‘Moderates’ are Extremists, ‘Centrists’ are Right-Wingers

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are used to a certain kind of cynical rhetoric from reactionaries. And we typically associate the reactionary mind with the right-wing, specifically those who identify as far right, such as militias, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. Or else right-libertarians who pretend to exist outside of or above the mainstream political spectrum. As such, there are authoritarian libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Peter Thiel who claim to be ‘liberals’ while decrying democracy as mobocracy, claiming that they must use authoritarianism to protect against authoritarianism. This is the self-appointed ruling elite, the self-perceived enlightened aristocracy, our aspiring paternalistic overlords.

Yet this reactionary phenomenon is not limited to those ascribing to obviously dogmatic ideologies, as some of them would assert to have no ideology at all or at least never to admit to it, never describe themselves by a particular ideological label. Instead, they might call themselves ‘centrists’ in assuming and proclaiming their views as the defining ‘center’ of society, of politics, and of opinion — that is to say, they see the world, and maybe reality itself, as revolving around themselves and their interests, values, and agendas; one could more simply describe this as narcissism, probably often malignant narcissism. They own and work in, control and influence the forums of public debate, political rhetoric, and media narrative. Many of them are the professional politicians, media stars, public intellectuals, thought leaders, and social influencers of the so-called ‘mainstream’.

Most important, they are of the respectable class and the last defense of respectability politics, the presumed lesser evil that will hold the line against authoritarians and reactionaries, ideologues and extremists seeking power at all costs. It turns out that supposed moderate centrists pushing fear of division and extremism are themselves among the most divisive extremists. The center cannot hold because self-identified moderates and centrists don’t want to hold to democracy and public opinion. That is because, self-identity aside, they aren’t actually moderate or centrist. Going by public polling, from PRRI to Fox News, the ruling elite (primarily neocons and neoliberals) who create a false narrative of a moderate centrism are often closer to the far right than they’d like to admit. But as some other data shows, in certain ways, they can be even more anti-democratic than right-wing exremists.

This confirms a point that recently came up with the MAGA riots when some of the media elite finally took notice that the rioters were largely middle class professionals: business owners, real estate agents, etc; even police officers and military officers or veterans. These are among the respectable as separate from those Hillary Clinton maligned as the “basket of deplorables.” Yet these people were spouting QAnon conspiracy theories, joining in with militant groups, attacking the Capitol police, and threatening the lives of democratically-elected leaders. They don’t fit the stereotype of ‘white trash’, gun-toting rednecks and cousin-marrying hillbillies, in that the main demographic of Donald Trump’s voters were assumed to have been poor whites and rural whites. Yet even before the 2016 election, all of the data showed the largest segment of Trump supporters was middle class. Sure, they were largely lower middle class, but nonetheless above average in education and income, many of them urbanites and with the strongest support in suburbia.

This shouldn’t surprise us, but the corporate media and political elites refused to acknowledge this for the longest time. This middle class, according to the ‘mainstream’ narrative, is supposed to be the middle of society — the great moderating force, what is considered the central pillar of a healthy and stable social order, in a social Darwinian economy where wealth and socioeconomic class is taken as a sign of moral character and social worth. Yet, when we look back at history, the middle class could be found behind many examples of authoritarian demagoguery or seizures of power, such as the Klan and the Nazis. The same pattern continues to be seen around the world, not only in the industrialized West. “Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center,” writes David Adler. “From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth” (Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists).

Here is some advice. When you hear increasing numbers in the comortable classes defend a corrupt and failed political system, an undemocratic and oppressive status quo by declaring themselves ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’ or, worse, non-ideological, run for the hills. We know where that leads and how it too often ends. Or rather, we know the beginning point from which it rarely departs. Such people aren’t in the center of anything other than maybe the center of the cyclone or the center of madness. According to the fish hook theory of politics, there are those defending egalitarianism and then there is everyone else, with the far right bending back toward the reactionary faux-center. There is no way to be moderate on egalitarianism and freedom, justice and fairness. One is either for democratic self-governance and the will of the people or against it. There is no third option.

* * *

When we say ‘moderate,’ what we really mean is ‘what corporations want.’

David Broockman

There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

The rise of the anti-democratic ‘centrists’
by Phil Ebersole

If you call yourself a centrist, you mean that you’re reasonably satisfied with the status quo.

And the status quo is a government in which, according to the Princeton Study, legislators respond to the wishes of the economic elite and organized interest groups, but not at all to public opinion.

It is not surprising that so many self-described centrists feel threatened by the rise of populism and want to create gatekeepers to keep the voting public from getting out of hand.

Epilogue: In defense of disruptive democracy—A critique of anti-populism
by Robert Howse

“Populism” is usually and pejoratively defined by the anti-populist elites to imply nativism, anti-liberalism, and anti-pluralism. This has little to do with many of today’s powerful critiques of and challenges to elite liberal democratic politics. Defenders of elite or “centrist” liberal democratic politics present a false choice between restoration or renewal of elite politics and a populist slide into authoritarianism and xenophobia. There is an important agenda of democratic reform disrupting elite liberal democratic politics, and anti-populism is not an authentic response to it. Radical democrats and democratic reformers, such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are not apostles of mob rule, contrary to the frequent caricature proposed by centrist liberal democrats in their “anti-populist” pose. They see an appropriate role for institutions such as independent courts as well as for experts in a stronger democracy.

On campus censorship: it looks like we’ve been deceived
by Aleph Skoteinos

While we’re still here, I’ve also discovered some research conducted by a political scientist named Justin Murphy, specifically an article titled “Who Is Afraid of Free Speech in the United States?”, and it turns out that the far-left are nowhere near as averse to freedom of speech as you would be lead to believe nowadays. His research showed that “extreme liberals” (possibly referring to hard-leftists given America’s bastardized political lexicon) are actually the most supportive of freedom of speech within the broad political spectrum, and that the centre-left (or slightly left) and the far-right, not the far-left, are the groups most opposed to freedom of speech. In a way this finding kind of dovetails with a recent New York Times article which showed that centrists, rather than extremists, are statistically the least supportive towards democracy (which is ironic considering the New York Times is one of the archetypal liberal centrist outlets).

No one’s less moderate than moderates
by Ezra Klein

“When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want,” Broockman says. “Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”

That’s the problem with using a term that doesn’t describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. “Moderate” is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it’s become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It’s time to get rid of it.

“Centrism” is an ideology, too
by Bill Knight

Writing about Schultz, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, “Despite his demonstrable policy ignorance, his delusions follow conventional centrist doctrine … furiously opposed to any proposal that would ease the lives of ordinary Americans. The most disruptive, dangerous extremists are on the Right. But there’s another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have also done a great deal of harm: fanatical centrists. The hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s Left and Right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.” […]

Locally, centrism may be found in hesitating to become a “sanctuary city,” a municipality where local resources aren’t spent to enforce controversial federal immigration laws. Statewide, centrism seeks to avoid “rocking the boat” over redistricting by the political party in control to favor that party or discourage opposition.

Nationally, centrists on domestic issues put their faith in the “free market,” Federal Reserve or corporations to stabilize an economy instead of recognizing economic classes and people’s needs. Internationally, centrists see other nations supporting terrorism or destabilizing regions; views U.S. military or diplomatic interference as justified; considers interventions in Iraq, Yemen, Venezuela and dozens of other countries as in the national interest; and labels some foreign leaders as allies or tyrants (or both, at different times), depending on their usefulness to multinationals’ financial interests.

Centrists may blast Russian oligarchs or Canadian health-care providers, but they’re reluctant to address the U.S. elite or to criticize the commercial approach to treating and healing Americans.

Again, being middle-of-the-road doesn’t mean civility or bipartisanship as much as protecting the way things are, claiming that “the system works” or seeing foreign affairs exclusively through red-white-and-blue glasses.

(For its part, the mainstream press so easily falls into the centrist line that they uncritically repeat government propaganda, almost like state-run media.)

One Big Thing the Dems Get Wrong About Warren
by John F. Harris

The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.

As Bill Clinton began his second term, before the eruption of the sex scandal, he spoke frequently of his desire to be a national unifier, and, quoting Scripture, a “repairer of the breach.”

One skeptic was the great 20th century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who knew and liked Clinton, but was deeply wary of middle-of-the-road politics. “Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”

In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”

How ‘Centrist Bias’ Hurts Sanders and Warren
by David Leonhardt
[with slight corrections added]

Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left [center right] and one on the right [far right] [with no main party representing the American majority on the left]. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.

In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake [that conveniently and consistently operates as the propaganda mode of the news]: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies [in holding to the ‘center’ of the political right of the transpartisan ruling elite]. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.

But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.

This seemingly radical possibility turns out to be quite common, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — author of the classic book, “The Vital Center,” no less — pointed out. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored [except that Reagan’s corporatism was simply an extension, if more extreme, of the prior corporatism in both parties; more of the same but worse]. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”

Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls? […]

Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it. It helps explain why the 2016 presidential debates focused more on the budget deficit, a topic of centrist zealotry, than climate change, almost certainly a bigger threat. (Well-funded deficit advocacy plays a role too.) Centrist bias also helps explain the credulousness of early coverage during the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Both Democrats and Republicans, after all, largely supported each war.

The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be.

People worry that ‘moderate’ Democrats like Joe Biden are the same as Republicans. Our study suggests they may be right
by Kevin Singer and Alyssa Rockenbach

Strikingly, in almost every case, the responses of moderate men are very similar to conservative men and women. Their level of agreement with the statements above is as much as 14 percent lower than moderate women, who are more likely than men to lean Democratic, or liberal men and women.

This IDEALS finding is on par with a recent Gallup study encompassing over 29,000 interviews with American adults, which revealed that moderates and conservatives remain closely aligned in their ideological preferences.

This raises important questions heading into the election: Is a moderate male candidate a bait-and-switch for Democratic voters? Are they actually casting their votes for a conservative?×

That moderate men most resemble Republicans has been confirmed, of all places, on dating apps. Brittany Wong of HuffPost writes, “It’s almost become a coastal cliche at this point: If someone lists their political views as ‘moderate’ on a dating app, the thinking goes, go ahead and assume the person is a conservative.” One interviewee noted, “It’s just in my experience, even ‘moderate’ guys tend to have extremely different views on topics that matter to me, like gun control, women’s reproductive rights and immigration.” Sometimes, moderate men who appear to bend liberal turn out to be “faux woke,” according to one interviewee who was initially attracted to someone whose profile featured photos at a women’s march. Eventually “he slowly started to drop his facade,” revealing behaviors inconsistent with his professed political beliefs.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has grown increasingly frustrated with moderate Democrats during her tenure, saying at a recent event, “The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or a center-conservative party.” Her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, recently deleted a tweet comparing two moderate Democrat coalitions — consisting mostly of men — to Southern Democrats who favored segregation and opposed civil rights. During this election cycle, a recurring criticism of Vice President Biden has been his record on school desegregation.

Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists
By Davd Adler

The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.

These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.

On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.

Is it true?

Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism. […]

What Does It Mean?

Across Europe and North America, support for democracy is in decline. To explain this trend, conventional wisdom points to the political extremes. Both the far left and the far right are, according to this view, willing to ride roughshod over democratic institutions to achieve radical change. Moderates, by contrast, are assumed to defend liberal democracy, its principles and institutions.

The numbers indicate that this isn’t the case. As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism — least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.

Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center: From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth. Could the same thing happen in mature democracies like Britain, France and the United States?

The Great Narrative of Awokening

Over at Phil Ebersole’s blog, he posted about Matthew Yglesias’ article The Great Awokening. Ebersole wrote that, “In the present era, white liberals are more militant—at least in opinion—than the majority of black people.” And then he concluded that, “maybe at this point liberals are more militant than necessary.” I disagree with this view, although to be fair the disagreement is less than it seems. Both Ebersole and I share the view that the liberal class isn’t particularly militant in a meaningful or effective sense. But for my purpose here, I’ll take this conclusion at face value, since I don’t see liberals as being ‘militant’ in any sense.

The portrayal of militant liberals (or progressives or SJWs) is the narrative, I would argue, that is being spun by the corporate media in service of the corporatist Democrats. The argument is the party’s left-wing has become too radicalized and hence why we should, once again, accept the lesser evil. This is the false moderation and centrism I’ve long seen as political failure by design, which is to say it succeeds perfectly fine if the purpose is to defend the status quo. This narrative doesn’t match the data, not the full data when put in context. Most Americans on diverse major issues, including racial issues, are to the left of Democratic Party policies (I’ve written many posts on this, but here is the main one).

Furthermore, the obsession with the “white liberal” is similar to the obsession with the “white working class”. In both cases, it erases from public debate all acknowledgment of blacks and other minorities who are liberal and/or working class. It creates a narrative of divide and conquer by manipulating and managing public perception. A similar thing in the opposite direction is seen in how black Protestants are separated out in polling data but white Protestants usually aren’t. It creates confused comparisons because the categories aren’t demographically equivalent.

White liberals are on average younger than the overall black population. The exact same is true in comparing black liberals and the overall population, black or white. So, yes, most white liberals who on average are younger are to the left of most blacks who on average are older, just as with most black liberals in relation to most other blacks (and in relation to most whites as well; heck, as far as that goes, compared to most Americans in general). The important detail is that blacks, like whites, are becoming more liberal with every generation. The typical Black Lives Matter activist who is black is surely younger and more liberal than the average black, and the same was no doubt true for the typical Civil Rights activist a half century ago. Young people usually are more liberal, something that is common knowledge.

I’d take it further. I bet activists today are more liberal than activists in the past, no different than blacks are more liberal than in the past, as nearly every demographic (including conservatives) is more liberal than in the past. What was once considered radical is, in many cases, now considered mainstream and moderate, as normal and as the norm (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, and eugenics are bad) — now only supported by a small minority on the fringe right. Obviously, this pattern isn’t limited to white liberals. Simply put, young people are more liberal than older people across all races and Americans in general are becoming more liberal with each generation. But accurately and straightforwardly reporting these basic facts wouldn’t fit the narrative that the corporate media wants to spin.

Ebersole has another post on the topic where he references Eric Kaufmann’s Americans Are Divided by Their Views on Race, Not Race Itself. In it, he focuses on the racial divide of opinion within the two main parties, as separated out according to race. He makes an interesting point there about white Democrats, in how they have a more favorable view of other races than of their own, although I would interpret that as ideological posturing (i.e., virtue signaling) for the purposes of group identity, that is to say simply individuals agreeing to what they think they are supposed to agree to. Anyway, this favoring of other races, even if only superficial, is not the case of black Democrats and certainly not the case of any Republicans, whatever may be the case for independents and third party voters.

Let me unpack exactly what Ebersole says. First off, he writes that, “Now you can’t say that white Clinton voters are self-hating, because they have a favorable opinion about their own race.  And you can’t say that black Clinton voters are “reverse racists” because they have a favorable opinion of non-black races.” That is an evenhanded appraisal. But this may not apply to all Democrats. Obama voters could have had entirely different views, especially considering some of them later voted for Trump. That makes for an odd dynamic. Also, black Democrats might have felt more positive and forgiving toward other races (i.e., whites) when it seemed like positive change was happening, such as the first black being elected president. Public opinion could be all over the map, depending on what Americans are reacting to in the moment, including the day-to-day influence of news reporting.

Ignoring those qualifications to the data, Ebersole makes a really great point. “Note also that none of the four categories of voters has a net unfavorable view of other races. That’s important, because I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have been true 50 or 60 years ago.” So, pretty much all Americans are fine and dandy about other races, at least in the broad sense when not discussing specific policies or such. “But”, he adds, “it’s interesting that the white Clinton voters are the least favorable toward their own race and the most favorable toward other races, while black Clinton voters are the reverse.” Fair enough. From my own end, I’d throw in the fact that the difference for white Clinton voters isn’t vast, considering the margin of error. As for black Clinton voters, with the history of racism that continues to this day, I don’t find it surprising that they are less favorable of other races when most of the people in the “other races” category are whites.

Still, once again, this is comparing apples and oranges. White liberals are probably more likely to belong to the Democratic Party than black liberals, the latter probably more often found as independents or in third parties (and interestingly, liberalism as a label is growing in popularity among blacks, while socialism as a label is growing in popularity among Hispanics). The most liberal blacks were among the young generation, of course, and they preferred Bernie Sanders. In certain key cities and states, it seems many blacks stayed at home instead of having voted for Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t a typical election and Clinton lost voters all across the board. So, it’s more than probable that black liberals are simply excluded from this particular polling data. Eliminating independents and third party supporters is yet another strategy to prop up the mainstream narrative, at a time when the largest proportion of voters no longer identifies with either main party.

We have to learn to question not only the data we are given in corporate media but more importantly to question how that data is being framed and the data we aren’t being given (a similar problem to what Becky Pettit discusses in Invisible Men, as I’ve posted about here and here). Sometimes the framing happens in the reporting whereas the data itself might be good, assuming you can find an unbiased reporting of it. In many other cases, even the data is questionable because of how polling questions were framed or the data collected (such as was the polling group representative), along with how preceding questions psychologically prime the mind for later questions. In either case, we need to hone our intellectual defenses.

The battle of politics first begins as a battle of ideas, a battle over who controls the public mind. If we are to seek a revolution in our society, we need a revolution of the mind. We on the left need to take control of the narrative. We need to tell a better story, a more compelling story. Then we must repeat that story ad nauseum, until it finally sticks. Fortunately, we have the facts on our side, so it seems to me from my biased position — if we would only make use of those facts, if we would only remain focused and not get distracted by each new media manipulation campaign. This “Great Awokening” narrative is likely the elite trying out rhetoric for the upcoming campaign season. Don’t get suckered in by it.

Stay focused. The American public is on our side, far to the left of both parties. That is our narrative. That is the narrative that will win. It just so happens to also be true.

* * *

I decided to closely read Matthew Yglesias’s article. Maybe I was being unfair. It’s not a bad article. But it made me realize that my disagreement really is more with Ebersole or else my interpretation/misinterpretation of Ebersole’s words. What is clear is that Yglesias never refers to white liberals as militant nor suggests that maybe they should take a backseat to minorities. That puts me partly in the opposite position from him, but it also puts me in the odd position of being a white liberal defending the good name of white liberals against a criticism lodged by another white liberal. We white liberals like to eat our own and fight among ourselves. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a position to be the defense attorney for white liberalism. I thought I had quit arguing on behalf of liberalism (white or otherwise) many years ago, but apparently not.

Anyway, to emphasize the difference of interpretations, I’ll share the results of my close reading of Yglesias’ article. Somewhat in line with my own views, Yglesias too comes to an almost optimistic vision: “Social upheavals simply do not abide by the dictates of partisan politics. The increased moral fervor unleashed by the Great Awakening of the 1840s and 1850s broke the Whig Party and temporarily entrenched the South’s hold on political power. But abolitionist sentiment carried the day in the end. And by the same token, while the Great Awokening might drive some Democrats into Trump’s arms now, the sustained phenomenon is forcing the Democratic Party to confront the legacy of America’s racial caste system squarely. The next Democratic president will have to do the same.” Accusations against militancy and for moderation are irrelevant when historical forces are at play and the forces of racism have been winding down the corridors of American history for centuries. Shifts in public opinion at such a superficial level are more likely symptoms than causes. A boat bobbing about on the waves does not bring on the tsunami, any more than the native’s sun dance gives birth to the sun each morning. Polls, at best, are indicators.

Let’s see to what extent I remain in line with Yglesias or not. It’s hard to say because I’m not able to discern an entirely consistent and coherent message. But let me throw out a definite point of disagreement: “There’s also a certain paradox to the Awokening. As white liberals became more vocal about racial inequality, more racially conservative Democrats left the party and helped power Donald Trump’s electoral victory. This backlash gives the impression that there’s a surging tide of white racism in America.” And elsewhere he states that, “Some of this is a compositional effect. As Obama pushed racially conservative whites out of the Democratic Party, the remaining Democrats are more racially liberal. But using Voter Study Group data, McElwee is able to show that people who consistently self-identified as Democrats changed their views between 2011 and 2016.”

I’m not buying it. As many shifted one direction, many others simply exchanged places — a game of musical chairs. Trump pushed the GOP so far right that a large number of moderates and old school conservatives left the party and not an insignificant portion ended up voting Democrat. Hillary Clinton particularly pulled the neoliberal vote and neocon vote, not to mention the sway of some major conservative figures flirting with the Clinton Democrats during the campaign. Trump’s voter numbers and demographic breakdown was about the same as for previous Republican candidates. He did not win by getting more votes from Democrats, since he lost as many if not more than he gained. It was the Electoral College that gave him the presidency, plain and simple, as has been the case for many Republican candidates before him.

There was an even greater parting of ways between Yglesias and I. “I don’t think it’s just a reaction to events,” he quotes Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist. Rather, “even prior to Ferguson, people take cues from elites.” Yglesias argues that, “Democratic elites were beginning to signal to the rank and file that they should take systemic racism concerns more seriously.” I’m not sure about rank and file, but this doesn’t apply to Americans in general, and I’ll limit myself to an example of a major social issue where Democrats are supposed to be leading the way, if on no other issues. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama only voiced support for same sex marriage years after the American majority had already gotten on board with this supposedly radical position. The DNC elite waited until it was popular and safe. For damn sure, the liberal and leftist black activists weren’t taking any cues from the DNC elite — if anything, it was the other way around. Black activists, along with black leaders and black public intellectuals, led the way on race issues. Then white liberals followed in their wake. And only after support was strong among white liberals, did DNC elites begin to carefully add the appropriate rhetoric into their speeches.

This is where Yglesias shows his confusion. “Opinion leaders,” he says making the same point later on, “often miss the scale and recency of these changes because progressive elites have espoused racial liberalism for a long time.” Yet immediately following that he references an analysis done by Sean MdElwee of General Social Survey data and comes to a mismatched conclusion in stating that it “shows that throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, most white Democrats thought African Americans’ lack of individual initiative was the main source of racial inequality in America.” I’m confused by which opinion leaders supposedly mattered so much. Obviously, the white Democrats who dominated the party in those past decades weren’t showing racial leadership. And to be more specific, those white Democrats for much of that time were Clinton Democrats who after pushing racist tough-on-crime laws using racist rhetoric and imagery now want to pretend that they aren’t racists when it’s convenient. So who were the opinion leaders that moved white liberals to the left on racial issues? Yglesias answers that question without even realizing it. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article making the case for reparations,” he points out, “was obviously enormously influential on the specifics of that question, but also more broadly in the larger Awokening”.

There ya go. It was black liberals and leftists who were the difference makers. He briefly recognizes the fact that the line of causation is not coming down from the pseudo-liberal DNC elite when he admits that, “The growing racial liberalism of rank-and-file white Democrats now has party leaders talking about “systemic racism” and sending strong signals to the party’s base about what kinds of attitudes are appropriate for Democrats to hold.” It was a bottom-up phenomenon that was set in motion by blacks. Still, he seems to dismiss blacks as having real agency to initiate change. “The leftward shifts on immigration, criminal justice, and reparations are often described as reflecting the electoral clout of nonwhite voters. But while that is surely part of the story, the underlying demographics simply haven’t changed rapidly enough to account for the pace of the change. The key difference is that white liberals have changed their minds very rapidly, thus altering the political space in which Democratic Party politicians operate.” Sure, black liberals and leftists are a minority, no different than with white liberals and leftists. Yet the obsession with white liberals and white Democrats remains, casting a spell over the mainstream mind that is irresistable.

Let me do a quick response to the polling statements and questions themselves that Yglesias reports on. The general argument is that, based on the observation of Zach Goldberg from Georgia State University, “on key measures of racial attitudes, white liberals’ opinion has moved to the left of where black and Latino opinions are. White liberals are now less likely than African Americans to say that black people should be able to get ahead without any special help.” What jumps out to me is that phrasing “special help” and it is even worse in the question itself, speaking of “special favors”: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many others minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up: blacks should do the same without special favors”. That question comes across as having been written by someone who had unconsciously internalized racist or racialist thought. I could understand why blacks would be against the portrayal of blacks as needing “special favors”. The fact that white liberals supported such a statement simply indicates a paternalistic racial bias. The polling statement is phrased in such a way that racists could just as easily disagree with it as agree with it. It can’t be used to determine racism of the responders, but it sure can tell us a lot about the people who wrote it and approved it for the poll.

The others I looked at don’t use such a racially-biased framing. For example, one of them asks, “On balance, do you think having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities in the US makes this country a better place to live, a worse place to live, or does it make no difference?” That one can’t be useful for discerning racism either. For blacks who are historically ever on the bottom of the racial order, a mass wave of new immigrants has always meant shoving them back down, as even Hispanics can often pass as white or simply identify as such. Everyone can assimilate but blacks. Still, even Hispanics have had a hard time assimilating, despite their not being quite as fully ‘other’ as blacks, and Hispanics inevitably get blamed for everything bad about immigration, not exactly putting them in a happy situation about immigration. Only whites as the majority of immigrants have had a net positive experience about immigration, since after a generation or three, every white family is allowed the privilege of being normal white Americans. As with the last question, there are potential racist motivations to answer the question in multiple ways.

The same goes for another one about diversity. It depends on the demographic, whether diversity has been used as social control to keep them down or has been used as privilege to give them a leg up. It also depends on class, region, etc. There is nothing inherently racially-oriented about it, even as there are racist reasons to be for or against diversity. The real issue is what kind of diversity, whose diversity, and to whose benefit. White liberals experience diversity as disproportionately wealthy and educated Asians moving into their communities, as is the case in the liberal college town I live in. Whereas many other whites and non-whites would know the experience of how the capitalist class uses races and ethnicities as divide and conquer.

From Kaufmann’s piece, the commenter Martin said, “Class overlaps with race because virtually everyone, white & black, rich & poor, inherits their economic status. Racial attitudes of the living have little or nothing to do with this. Poor black people are poor for the same reason that poor white people are poor: their parents and their communities are poor. I think our “race obsession” serves mostly to reassure rich people that the economic system is fair except for other people’s racism, and to keep the poor complaining about attitudes instead of about the stacked deck.” In such polling, are we really talking about race or is it symbolic of class war, social control, etc? For some white liberals, race might be a real issue. I’m probably a rare white liberal who is working class and spent a large part of my childhood in desegregated Southern schools that were an equal mix of black and white students. Not that makes me better, but it does make for an entirely different experience from many white liberals I know.

To return to ideological labels, those often are symbolic of much else as well. When we speak of white liberals, we aren’t really pointing to mere whiteness and liberalism. Immediately upon stating “white liberal”, a stereotype comes to mind. Other than political rhetoric, it is almost meaningless to speak of white liberals or the white working class. As self-identified liberals tend to be younger, they also tend to be wealthier, often middle class professionals. The difference between white liberals and the rest of the population is largely a class divide. This is why so many liberal-minded people don’t identify as liberal for the simple reason that ‘liberal’ has become mixed up with a particular socioeconomic status. This creates unclear results in polling.

According to 2005 Pew data, almost half of Americans holding liberal views don’t identify as liberal (with a surprising 9% of liberals identifying as ‘conservative’; very few in the opposite direction). For many decades, ‘liberal’ became a bad word. Even someone like Obama who is taken as a major figure in liberalism has, as far as I know, never identified as one. So it’s hard to know who represents liberalism. I’m not sure why we should assume white Democrats are the majority of the liberal-minded and liberal-leaning or that white liberals are a greater percentage of whites than black liberals are of blacks, much less that white liberals are more liberal than black liberals. There are many assumptions typically made that shouldn’t be.

In the end, I don’t know what to make of any of it. What I am certain of is that those claiming to know what it means don’t know either. There is a lot of projection of ideological narratives. News reporting too often ends up being an act of storytelling and to do so requires immense simplification of already overly simplified data. Many diverse stories can be spun from the same thread. The specific story told, though, speaks more to the person telling it. If one wants to find white liberals as militants or as saviors or as clueless, there is polling data out there to be cherry-picked. I have my own interpretations that I try to base on as much data as possible, which comes from looking at decades of data (in some posts I’ve written, I literally looked at hundreds of polls and surveys). I could be wrong, but I suspect I have a better chance of being right than someone trying to make sense of the entirety of the American population based on a single poll or even a few polls. In my own observations, meaningful patterns only emerge when looking at vast amounts of information, not an activity most people including most journalists are willing to do. That doesn’t stop me from reading mainstream articles about polls in the hope of finding useful insight.

That said, I feel like I should give Yglesias the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know that he is purposely promoting a narrative. It is maybe more likely he is just repeating what he has heard among his fellow journalists and their social circles. Having read his writing more carefully, I don’t get that it’s something he has given much thought. His views seem somewhat ad hoc, what is expected of a journalist kicking out another assignment simply because it’s his job. It’s not a deep think piece or anything, and there is no particular reason to hold it up to that standard. But either way, it serves the purposes of the capitalist class that owns and operates corporate media as part of  corporatist two-party stranglehold. That is to say, consciously knowledgeable of his complicity or not, Yglesias should know better of what agenda he is serving.