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Republicans vow to fight the ‘woke agenda’ in election ads. What does that even mean?

While starting as vernacular for being aware of racial and social injustice, the term “woke” has become a Republican buzzword to describe anything put forward by Democrats that Republicans think is too progressive.

And it’s showing up over and over in North Carolina primary campaigns.

Republicans have used the word “radical” to describe Democratic policies for several years, and “woke agenda” has joined the list as a criticism.

“Woke,” lately, has generally been used to describe teaching about Black history with any references to Critical Race Theory; efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI; and ESG, which means assessing environmental, social and governance policies by corporations. It may also relate to LGBTQ+ issues or anything else deemed overly liberal.

Stephen Wiley, the Republican House Caucus director and partner in a political consulting firm, told The News & Observer that “woke agenda” is just the 2020s version of saying “politically correct.”

Here are some uses of “woke” in Republican campaigns ahead of the March 5 primary.

‘Woke liberalism’

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, candidate for U.S. House:

“Washington’s corruption and woke liberalism are ruining America,” Moore says in a video advertisement for his primary campaign for the 14th Congressional District. He goes on to talk about immigration and what he’s done at the state level.

“In Raleigh, I fought for conservative reforms that outlawed sanctuary cities, made voter ID the law, and stopped men from playing in women’s sports. I’ll fight Biden’s radical agenda in Washington, just like I’ve done in North Carolina,” Moore says in the ad.

His reference to sports is about a Republican-sponsored bill that became law in August after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto was overridden. The new law bans transgender girls and women from playing on most middle-, high-school and college sports teams that line up with their gender identity.

‘Woke garbage’

State Rep. John Bradford, candidate for U.S. House:

Bradford is running in the Republican primary for the 8th Congressional District seat, and has a campaign ad saying he will clean up “woke garbage.” Bradford’s television advertisement doesn’t say what he means by that, but it does talk about his house cleaning business and how he will clean up the mess in Washington if he wins. “No more open borders, high inflation or woke garbage,” he says.

A screengrab from state Rep. John Bradford’s campaign for Congress.
A screengrab from state Rep. John Bradford’s campaign for Congress.

‘Woke politics’

Brad Briner, candidate for state treasurer:

Briner, a Republican, has a video ad featuring alphabet soup, with letters that form the word “woke.” Other letters forming DEI and ESG also pop up in the soup.

A screengrab from a television commercial for Brad Briner’s campaign for treasurer.
A screengrab from a television commercial for Brad Briner’s campaign for treasurer.

“Social justice is a radical political movement, not a sound investment strategy,” Briner says, and that he’ll focus on being treasurer, “not woke politics.”

On the ESG front, the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly also overturned Cooper’s veto of an ESG bill banning its use in some workplaces and investments.

Other legislation passed in 2023 targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in public university and state government workplaces, banning “compelled speech.”

The N.C. Senate convenes at the N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, June 20, 2023.
The N.C. Senate convenes at the N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

‘Woke left’

Former state Sen. Deanna Ballard, candidate for lieutenant governor:

Ballard, a Watauga County Republican, says on her campaign site she’ll fight the “woke agenda,” without saying exactly what that means.

In a TV ad for Ballard, a man and woman have trouble remembering her first name but believe she “reopened schools” and “kicked out the woke left and established the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” a bill that Ballard sponsored before losing her reelection bid, and which passed in its latest form last year.

A screengrab from a television commercial for Deanna Ballard’s campaign for lieutenant governor.
A screengrab from a television commercial for Deanna Ballard’s campaign for lieutenant governor.

So why is ‘woke’ used?

N.C. Central University political science professor Jarvis A. Hall said that using the phrase “woke agenda” is essentially a “dog whistle.”

“When people hear ‘woke,’ they hear AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). When they hear ‘woke,’ they hear elite professors and administrators who are not in touch with grassroots people, that’s what they hear,” Hall said.

“And they hear them trying to impose their agenda on their lives. And so it is a way for those on the political right to use DEI, Critical Race Theory and under the umbrella of ‘being woke’ as a way to label certain people and candidates as being out of touch,” Hall told The N&O.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat, said she is baffled when she hears it now.

“It goes without saying obviously, the term ‘woke’ is popularly used in the Black community. So to me, it has to be some piece of you know, not pushing diversity, equity and inclusion, because there was a time when ‘woke’ just meant being aware,” Murdock said.

“For me, it was being aware of being politically conscious, being active in your community, not falling asleep. You know, not going along to get along but to be an active participant, and you know, collective awareness and well-being,” she said.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series holding those in power accountable and shining a light on public issues that affect the Triangle or North Carolina. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email realitycheck@newsobserver.com