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.