Posted on April 5, 2019

The Great Awokening

Matthew Yglesias, Vox, April 1, 2019

For all the attention paid to the politics of the far right in the Trump era, the biggest shift in American politics is happening somewhere else entirely.

In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.

This change amounts to a “Great Awokening” — comparable in some ways to the enormous religious foment in the white North in the years before the American Civil War. It began roughly with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, when activists took advantage of ubiquitous digital video and routine use of social media to expose a national audience in a visceral way to what otherwise might have been a routine local news story.


Pollsters began to see a rapid, sustained change. White Democrats suddenly started expressing dramatically higher levels of concern about racial inequality and discrimination, while showing greater enthusiasm for racial diversity and immigration. {snip}

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.


Trump has made white racial resentment more visible than it was before, but at the same time, white liberals have become much more attuned to racism — seeing more of it not necessarily because the world has changed but because their own attitudes toward longstanding features of it have changed.

The exact implications of this for short-term electoral politics are dicey — older, more rural, less educated whites who are relatively untouched by the Awokening exert disproportionate influence in the political system. But the fundamental reality is that the Awokening has inspired a large minority of white Americans to begin regarding systemic racial discrimination as a fundamental problem in American life — opening up the prospects of sweeping policy change when the newly invigorated anti-racist coalition does come to power.


The change, however, appears to predate Trump and, in fact, to have relatively little to do with the calendar of presidential politics. Instead, polling from the Pew Center shows that as late as 2014, most Americans believed there was no longer any need for the country to make changes to address black-white inequality. Consequently, few people believed discrimination was the main barrier to black upward mobility. These numbers then started to change rapidly, with the shift driven overwhelmingly by a change in the views of self-identified Democrats.

The timing of this change suggests that the Ferguson protests were a key flashpoint in changing thinking about the discrimination issue. But Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist, says the beginnings of the shift were visible even during Barack Obama’s first term.


Obama’s 2012 observation that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” is just one small example of how elite actors have helped push a shift in whites’ perception of race. And the shift, once underway, became mutually reinforcing. Liberal white audiences became increasingly interested in black intellectuals’ conceptions of race and racism in America. {snip}

Schaffner observes that “Clinton talked a lot more about racial justice issues during the 2016 campaign than Obama did during his campaigns” — further priming the minority of white Americans who supported her to adopt a more sweeping view of racial justice. Key to this view, as Adam Serwer wrote in the Atlantic in November 2017, is that we should see racism as a question of “institutional and political power” rather than being “about name-calling or rudeness.”

{snip} Just this March, Beto O’Rourke told an overwhelmingly white audience in Iowa that American capitalism is “racist.” The previous summer, Elizabeth Warren called the criminal justice system “racist.” Even Joe Biden — who in the mid-1970s was a leading political opponent of aggressive school integration measures — in a January 2019 speech called on white America “to admit there’s still a systemic racism” in American life. Mainstream Democratic Party politicians, in other words, are beginning to take for granted that their constituents will embrace the more institutional understanding of racism.

At roughly the same time, there has been a large increase in the number of Americans who express positive attitudes about immigration — driven almost entirely by shifting views of Democrats.


Opinion leaders often miss the scale and recency of these changes because progressive elites have espoused racial liberalism for a long time. Sean McElwee, of the left-wing policy organization Data for Progress, did an analysis of General Social Survey data, which 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.

The notion that Obama’s ascension to the presidency would usher in a “post-racial” era of American life, of course, proved false. And not just because of a white backlash to his administration or to the growing diversity of the American population, but because white Democrats dramatically shifted their views of the centrality of racial discrimination in American life after the election of a black man to the highest office in the land.

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. {snip}

Zach Goldberg, a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University, observes that 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.

And, critically, white liberals are much more enthusiastic about the idea that diversity makes the United States a better place to live than are blacks or Latinos. Non-liberal whites are least enthusiastic of all, which is not enormously surprising, but Latino views of this are closer to those of non-liberal whites than to white liberals.


Back in 1996, the Democratic Party platform read like something out of a Trump campaign ad. “In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed,” the document states. “Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.” Bill Clinton went on to run for reelection boasting about his crackdown at the border.

Even by 2008, when Democrats substantively supported a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, the platform was still framed around enforcement-first themes, intoning that “we cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked.”


Perhaps the clearest sign of the shift, however, is the completely upturned politics of reparations. Ten years ago, reparations were a total nonstarter in Democratic Party circles. Instead, someone like Rush Limbaugh would try to secure political advantage by characterizing Obama administration economic policies as a form of reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 article making the case for reparations was obviously enormously influential on the specifics of that question, but also more broadly in the larger Awokening — such that references to redlining and other discriminatory aspects of the post-World War II real estate market are now commonplace throughout progressive circles.

Coates said that “initially I was very surprised” by the size of the white audience for his work — an audience whose existence is both a cause and a consequence of the Awokening — but he’s palpably changed the conversation. Now it’s Democrats themselves who embrace the term even when their actual policy proposal is race-blind. Kamala Harris, for example, mentioned her LIFT Act, which would boost incomes throughout the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution, as a form of “reparations” even though most of the beneficiaries would not be black.

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.


One traditional factor that goes into the racial resentment mix, for example, is the General Social Survey question that asks whether you agree or disagree with the statement “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up; blacks should do the same without special favors.”

This is, in fact, a very revealing query in terms of your understanding of the history of race and ethnicity in the United States. About a third of African Americans disagree with it, which is more than the share of the overall white public but substantially less than the 45 percent of white liberals who say they disagree.

A big part of what Trump did in the 2016 campaign was simply increase the salience of racial conflict themes, thus boosting his appeal to white voters who may have previously backed Democrats on other grounds. But it’s crucial to understand that, in large part because of the Awokening, Trump is not to blame: Democrats themselves have moved the goalposts in terms of what kind of racial views one is expected to affirm as a good liberal.

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.


And yet to the extent that one believes — as, in fact, the evidence seems to say — that racial polarization of the electorate was a boon to Trump’s fortunes, it seems plausible that Democrats’ new post-Awokening political style will only help him win. But since anti-racism really is a central motivating force for the anti-Trump coalition, it hardly seems realistic or reasonable to expect it to hide that fact.