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“A sea change has taken place in American political life. The force driving this change is the digital era style of moral politics known as “wokeness,” a phenomenon that has become pervasive in recent years and yet remains elusive as even experts struggle to give it a clear definition and accurately measure its impact. Where did it come from? What do its adherents believe? Is it just something happening inside the Twitter bubble and on college campuses or is it really spreading across the social and cultural landscape and transforming the country as sometimes appears to be the case? In reality, “wokeness”—a term that originated in black popular culture—is a broad euphemism for a more narrow phenomenon: the rapidly changing political ideology of white liberals that is remaking American politics.
Over the past decade, the baseline attitudes expressed by white liberals on racial and social justice questions have become radically more liberal. In one especially telling example of the broader trend, white liberals recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias—meaning that among all the different groups surveyed white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own. As woke ideology has accelerated, a growing faction of white liberals have pulled away from the average opinions held by the rest of the coalition of Democratic voters—including minority groups in the party. The revolution in moral sentiment among this one segment of American voters has led to a cascade of consequences ranging from changes in the norms and attitudes expressed in media and popular culture, to the adoption of new political rhetoric and electoral strategies of the Democratic Party. Nor has this occurred in a vacuum on the left as the initiatives set in motion by white liberals have, in turn, provoked responses and countermeasures from conservatives and Republicans.
In a recent Vox article based partly on the dissertation research I’ve been doing as a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Georgia State University, Matthew Yglesias described this ongoing transformation as “The Great Awokening.” In Yglesias’ account: “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.’” There is no simple or single explanation for how this process got started. It appears to be driven by an interplay of factors: preexisting tendencies among white liberals; a series of polarizing events like the police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent riots in Ferguson, and the migrant crisis; the rise of millenials as a political force, and the explosion of social media and “woke” clickbait journalism. The years between 2012 and 2016 were a watershed for white liberal racial consciousness. But the seismic attitudinal shifts of those years have implications that go beyond race: They are also tied to a significant decrease in support for Israel and—perhaps more surprisingly—a rise in the number of white liberals who express negative attitudes about the perceived political power of American Jews.”
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