We Are All White Liberals Now

“Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label. This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. . . In political terms, liberals are citizens of anywhere and therefore citizens of nowhere. They are the Ishmaels of political life, the wandering spirits, an influence in all tribes but a dominant force in none.”

Philip Collins, How did the word “liberal” become a political insult?

I previously criticized Zach Goldberg’s article on white liberals. He wanted to make them out to seem like not only extremist ideologues but also psychologically abnormal. At times, it comes across as a soft-pedalled conservative diatribe, but some of his analysis brings up some good points.

It’s even more interesting when we ignore his conclusion and, instead, acknowledge that the average American is in general agreement with white liberals. White liberals may be a minority in the strict sense, particularly limiting ourselves to self-identified liberals, but “white liberalism” apparently has become the majority position. We are all white liberals now or most of us are, including an increasing number of non-whites and non-liberals. Embrace your inner white liberal!

Anyway, the relevant takeway is that a real change is happening. I don’t know that white liberals are the canary in the coal mine or otherwise deserving of special treatment. But because the mainstream is so obsessed with them, they get all the credit and blame for so much that is happening. So, looking at this one demographic might tell us something about Americans in general and where American society is heading.

Considering most Americans are further left than the mainstream would like to admit, this really isn’t fundamentally an issue of white liberalism at all, of course. It’s just a way of distracting from the decades-long leftward lurch of public opinion and a shifting psychological profile of personality traits and moral values. That is all the more reason to look at what is happening among white liberals, if we take them as representative of something far broader. For all the condemnation they get, and some of it deserved, they are fascinating creatures.

Supposedly, for the first time in history, there is a demographic that has a pro-outgroup bias. White liberals state a more positive view of those not like them than those like them. What is not mentioned are other demographics like non-white liberals and leftists who might show this tendency even more strongly. There isn’t necessarily anything special about white liberals. It’s simply liberal-mindedness taking ever stronger hold in the American psyche and this showing up clearly first in particular demographics.

Goldberg speculates that the cause is the internet. White liberals are leading the way in embracing the new media, although that is probably true of social liberals in general (black liberals, Asian-American libertarians, Latinx social democrats, etc). Social liberals tend to be the most liberal-minded in being open to new experiences (FFM Openness, MBTI Intuition, etc). That openness, in this age of media proliferation, contributes to greater exposure to different views and ideas. For all our fear that social media feeds into echo chambers of disinfo and extremism, so far the internet has also been a powerful force of liberalization.

It’s easy to forget how radically liberal our society has become. Most American conservatives today are more liberal or even leftist than the average liberal was maybe only a century ago. So much of what we’ve come to regularly question, doubt, and challenge was simply accepted as normal reality and undeniable truth not that long ago. The American majority, white and non-white, is now far to the left of John Locke, the prototype of Anglo-American white liberalism. In place of that earliest and most respectable expression of Enlightenment thought, we are ever more embracing the radical and rabblerousing liberal vision of Thomas Paine, the most important American founder now forgotten.

We can be transformed by this revolutionary liberal-mindedness or we can be shaped in reaction to it. But in either case, it has come to define our entire society. Indeed, we have all become white liberals, whatever that means. The white liberal is the symbolic force and totemic spirit of American society. Let us not forget, though, that the underlying moral potency of this white liberalism was always built around the radical other, slowly but surely brought into the fold in redefining not only what it means to be American but, more importantly, what it means to be human.

The threat and promise of a more inclusive empathy and more expansive identity was always the seed of irritation around which the pearl of idealism grew, from the Axial Age to the modern revolutionary era. In the egalitarian conviction of Thomas Paine, maybe we are coming closer to the time when we can all declare that we are citizens of the world. Imagine a global society where nearly everyone had a pro-outgroup bias, where a compassionate sense of the other was the moral mirror that we held up to ourselves, where we finally lived up to Jesus’ radical teaching that we are judged by the treatment of the least among us. Imagine…

* * *

America’s White Saviors
by Zach Goldberg

The Moral Foundations of the Modern White Liberal

A large body of work in this field consistently finds that liberals score significantly higher than conservatives on the personality trait “agreeableness” and more specifically on its sub-dimension of “compassion.” In social science studies like these, agreeableness represents the tendency to be altruistic, tender-minded, cooperative, trusting, forgiving, warm, helpful, and sympathetic. The trait is closely linked with empathy and compassion toward the suffering of others. […]

A substantial line of research reveals that, out of these moral considerations, liberals generally attach the most importance to the foundations of harm/care and fairness. While conservatives also tend to rate these foundations as important, their moral compass is broader and includes a greater concern for violations of purity (e.g., “whether or not someone was able to control his or her desires”), loyalty (e.g., “whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group”), and authority (e.g., “whether or not someone respected the traditions of society”). As with empathy, the liberal concern for harm/care and fairness relates to a larger set of targets (e.g., animals, the needy in other countries) than it does for conservatives, who are generally more concerned with threats to the in-group. The liberal conception of ‘harm’ is also far broader, which lowers the threshold at which their moral alarms are triggered.

[…] white liberals—especially the self-identified “very liberal”—are significantly more likely to report intense or extremely frequent feelings of tenderheartedness, protectiveness, and sensitivity when considering the circumstances of racial and ethnic out-group members. A related graph below displays the average differences in feelings of warmth (measured along a 0-100 scale) toward whites vs. nonwhites (i.e., Asians, Hispanics, and blacks) across different subgroups.

Remarkably, white liberals were the only subgroup exhibiting a pro-outgroup bias—meaning white liberals were more favorable toward nonwhites and are the only group to show this preference for group other than their own. Indeed, on average, white liberals rated ethnic and racial minority groups 13 points (or half a standard deviation) warmer than whites. As is depicted in the graph below, this disparity in feelings of warmth toward ingroup vs. outgroup is even more pronounced among whites who consider themselves “very liberal” where it widens to just under 20 points. Notably, while white liberals have consistently evinced weaker pro-ingroup biases than conservatives across time, the emergence and growth of a pro-outgroup bias is actually a very recent, and unprecedented, phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, data from the American National Elections Studies (ANES) shows white liberals scoring significantly higher on measures of ‘white privilege awareness’ (e.g., ‘how much does being white grant you unearned privileges in today’s society?’) and ‘white guilt’ (e.g., ‘how guilty do you feel about the privileges and benefits you receive as a white American?’). Both of these variables are strongly correlated with measures of liberal racial sympathy (or what is more traditionally referred to as ‘low racial resentment’)–the white liberal scores on which reached an ANES-high in 2016. Previous research has shown that these collective moral emotions, triggered by historical wrongdoing and perceptions that an in-group’s advantages and privileges are illegitimate, can can increase support for reparative and humanitarian social policies. That is exactly what has happened in recent years as white liberals have become increasingly supportive of affirmative actionreparations, and increased immigration.

The Social Media Accelerant

[…] Data from the General Social Survey reveals a roughly 170% increase in the number of weekly hours, from 5 to 13.6, that people reported spending on the internet between 2000-2018. Between 2006 and 2018, the percentage of respondents listing the internet as their primary news source jumped roughly 33 percentage points from 14.2% to 47.6%. Turning to social media, data I pooled from the Pew Research Center shows a similar increase in the percentage of people reporting social media use between 2008-2016, from 34.8% to 73%. These increases have occurred among all whites, regardless of political affiliation, but not to the same degree. White liberals place ahead of conservatives on every one of these measures of internet use and social media exposure. They spend significantly more weekly hours on the internet; are significantly more likely to list the internet as their primary news source; and significantly more likely to consume news from and be politically active on social media. A 2016 Pew Racial Attitudes survey further shows that of the 74% of white liberals (vs. 55% of white conservatives) reporting social media use, roughly 44% (vs. 30% of white conservatives) say that at least some of the posts are about race or race relations. And, more generally, 70% of white liberals (vs. 51% of white conservatives) report discussing race relations or racial inequality with others either “sometimes” (39%) or “often” (31%).

An analysis of GoogleTrends data, graphed below, shows that the frequency of searches for race-related and “woke” terms has grown substantially since the beginning of the decade—a period that happens to coincide with the social media boom and the emergence of so-called hashtag activism (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter). This period also saw the rise of the Huffington Post—an online progressive blog and news site that prolifically opines on race-related issues. Whereas just 13% of white liberals reported regularly visiting the site in 2012, over 30% did in 2016. A similar pattern is observed for digital readership of The New York Times (NYT), which grew from 16% to 31% among white liberals between 2012 and 2016—during this same period, according to a recent content analysis I conducted—the percentage of Times articles mentioning race-related and woke terms saw unprecedented growth. For instance, whereas just 0.4% (or 334) of articles referred to racism in 2012, this figure had doubled by 2015 (to 0.87% or 813) and reached over 2% (or 2,353) by 2018. Interestingly, the number of monthly NYT articles mentioning racism also closely tracks Google search interest in the term.

8 thoughts on “We Are All White Liberals Now

    • It took a while to read that lengthy movie review. It’s quite detailed and the position is argued well. But I’m curious about what all of this means for most Americans, as opposed to those who presume to speak on behalf of the public.

      What does the majority think about privileged rhetoric of racial politics and Hollywood narratives upholding oppressive capitalist realism? Beyond the chattering class, I honestly don’t know what ‘Wakanda’ and such might represent in the public mind.

      It does get one thinking, though.

      • I think the danger is losing the public, the left behind majority, who probably aren’t as uneducable or uninterested in historical verity as many academic departments.

        I’ve noticed some BLM activists using Bernie’s talking points in ad campaigns, which is good, but it seems like another reprise of the race first narratives of the late 19th-early 20th century. Its quite odd how the rhetoric of exclusion for immigrants and nativism from the right was mirroring this era, which you and a few commentators noticed. Its stranger to see it on the left, which is why my support of BLM grew more wary over the summer.
        But I’ll qualify my attacks with the observation that they do focus on changing the power structure. While breaking into the board room isn’t a mass unity tactic, but does address the corporate laundering of privelige in elite circles that took form in that same time period. It was also a time of mass participation and charismatic leaders on the left, with the labor rights struggle and opposition to WWI. At least more people are nostalgic for a cultural moment besides a few years in the 60’s. But what it means for us in the years ahead is dim and shadowy.

        I think my biggest problem with the movie narrative is that it implied that such a futuristic city would have to exist in a dream world inaccessible to the rest of the planet.

        • Media narratives (from news reporting, political rhetoric, & entertainment) can be powerful. That cannot be doubted in the slightest. But I also know that something else is maybe more powerfully shaping socal identity and the public mind. If the media and politcal elite were the key factor, we should expect the shift left to be first found among the most powerful thought leaders. That isn’t what we find, though. Those thought leaders, instead, appear to be following behind a larger social shift. I don’t know that I have an explanation for that, other than it having to do with changing conditions of media technology, social media, etc.

          That is always on my mind as I look at something like that movie review. There is something happening and few are paying attention. It’s easier to focus on an elite. This response is far from being dismissive of that elite focus. Even if they aren’t the primary cause of changes, looking to the elite could still tell us much as they also are being impacted by the changes. There was a particular detail from that movie review that caught my attention, but I’m not sure it’s greater relevance. The author was talking about racial essentialism as authentic group identity and the “mysticism of organic black community” with a presumed universal experience of Platonic blackness that is accessible to all black individuals by default of membership. As the movie review concludes:

          “Nevertheless, we continue to indulge the politically wrong-headed, counterproductive, and even reactionary features of the “representative black voice” industry in whatever remains of our contemporary public sphere. And we never reckon with the truly disturbing presumption that any black person who can gain access to the public microphone and performs familiar rituals of “blackness” should be recognized as expressing significant racial truths and deserves our attention. This presumption rests on the unexamined premise that blacks share a common, singular mind that is at once radically unknowable to non-blacks and readily downloaded by any random individual setting up shop as a racial voice. And despite what all of our age’s many heroic narratives of individualist race-first triumph may suggest to the casual viewer, that premise is the essence of racism.”

          The author also writes that, “The leading platforms of respectable black discourse—including the various internet platforms that encourage freelance chatter—reinforce the sense that those purporting to express the black point of view arise naturally from within the quasi-mythic “black community.”” It’s kind of amusing, if it weren’t such powerful rhetoric. Whether or not the elite are creating it, I do see how it’s taken hold and the evidence can be found in media. I came across an example of this in the most recent episode of Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist. A black character chastises a white character in proclaiming the black experience is unique to such a degree as to entirely exclude any possibility of understanding. Besides an implied race realist worldiview, it’s a complete denial of the idea of a universal humanity involving a common experience suffering and compassion that was advocated by Axial Age prophets, Enlightenment thinkers, and leftist radicals.

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