Among the reasons that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union upset people was the realisation of many that morning that even if you aren’t interested in politics, it is interested in you.
The irony won’t have been lost on journalists, politicians, and activists, most of whom live like an obscure, ambitious musician in the pained knowledge that nobody is paying them much heed. Campaigners largely live and die on the sidelines of public life, but at least people thought the referendum mattered.
While some of this anger lingered after the vote, the sense that the people, processes and policies that govern our lives are a fringe concern has mostly returned. During the December 2019 general election campaign around 40% of voters could recall no political news when asked, with even big stories named by only 5% (see page 17).
The disregard most people have for political news stories makes the daily news cycle seem as relevant as a Twitter bitch fight. Couple that with the flimsiness of some news stories, which are often controversies over what somebody may have said 20 years ago, and political talk seems absurd.
Such criticism has been a reasonable counter to many pundits’ fixation with the eccentricities of social justice activists. The likes of James Lindsay, a self-described “expert on wokeness” could be fairly seen as wasting his time combatting a movement that has no clout.
This was true enough five years ago. But to look at the response to George Floyd’s death is to see that much of the rhetoric and ideas of social justice activists has been absorbed by wider societies on both sides of the Atlantic.
James Corden, an English late show host, prostrated himself as a guilty white man in a monologue. American corporations line up to denounce racism in social justice terms. Even the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who heads up a church where women bishops are controversial, talks about the “ongoing evil of white supremacy”.
As the Anglo-American journalist Andrew Sullivan put it:
It’s funny how I’ve been told constantly that the doctrines of critical race theory are restricted to a few, irrelevant campuses, and I shouldn’t bother. And yet almost every liberal I see is regurgitating every single doctrine of this ideology as self-evident.
You might think that this is good, and that such figures in society have been too long in not speaking out about such things. Perhaps the world is better if McDonald’s campaigns against racism while it serves you a Big Mac. But either way, it shows that woke ideology has made some serious ground.
And a woke culture would be distinct from the the one we live in now. The fixation on identity, righting historical wrongs, and equality between groups yields a very different politics from our messy bargains between liberalism and social democracy.
For a while it has been possible – maybe even advisable in mental health terms – not to care about the bickering over pronouns, reparations, and the diversity of boardrooms. That time is now ending. You may not be interested in identity politics, but it is interested in you.