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How White Liberals Are Driving Wokeness
And how it affects the rest of society.
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We are in the midst of a revolution, a godless revival in which a new creed — variously known as “social justice,” “wokeism,”1 or “the successor ideology” — resembling a New Faith yet inherently secular increasingly defines our culture, sustains our media, and gives new shape to our institutions. What we’re witnessing isn’t a temporary surge in faddish, radical ideas. It’s the cultural triumph of those radical ideas as they consume our society.
This postmodernist project seeks to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture. It’s trampling over traditional American notions of limited governance and tolerance, radically upending age-old verities and rejecting nearly every fundamental principle of liberal modernity. Proselytizers are changing the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy. Armchair lynch mobs collect the scalps of those who offend revolutionary sensibilities, cancelling anyone who dissents or lacks zeal for the cause. Others are subjected to Maoist struggle sessions where they’re lectured on their inescapable guilt and privilege, forced to repent with no hope of forgiveness.
Enemies of the current order are demanding, and in many cases getting, a new country based on a utopian vision in which borders, biology, and the rule of law are done away with. ICE must be abolished, all must affirm that “trans women are women,” and the police must be defunded. And because wokeism is now the official philosophy of the American ruling class, government authorities, the mainstream media, and corporations enforce the dictates of this left-wing absolutism at the expense of protecting constitutional liberties. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this new post-secular creed has the binding of state-backed power.
But who are the chief adherents of the New Faith? Who is driving this sea change in modern America?
It’s simple, really: white liberals. “Wokeness” might be a term that originated in black culture years ago, but as Tablet’s Zach Goldberg argues, it’s really just “a broad euphemism for a more narrow phenomenon: the rapidly changing political ideology of white liberals that is remaking American politics.”
Standard attitudes among white liberals on questions of race and social justice have evolved over the past decade to become radically more liberal.2
As wokeness has normalized, a growing sect of white liberals has been drinking the Kool-Aid, pulling away from the average opinions of normie Democrats and minority groups within the party. This has ushered in a deluge of consequences, including significant changes in the norms and attitudes expressed in media and popular culture and the political rhetoric and electoral strategies of the Democratic party.
Matthew Yglesias has referred to these developments as “The Great Awokening,” a transformation in which “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 seismic shift began with the Ferguson protests in 2014, when activists used ubiquitous digital and social media to sensationalize what otherwise might have been a routine local news story.3 Soon after, pollsters found that white liberals were suddenly expressing dramatically higher levels of concern about racial inequality and discrimination, while showing greater enthusiasm for racial diversity and immigration.
White liberals have thus become much more attuned to racism, often obsessing over it. They see more of it not because America has become more racist, but because their own attitudes toward longstanding features of it have changed.
Consider 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. Amazingly, white Democrats dramatically shifted their views of the centrality of racial discrimination in American life after the election of a black man to the presidency. Data from the General Social Survey and the Voter Study Group show that the years between 2012 and 2016 — well before the ascension of Trump, and, notably, after America voted a black man into the highest office in the land for the second time in a row — were a watershed for white liberal racial consciousness.
This is crucial to understand because 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™. For example, to be a Good Liberal™ is to no longer endorse individualistic explanations of racial inequality and instead support structural explanations of racial inequality, like “systemic racism.”
It was Hillary Clinton who popularized the concept of “systemic racism,” first using the term in a February 2016 speech.4 According to Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist, “Clinton talked a lot more about racial justice issues during the 2016 campaign than Obama did during his campaigns.” She was a leading proponent of the idea that racism should be viewed through the lens of institutional and political power as opposed to insults or rudeness. This shift primed her supporters to adopt a more sweeping view of racial justice.
Convinced that systemic racial discrimination is a fundamental problem in America, white liberals have begun practicing the new anti-racist religion with messianic fervor, crackling with the heat of an unquestionable cause and pushing for wide-ranging social changes.
Now, because they see racial injustice in everything, they reject the neutral principles of constitutional law and have endorsed reparative race-related social policies in greater numbers. See for example the rise in white liberals who think that white people have “too much” political influence; the increase in white liberals who feel that we don’t spend enough on helping blacks, and that the government should afford them special treatment; the increase in white liberals who think it’s the government’s job to ensure “equal income across all races”; and the rapid growth in white liberals who favor affirmative action for blacks in the labor force.
Also of note is the growing level of support among this group for increased immigration levels. Between 1965 and 2000, the percentage of white liberals preferring increased immigration levels hovered around 10%. From the mid-2000s to roughly the end of President Obama’s term in office, this figure gradually rose into the 20-30% range. By 2018, it sat at over 50%.
In this case, it’s possible that some of these changes stem from Trump’s rhetoric and policies on immigration. But the data shows that, as with their attitudes toward blacks, the percentage of white liberals perceiving “a lot” or “a great deal” of discrimination against immigrants more than doubled between 2000 and 2013—well before Trump’s political ascendancy.
Additionally, between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of white liberals saying they feel “very sympathetic” toward illegal immigrants and their families grew from 22% to 42%. In fact, black and Asian Democrats and liberals alike are significantly more supportive of restrictive immigration policies and less positive toward racial/ethnic diversity than their white counterparts.
As if all of the above isn’t enough to highlight how far left white liberals have moved over the past decade, they recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias—in other words, among all the different groups surveyed, white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for racial and ethnic communities other than their own.
As you can see in the above chart, white liberals rated ethnic and racial minority groups 13 points warmer than whites. 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. This is an unprecedented phenomenon.
Why This Matters
Research shows that elected officials are (logically) most responsive to the voices they hear from the most, and by many measures, white liberals are the most politically active people in the country. While they make up 20-24% of the general population, they enjoy disproportionate political and cultural influence. Relative to the average American, they’re more likely to consider themselves activists and far more active on social media.5 They’re also one of the most affluent groups in the nation.
Because white liberals comprise about 40% of the overall Democratic party, they form the party’s largest bloc and are the critical driver of its leftward shift on race and identity issues. In other words, Democrats, who are increasingly defined by their embrace of diversity and progressive stances on issues of racial justice, appear to do so largely at the direction of a small, white elite who view wokeness as the height of political and social virtue. This has obviously altered the political space in which Democratic politicians operate.
And while they might converge on some issues, overall, the attitudes and policy preferences of the woke white left are unrepresentative of the “marginalized communities” with whom they purport to be allies.6 This is obviously a problem when you consider that these white activist types, who are uniformly beholden to a white savior complex and think they’re acting on behalf of voiceless minorities, have wildly distorted understandings of what policies are actually in the best interest of these minorities. Recent surveys show that on a number of racial issues, white liberals do not align with Democratic-leaning black and Hispanic voters. For example, while white liberals overwhelmingly favor defunding the police, minorities, who would bear the brunt of such idiocy, do not.7
White liberals are annoying, yes, but they’re also the ones driving much of the lunacy that affects us all. These are the people who control the core institutions of our society—academia, media, corporations, almost every foundation, healthcare, and the federal government. And because institutional power increasingly defers to them, that deference grants them outsized influence despite their small numbers and unpopular opinions, and the lack of grounding for those opinions in American custom and law. Recent years have shown us time and again how the overwhelming will of the majority can be continually frustrated by this wildly unrepresentative coterie that occupies critical chokepoints within society.
The arc of history bends toward whatever white liberals are spazzing out about in any given week, chained as they are to their hyperactive moral emotions and detached from objective reality. For the rest of us, we must oppose the ideas and motives that animate them—invariably, logically incoherent and ever-changing progressive nostrums. Their ideology, which is based on race essentialism and the blind desire to uproot whatever currently exists, will continue to move toward its one stable equilibrium: tyranny.
There’s been a lot of chatter coming from the Left lately about how people who use the term “woke” can’t even define it. This is, of course, stupid. “Wokeness,” or “wokeism,” is essentially cultural Marxism—instead of a class struggle, there’s an “intersectional” struggle built around power and identity, with those experiencing the most tribulations (minorities, trans, disabled, etc.) deserving the most in return. The idea is that power should be redistributed between identity groups in order to reach an equitable utopia. Sure, most people might struggle to define this defuse, pretzel-logic bullshit, but it’s like porn: you know it when you see it.
In contrast, conservatives have experienced no such attitudinal shift. And because white liberals seem wholly oblivious to just how far left their own attitudes have shifted, this creates the illusion that conservatives are actually cultural extremists clinging to their dwindling privileges in an ever more vibrant and diverse America when in reality they just tend toward normative and structural stability. There’s a very palpable frustration among white liberals that their white conservative counterparts refuse to skip down the path of social-justice enlightenment with them. This is contributing to “psychological reactance”—a desire not just to resist the imposition of sweeping progressive norms, but to affirm one’s agency in the face of perceived social pressure. Hence our increasingly polarized society.
This was the availability heuristic in action. People have a tendency to overestimate the prevalence and significance of things they’re frequently exposed to and thus more easily able to recall. Research shows, for example, that frequent and vivid exposure to crime-related media increases perceptions of the prevalence of police racism. So, if videos of white-on-black police shootings or other instances of discriminatory behavior are on CNN all day, people perceive such incidents to be far more common than they actually are and prejudice more prevalent than it really is.
White liberals place ahead of conservatives on every measure 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 are significantly more likely to consume news from and be politically active on social media. The evidence that’s currently available suggests a direct relationship between a person’s level of social media activity and their perception of how prevalent discrimination is. These people sit in echo chambers all day in which the world is constantly portrayed as teeming with oppression and injustices. This contributes to self-certainty so inflexible that it compounds the consequences of ignorance.
Note how the habitual invocation of the “marginalized” is so often a tool these people use to increase their own power and pursue their own aims, often to the detriment of the very people they claim to represent.