Sanders, left, if the choice of African-Americans; Buttigieg, right of white liberals. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

October 24, 2019   4 mins

A new fear stalks white American Democrats. While those who describe themselves as “liberal” — i.e. Left-wing — are horrified by Donald Trump, by inequality, by restrictions on abortion rights, they are horrified too, it seems, by themselves: by the colour of their skin; by the wrongs done by white people and by the system they set up.

This horror is something that simply did not exist 10 years ago. According to painstaking research by Zach Goldberg of Georgia State University, there have been a series of “seismic attitudinal shifts” among white liberals in recent years. Using data from the most reputable non-partisan sources available, Goldberg shows how attitudes have shifted in a short space of time, a phenomenon commonly known as “the Great Awokening”.

So, for example, in 2016 more than 60% of white liberals thought the black-white achievement gap was caused by discrimination, a figure that was 42% in 2012. There is a similar change in answers to the question, “is the US justice system biased against black people?” White liberals were evenly split on the subject until around 2012 but now, overwhelmingly, think the system is biased.

And on the positives of a multi-racial society white Democrats have leapfrogged black party members: in 2016, 78% of them thought a greater racial mix made the nation a “better” place to live. The figure for black Democrats was 57%.

Is there a practical impact of this new white racial radicalism? Very much so, and we are seeing it already. It is hurting Joe Biden, the “white-est” of all the candidates in the race to become the Democrats’ 2020 candidate. This is the man who has talked openly of how he used to do deals with the racist senators who still strutted their stuff back when he started his political career in the early 1970s — and seen now by many Left-wing white Democrats as toxic.

Oh the irony! Because Joe Biden is easily, comfortably, unquestionably, the most favoured candidate among… black Democrats.

In South Carolina — the first primary where black voters will have a significant impact on the Democratic race for the 2020 nomination — Biden is hugely favoured by African-American electors, around 40% of whom back him. The other candidates, including the people of colour, are, at best, in low double digits.

But back in (nearly) all-white Iowa, where the first caucus is held in frigid snow-white January, the white folks are openly hostile to poor Joe and much more in love with candidates who properly embrace the horror of white oppression.

This may in part account for the recent surge in Iowa polling of the young and highly polished mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who has a plan to consider reparations for slavery — a policy which many believe would tear the country apart however fundamentally justified it might be. If Buttigieg were to win in Iowa and Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire (which borders his home state of Vermont, thus giving him a natural advantage) it would leave Biden needing a huge win in the third contest in South Carolina to get back on track. It might be too late for him.

There is a real and growing chance that white liberal Democrats will effectively veto the choice of black Democrats because they think he’s not properly conscious of racial issues. White privilege, anyone? To complain about it and to use it all at the same time: so 2019.

That’s the electoral impact on the Democratic primary, but is there a deeper psychological cringe that the Democratic party ignores at its peril? Self-awareness is a universally acknowledged good; so is a healthy measure of self-criticism. But the level of dislike white liberal Democrats seem to have for themselves is quite something. Could it play with their heads and those of their supporters? How positive about America will they feel they can be before coming up against the mental stumbling block that they have decided race is a massive unresolved scar on the face of their nation?

This matters hugely in 2020 because a sunny disposition and a stable calm outlook on the world might well (for obvious reasons) be enough to win it. “And …. breathe!” could well be a winning slogan. John Kerry suggested as much to me on The Today Programme a year ago: all that would be required would be for the Democratic candidate to be moderate and competent, he suggested. That’ll do it.

At the time I thought this a foolishly complacent approach, but now, after another year of Trump? After the Kurds? Ukraine? Not for the first time, I think Senator Kerry displayed a better grasp of American politics than me.

But if the white liberals in his party have their way, this relaxed, genial route to power is going to be blocked by racial tensions that they themselves stoke. Who cares, they might respond: we have lost the redneck vote and frankly we don’t want it back. We can win with the suburbs, with educated women, with people of colour whose caution in these matters will be seen to have been an understandable mistake. Maybe: but these groups like sunshine too. Indeed, post -Trump, they crave it.

And it remains the case that although lefty Democrats have “found race”, most Americans have not. 41% of voters think that white people are advantaged in modern society, according to an exit poll conducted last year after the mid-terms by the respected company Pew Research.

It’s an impressive number in many respects — but it’s not a majority, and 19% (of a nation of 300 million) actually think the opposite: that white Americans are at a disadvantage to racial minorities.

Even among the 41% I wonder if there are plenty who want to acknowledge what they see as perfectly obvious injustices but not to beat themselves up quite as enthusiastically as some liberal Democrats would like.

By concentrating on these issues Democrats would be picking a fight with majority opinion, and being less sunny about their country than many Americans want them to be. They would also be doing it on their own, racially speaking, because a striking feature of this fashion is how much it seems to be all about white people. The books that inform it, like the New York Times bestseller White Fragility, Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism, are overwhelmingly written by whites.

In fact, the non-partisan pressure group More in Common has suggested that those who believe America was “established by socially dominant groups like straight white men, for their own benefit,” are the most racially homogenous political group in the country.

White people telling others how to live. Is this really the 2020 look the Democrats want to embrace? At least Barack Obama would enjoy the joke.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer