Saturday, July 27, 2019

Brooks sights the rare White Democrat

How White Opinion Columnists Moved Centerwards

Racial equity has become the defining issue of the moment.
David Brooks
Opinion Columnist
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 opinion columnists. 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 opinion columnists have moved steadily to the center. In 1994, only about a sixth of pundits who had gone to graduate school said they were neither liberal nor conservative but really appreciated the ideas on both sides and wished everybody would be more civil. In 2015, more than 50 percent did. In 1994, only 12 percent of pundits with college degrees said they were consistently neutral. Eleven years later, 47 percent did, according to the Pew Research Center.

Hahaha, just kidding.

The research Brooks addresses in yesterday's column ("How White Democrats Moved Left") deals with white Democrats, as the headline indicates, who were reported to have moved to the left, according to Matty Yglesias, who's at least somewhat white, I believe, and has moved markedly to the center in recent years except on those occasions where he hasn't (he hardly ever excoriates teachers' unions any more or acts personally wounded by local licensing requirements for manicurists and the like), and who finally gets cited in paragraph 10, under the pseudonym "many researchers":
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.
Leaving me thinking wait, wut? White Democrats are a category now? In opposition to what? Evidently in opposition to the White Working Class, since White Democrats have advanced degrees, it seems, while the White Working Class are Republicans, other than the ones who aren't, and with that all your stereotypes are as neatly lined up as can be.

So why not treat white columnists as a group, in contradistinction to columnists of color? White columnists who have abandoned their partisanship in recent years, like David Brooks, while the columnists of color have tended to remain where they were (no, honestly, fill in your own names) or become still more extreme (OK I can't help it, Thomas Sowell). And racial equity has indeed become the central issue of the day, with white columnists incessantly wishing people would stop talking about it ("Why must we have all this identity politics!?") and columnists of color not doing so.

OK, so speaking as a person of little or no color and a registered Democrat of long standing, I don't find it offensive to see myself described as a subcategory of Democrats, a party which embraces a lot of ethnic varieties in which white people do indeed play a pretty significant part if not the overwhelming part they play among Republicans, but it bothers me when Brooks implies that I represent a peculiar subcategory of white people, the ones whose thinking has gone paradoxical.

It's only a paradox if you start with the assumption that we should all belong to a party that represents our own personal and parochial interests, like the White People's Party and the Colored People's Party, and white Democrats are perversely refusing to act this theory out. As if Republicans actually believe in something that could reasonably be called "identity politics" and Democrats don't. Which is only "paradoxical" if you claim, as Brooks does, that the opposite is the case. I think, as I've said, that it's just normal.

Also, I think there's an elementary error in the argument, as Yglesias sets it up:
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.
White liberals also have warmer feelings about immigrants than Hispanics do.
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.
The error is the mix of categories: white people are allowed in the survey to belong to different ideological groups, but black and Latin people have nothing but ethnic identity.

Which is not merely a racist way of breaking it down (those colored people are all alike, unlike we complex and fascinating pale persons) but probably a scientifically invalid one, leading to a misleading result. Like the idea of this "paradox", which serves no purpose but to make Brooks chuckle.

What I think is that the tabulation should have worked with another variable, adverted to by Brooks in his opening grafs but not mentioned by Yglesias at all, that of education: that is, I'm formally predicting that you'd find a primary distinction between

  • highly educated liberals taking the more "left" positions on these questions, a large proportion of them white, and
  • less educated liberals taking the less "left" positions, a large proportion of them non-white

By which I don't mean that being smarter, or having more degrees, or access to fancier information sources, makes people inevitable more left: on the contrary! It's not a function of the education itself.

I'm thinking it's privilege that does that. It's facing fewer risks that inclines people to play intellectual games instead of fighting for clean water, and less experience of adversity to make them think repairing the world shouldn't be too difficult, and (to be fair) it's freedom that allows us to let our fancy range free to imagine what would be really great.

And for the less privileged, by the same tokens, an appreciation of how hard it is to get anything done at all, a richly earned cynicism as to whether the privileged are going to keep their promises, and an intimate awareness that things can get worse fast if you take the wrong risk. So you don't ask for too much, and focus your hard thinking on what you know is attainable.

That's why some of the most radical black people are tenured professors and famous writers, because they're in the same category as Brooks's "white Democrats", free to dare, and why don't-rock-the-boat Biden supporters are so multiracial. Partly just because Marx was wrong and people's political affiliations don't represent simply their "interests" but their hopes and fears (including justified fears). Except for the highly educated Republicans, who are the most Marxian party in history.

And the other thing is, both liberal sides are in the right! It's right to aim high, and it's right to recognize the dangers. The party needs both, and we might as well start treating each other with affection and respect (or trying, as I was in the failure of yesterday's post, to translate between both sides). We need—everybody needs—both, the openness to fantasy and the grounding in reality,  the thought-spinning and the praxis, yang and yin.

Cross-posted at The Recitification of Names.

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