie from Bradenton added, “My whole problem is the separation of church and state. He wants to say that we’re going to use reality, we’re going to use facts, and we’re going to use actual information. But half of the stuff he is talking about is just his form of reality. Everyone has their own idea of reality. If we’re going to go off of facts and black and white concrete information, then I mean you gotta pick one way or the other.”

One of the respondents who did support DeSantis’s sentiments on wokeism internalized this message from the inaugural address. Here’s William from Orlando:

I have two young kids that are in charter schools, and just some of the education that DeSantis has managed to block, [I approve of]. I don’t have nothing against the LGBTQ community at all. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t exist or anything negative like that. But to be constantly feeding it down people’s throats and play victim all the time, that’s bothersome.

We next played a two-and-a-half minute montage of attacks by DeSantis against PayPal, Disney, and Apple over the past few years. Five of the respondents said he was expressing what they felt. Here are two of them:

“Especially with Disney, from what [DeSantis] was saying, people from California are trying to change what’s going on in Florida,” observed Emily from Debary. “And he was talking about how Disney is supposed to cater to parents of young children, which I could understand because of new things that are coming out in Disney, some of the things that I don’t allow my kids to see.”

Chris from Winter Garden, who earlier was critical of DeSantis’s attacks on wokeism, was fine with the governor’s taking on corporations: “I just like the overall theme of the messaging pushing back against the big businesses. They have their place in society, and I don’t think they should be controlling who could say what and where, and controlling what’s taught in schools. And they could give their opinion, but they shouldn’t give too much push. And I like that he pushes back and that’s part of why I like him.”

But the majority took the opposite view. A sample:

“He’s pandering to a small, right-wing extreme, and I don’t think the majority of people feel this way,” said Jason from Delray. “It’s a silly fight. It’s off topic, and it’s reminiscent of Trump behavior.”

Shari, 58, from Crawfordville added, “I felt almost like it’s a threat [what DeSantis said], and not like, ‘I’m going to do this as a benefit to the people.’ . . . I don’t even understand in a way what he’s saying. I just feel like he’s almost giving a threat out about this situation, [one] that I don’t know that much about.”

DeSantis has a choice to make as he inches towards a presidential run: Either consume a lot of time and resources educating voters on the evils of “wokeism,” or stress another issue position that would more intuitively bring swing voters to his side. Attacking the woke may stir the base, but our evidence indicates it may not be that helpful in winning the center.

When Governor DeSantis declares, “Florida is where woke goes to die,” many of these swing voters have no clue what ideology he’s trying to bury.

Rich Thau

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.