Why Are White Liberals So Pessimistic About Politics?

Why Are White Liberals So Pessimistic About Politics?

No one seems happy about politics these days. A new survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, which I lead, found that less than half the American public felt optimistic about the country’s future. But there is a fairly stark divide among Americans on this question, with white Americans expressing far more pessimism about our country’s direction than members of other racial groups.

White evangelicals were the most pessimistic group we surveyed, but I found in follow-up analysis for FiveThirtyEight that there was a notable racial divide among Democrats as well.1 More than 6 in 10 Black Democrats (68 percent), and 62 percent of Hispanic Democrats said they were somewhat or very optimistic about the country’s future but white Democrats were much more divided — roughly as many said they felt optimistic (53 percent) as pessimistic (47 percent) about where the United States is headed.

Stacked bar chart showing the share of Democratic and Democrat-leaning Americans who expressed each view about the future of the country, by demographic. 53% of White, non-Hispanic respondents expressed feeling very or somewhat optimistic, while 47% expressed feeling very or somewhat pessimistic. In contrast, 68% of Black, non-Hispanic respondents felt very or somewhat optimistic and 32% felt very or somewhat pessimistic. 62% of Hispanic respondents felt very or somewhat optimistic and 38% felt very or somewhat pessimistic.

Despite feeling somewhat more optimistic overall than Republicans about where the country is headed, Democrats — particularly those who are white and college educated — expressed far higher levels of politically based anxiety than Republicans. What’s odd about this development, though, is that over the past several decades American society has moved to the left. 

A greater share of Americans identify as liberals today than at any point in the past 30 years or so, according to polling from Gallup, even if they are still significantly outnumbered by self-identified moderates and conservatives. On political issues from marijuana legalization to LGBTQ rights, the youngest generation of Americans consistently expresses more liberal positions than the ones preceding it. In fact, in an analysis of 50 years of trend data from the General Social Survey,2 sociologist Michael Hout found that the U.S. has primarily moved in a liberal direction. On more than half of the variables included in his analysis, Hout found public opinion moving in a liberal direction, while only 11 percent of measures showed attitudes becoming more conservative, a roughly five to one liberal advantage.

With many once-liberal positions being adopted into the mainstream, such as same-sex marriage, one might expect a feeling of hopefulness among left-leaning voters. So, why is the feeling of doom and gloom so pervasive among many white liberals?

One possible explanation may lie in how white liberals prioritize politics over other types of activities. Certainly, when it comes to religious participation — an activity strongly associated with stronger social connections and feelings of personal satisfaction  — liberals have experienced a precipitous decline over the past few decades. According to Gallup data, only 35 percent of liberals belonged to a church or religious congregation in 2020, down from 56 percent in 1998. 

Research by my colleague Ryan Streeter also finds that the most politically active among us are less engaged in civic and social activities. This group of people leans farther left than the general population. Streeter argues that for some on the left, politics has replaced religious activities and participation in local community efforts. “When our tribal needs are not met in familial and communal association, our ideological associations play a larger role in our lives — and nowhere is ideological community stronger than in politics,” he wrote. But political activism that doesn’t require interacting with others in person and building relationships does not offer the same social return on investment as other types of activism.

Another possible reason white liberals express political pessimism might have to do with their media diet. Compared to other Americans, white liberals spend much more time consuming political news. Interest in politics surged among left-leaning voters after former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. And a study by the Pew Research Center found that the most liberal Americans, a group that is predominantly white, became much more attentive to politics in the wake of Trump’s victory — 67 percent report spending more time following politics. 

Dan Hopkins, a political scientist and University of Pennsylvania and FiveThirtyEight contributor, has argued that the nationalization of politics has occurred because the media increasingly focuses on national debates. And more than other Democratic-leaning voters, white liberals’ news consumption is strongly skewed toward national politics. Almost four in 10 white liberals report that they follow news about national politics very closely, while only 20 percent say they follow local news as often.

One unfortunate side effect of the hyperfocus on national news is that white liberals sometimes embrace policies that are out-of-step with the communities the policies most affect. For instance, Black and Hispanic Democrats are more supportive of increasing spending on local policing than white Democrats are. In a recent poll by the Survey Center on American Life, 71 percent of white liberals said they support cutting funding from police departments and shifting it to social services instead. But Black Americans were more divided. Slightly more than half (53 percent) supported this policy, but 44 percent didn’t. This is not to say that Black and Hispanic Americans don’t think there are problems in how the police treat Black and brown people (they do), but their feelings on the issue are complex, and they often support an expanded police presence in their own neighborhoods.

Another reason for dispiritedness among white liberals may have to do with the political fights that they engage in. Take the 2020 Senate election in Kentucky. Democratic challenger Amy McGrath raised more than $96 million in her bid to oust then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but in the end, the race was not close — McConnell won by nearly 20 percentage points. Beating McConnell, despite his tepid approval ratings, was always going to be a long shot, yet many liberals became emotionally invested in the race. Perhaps because of the time and energy spent following national politics, a lot of liberal fundraising flows to these high-profile national campaigns that ultimately have a low probability of success.

It’s not difficult to see how deeper investment in more winnable races might ultimately prove more rewarding. This underscores yet another reason why white left-leaning voters may be more pessimistic: How they engage in politics is different from other Americans. 

Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University, argued in 2020 that college-educated white Americans — a group that has trended leftward in recent years — tend to engage in politics very differently from Black and Hispanic Americans. In his research, Hersh found that “white people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations.”

Hersh suggested that white, college-educated, left-leaning voters are much more likely to engage in “political hobbyism” than in building coalitions to address social problems. These efforts often require sustained energy and investments, which for many left-leaning hobbyists is likely a less attractive way of participating in politics, though it may prove more effective in the long run.

Finally, consuming so much political news and information warps our perception of the world. Consider that white liberals are far more likely than other Americans to say that politics says a lot about the type of person someone is. A 2020 survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that 75 percent of white liberals believed that a person’s politics defines who they are, higher than the public overall (64 percent). 

This phenomenon may also help explain why the same survey found that white liberals (69 percent) were far more likely than white conservatives (33 percent) to say they would be upset if their child married someone whose views of Trump diverged from their own. Left-leaning singles who are looking for a relationship consistently express greater reservations about dating across the political divide as well.

White liberals are also more likely to argue about politics with strangers. In the same 2020 survey, close to half (44 percent) reported having had a political disagreement with someone they did not know well within the previous 12 months; Americans overall were less likely to quarrel about politics with strangers, with 34 percent reporting they had in the same timeframe. The problem with this, though, is that research shows that thinking the worst about our political opponents makes us miserable. A study published in 2019 said, “People who hold harsher views of their political opposites also tend to report that politics has negative impacts on their lives.”

To be sure, pessimism about the future isn’t entirely unfounded for liberals. The political balance of the Supreme Court has shifted much further to the right during the Trump administration, and the electoral map, particularly the Senate, presents ongoing challenges. On the policy front, issues like climate change can feel intractable, too, given the political realities of the moment. But political predictions are often wrong. At the start of the 2020 redistricting cycle, for instance, many political experts expected the GOP to lock in significant gains, but this hasn’t materialized so far.

The good news for left-leaning voters is that the higher rates of national media consumption may have been largely driven by interest in news about COVID-19 and Trump. With Trump no longer dominating the media landscape, and COVID-19 case numbers falling, the appetite for national news on the left is likely to change. In fact, a new study by the Knight Foundation shows that Democrats are already paying far less attention to national news today than they were just a few months earlier. Taking an interest in politics is an important part of being an engaged citizen, but for liberals, greater participation in local affairs and organizations may ultimately prove more personally rewarding.

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