People are always changing their minds, day to day. But over the past 20-odd years one group has shifted to an astounding degree: highly educated white Democrats. I’m not sure I understand why this group has undergone such a transformation, but it has, and the effects are reshaping our politics.
The easiest way to describe the shift is to say that educated Democrats have moved steadily to the left. In 1994, only about a sixth of Democrats who had gone to graduate school said they were consistently liberal. In 2015, more than 50% did. In 1994, only 12% of Democrats with college degrees said they were consistently liberal. Eleven years later, 47% did, according to the Pew Research Center.
One of the results is that, as my colleague Thomas B. Edsall put it this week, there are now three Democratic Parties. The most moderate faction is the most nonwhite and focuses on pocketbook issues like jobs and taxes. The most left-wing segment is the most populated by whites. It focuses on issues like abortion, global warming, immigration and race and gender equity.
To say that white educated Democrats have moved left is true, but it’s not the essential truth. The bigger truth is that this segment is now more likely to see politics through a racial lens. Racial equity has become the prism through which many in this group see a range of other issues.
For example, immigration is now seen through the lens of race in a way that simply wasn’t true two decades ago. As Zach Goldberg noted in an essay in Tablet Magazine, between 1965 and 2000, the percentage of white liberals who wanted higher immigration levels never deviated far from 10%. During the Obama administration, the number rose to the range of 20 to 30%. Now, more than 50% of white progressives want to see higher immigration levels.
Many progressives see barriers to immigration as akin to unjust racial barriers. Many want to dismantle the border enforcement agencies and eliminate criminal sanctions against undocumented crossings precisely because they are seen as structures of oppression that white people impose on brown people.
The racial lens also affects views on foreign policy topics. For most of the 20th century, for example, white liberals consistently sympathized with Israel more than with the Palestinians. But that has reversed. White progressives are much more critical of Israel than ever before. What had once been seen as an intractable regional conflict between a democracy and a series of authoritarian regimes trying to destroy it is now seen as a conflict between a white colonialist power and the brown people it oppresses.
In this new dispensation, the concept of white privilege is on everybody’s lips. As Goldberg points out, in 1996 and 2010 about a quarter of white liberals thought racial discrimination was a very serious problem. By 2016, 58% did. White liberals have warmer attitudes toward other races than they do toward their own.
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In this dispensation, more white progressives view society as basically unjust. In last year’s Hidden Tribes survey, for example, 86% of progressive activists said that people’s life outcomes are outside their individual control.
This shift in outlook has yielded several paradoxes. As many researchers have pointed out, white progressives are now farther left on immigration and race and diversity issues than the typical Hispanic or African American voter.
Second, two of the great marks of privilege in our society are skin color and education levels, and yet in the Democratic Party it’s the highly educated whites who express the greatest alienation with the system that benefits them so directly.
Third, the progressive framework is egalitarian, but the shift has opened up wider opinion and cultural gaps between this highly educated elite and less educated groups.
Why have white progressives moved so far so fast? There are several theories.
The most direct theory is that America is a land of systemic racism. Highly educated white progressives have woken up to this fact and are out in front of other groups. This is, after all, the nation that elected Donald Trump and that puts children in cages at the border.
The more cynical take starts with the observation that the creed of wokeness is mostly centered on the super-prestigious universities and the affluent progressive enclaves along the coasts. In this take, if you’re a rich white child of privilege you have to go to extraordinary lengths to prove you’re one of the good children of privilege and not one of the bad ones. In this take, white progressives don noble clothing to make themselves feel good without really dismantling the structures that keep them in lifestyle bubbles and on top.
For me, it’s a good idea to assume that people adopt their positions for honest, well-intentioned reasons. The crucial question then becomes: When is the racial lens (with its implied charge of racism against those who disagree) the right lens to use and when is it not? When does it illuminate an issue and when does it conceal?