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The Incompetence of ‘Woke-Washed’ Governance

Performative politics is failing our cities, crowding out the substantive policy debates we need to produce better outcomes. Where are the modern-day “Sewer Socialists”?

A homeless camp under a highway bridge in Austin, Texas.
(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)
Late last year, the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” While the union later deleted the head-turning tweet, that same month little-noticed data released by the Illinois State Board of Education showed just how much pandemic-induced school closures were harming children’s learning. Among high school juniors, SAT scores in math and reading had plummeted across the state, with low-income and minority students seeing the steepest learning losses. Chicago’s third-graders saw their reading and math scores plunge. A vice president of the city’s teacher union dismissed these dismal numbers as the result of “a racist standardized test” while praising students who took up jobs instead.

There’s a term for this in the corporate world: “woke-washing.” This is when a company tries to launder its reputation in the waters of a trendy cause or “woke” language, such as when REI, the outdoor outfitter, began a recent podcast opposing an employee union drive with the hosts’ preferred pronouns and acknowledgement that the podcast was originating “from the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples.”

The risk with woke-washing is not only that it exposes tensions in an institution’s expressed beliefs but that it brushes past substantive debates over governance and policy decisions. It’s a practice that’s hardly confined to the corporate world; it's undermining good governance across the public sector, and nowhere more than in local government.

Take, for instance, February’s successful recall of three San Francisco school board members. Garry Tan, a Bay Area venture capitalist who backed the recall, was outraged when critics dismissed the effort as a right-wing ploy. “I’m a Democrat,” he replied, adding, “We want good schools. We want safe streets. We want good housing and transit.” The recall, he explained, was about pushing back on an incompetent school board, not wading into the culture war that San Francisco’s elected progressive were already neck-deep in, whether they were trying to scrap merit-based admissions to an elite high school or rename schools based on inaccurate Wikipedia entries — all, of course, in the name of “equity” and “justice.” Combined with the shuttering of in-person schooling, the school board was denying poor and minority children a quality education while barring gifted students from fulfilling their potential.

Reinforcing Skepticism

Woke-washing isn’t just a problem in public education. In Portland, Ore., for example, highway builders are using multiracial stock images and pseudoscientific surveys to pitch a road-widening project through historically nonwhite urban communities to service predominantly white commuters driving in from the suburbs. In Austin, Texas, growing homeless encampments and a rising death toll among the unsheltered prompted city officials to declare their commitments to ending poverty and racism, or at least building more housing — while failing to build housing.

Local activists are hardly helping the matter. Critics of new housing in Minneapolis are demanding “racial and social equity analyses” in order to slow development or stop it altogether. Nationwide, social justice advocates and their allies in office are now loudly skeptical of “greening” cities with new parks and greenspace in case adding amenities and improving services might gentrify poor neighborhoods. With such an argument, why even bother paving streets if doing so risks raising property values?

For those on the left, the worst part of woke-washing should be the way it undermines their stated beliefs. As The Atlantic’s George Packer observed, “The party that stands for strong government services in the name of egalitarian principles supported the closing of schools far longer than either the science or the welfare of children justified, and it has been woefully slow to acknowledge how much this damaged the life chances of some of America’s most disadvantaged students.” Worse yet, poor public services not only reinforce a skepticism of other forms of public action but also hamper private action when it requires public review, such as with new housing development.

One reason why woke-washed incompetence persists is that local elected officials are too responsive to the results of low-turnout, off-cycle elections overstuffed with activists and public union members, whose interests may deviate from that of the median urban voter (and sometimes even from the groups they purport to represent). The nationalization of politics also means that local candidates can run — and win — on national culture-war issues they have little control over while having to promise even less in the way of actual local outcomes. And since Democrats are really the only game in town when it comes to most local politics, they haven’t had much competition from the right, which means any meaningful fights over school boards and more are essentially intra-left battles.

San Francisco’s ultra-woke school board was “not progressive,” noted speaker after speaker at a victory party of mostly Asian American activists in the school board recall, and they have a point. Early-20th-century-style Progressives, with a capital P, campaigned against corrupt machines on a platform of good governance and scientific management. It’s this same appeal to competent, outcome-based politics — and horror at the results of woke-washed incompetence — that is driving some longtime leftists to push back and even run for office themselves. Let’s not forget that some of the most successful hard-left progressives in American history were Milwaukee’s “Sewer Socialists,” who between 1910 and 1960 more or less dominated local politics by delivering good government and better services, not to mention building treatment plants for the city’s sewage.

The Limits of Local Power

But wokeness and incompetence are more allied than those on the left like to admit. Their expansive vision for local politics — tackling systemic woes such as generational poverty, criminal justice, racism and more — runs up against the limits on cities’ political and even legal power as creatures of state governments. Performative politics is simply more actionable at the local level than the kind of transformative politics that progressives desire. Rather than rejecting this binary choice by embracing substantive outcomes, city councils too often act like Philadelphia’s, whose members spend more than half their time issuing honorific resolutions while trash piles up and crime soars.

Residents are getting fed up, particularly when the gap between high-minded words and poor results becomes too stark to ignore. Last year, Austin’s Proposition B banning homeless encampments passed over the opposition of city officials by a 15-point margin, winning support in every neighborhood as well as from a sizable chunk of Democrats. In San Francisco, a new poll on the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin finds an incredible 68 percent of voters favoring ejecting the city’s progressive D.A. And the three-decade advantage in polls of Democrats over Republicans on who Americans trust to invest in public education and schools has now been wiped out.

It’s time to put an end to woke-washing poor governance. Let’s push for better governance and a more active electorate through voting reforms, such as on-cycle local elections, to enhance representation and accountability. More importantly, let’s have a debate about the actual policies we’re meant to debate: Rather than, say, rejecting speed cameras until we “address the root causes of speeding,” why don’t we just debate the effectiveness of speed cameras? Competence is the key, and we should be willing to hold leaders in city hall to account.

As New York’s legendary mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, supposedly put it, there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. Cities must be safer, cleaner and offer a better future to the next generation. Do the basics, in other words, because woke-washing isn’t going to produce those outcomes.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @michael_hendrix.
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