If You’re Calling for New Democratic Messages, Be Clear about What You Mean

Last week, Ezra Klein had an interview with polling wunderkindt David Shor, whose political wisdom Klein distills to (boldface mine):

All this comes down to a simple prescription: Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff. “Traditional diversity and inclusion is super important, but polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks,” Shor said. This theory is often short-handed as “popularism.” It doesn’t sound as if it would be particularly controversial.

Matt Bruenig describes what the (flawed) reality of this ‘popularism’ looks like in practice using the Child Tax Credit, which provides parents money for having kids–and currently is temporary but not universal in that there’s an income cap (boldface mine):

At Yglesias’s Slow Boring newsletter, Shor argued that the Democrats should create a stricter income test for the monthly Child Tax Credit in order to make the benefit permanent…

In the piece, Shor says that a fully universal CTC polls at 49% while a CTC that phases out at $50k of income polls at 53% (4 points higher!). Normal people might look at these numbers and conclude that it doesn’t seem to matter very much whether you make the benefit universal or have a strict income test. But Shor knows better:

The CTC with no income threshold — meaning it’s not means-tested at all — ranks in the 21st percentile of the nearly 200 issues Blue Rose Research has polled. Targeting the expanded CTC only to households making less than $50,000, however, ranks in the 60th percentile. That’s the difference between an issue Democrats will face attacks on and one they can feel comfortable talking about.

With all due respect, this is one of the dumbest paragraphs that I’ve ever read in my life. It sounds sophisticated, but it makes absolutely no sense.

All Shor is saying here is that, of the 200 or so issues he polled, about 78 (or 39%) of them polled somewhere between 49% and 53% support. That’s seriously it. No more data-wizardry is going on than that.

He makes this out to be a big deal, but the claim “the difference between 49% and 53% is pretty small” is absolutely not refuted by saying “39% of all the issues I polled came in between those two numbers.” These two things have nothing to do with one another!

Furthermore, the percentage of policies that fall between 49% and 53% support is entirely dependent on what policies you choose to poll. I can think of hundreds of policies that would poll outside of that range (e.g. legalizing murder), which were not polled. In the total universe of all possible policies, the difference between 49% and 53% is definitely not 39 percentiles, and 49% support is definitely not sitting at the 21st percentile.

If we included way more policies into the data set, the percentage of policies polling between 49% and 53% would shrink dramatically, which by Shor’s own logic would make this 4 point gap fairly insignificant (but also remember here that the logic is trash).

Put simply, the observation that a lot of the issues Shor chose to poll hover around 50% support does not generate the conclusion that the difference between 49% and 53% is big when we are talking about the effect that a single detail of a single policy will have on elections and election messaging.

Believe it or not, it actually gets even crazier than all this. Remember from above that Shor is saying we should give up making the CTC nearly universal in favor of making it permanent. Yet, in his piece, he makes no mention of how making the program permanent polls. I don’t pretend to know what the deep-down real number is for that question, but plenty of polls have it way underwater, such as this recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, which says that only 35 percent of Americans favor a permanent CTC benefit.

So near-universality polls at 49 percent while permanence polls at 35 percent and thus popularism tells us to … sacrifice the more popular thing in order to achieve the less popular thing? Huh?

My guess is that Shor is overly enamored of Z-scores. But we’ll return to this in a bit.

Jamelle Bouie gets at another, deeper flaw with Shor’s prescriptions (boldface mine):

Take all of this together and you have a pretty clear picture [from ‘populists’ like Shor]. Democrats’ perceived identification with immigration, racial liberalism and the interests of Black activists has alienated a large cohort of non-college white and Hispanic voters, as well as a smaller (but still meaningful) number of non-college Black voters.

Now is the point where I should show my cards. My problem isn’t this conclusion. If you think, as I do, that anti-Black prejudice plays a large and important part in American politics, then none of this comes as a surprise.

My problem is that I don’t think Shor or his allies are being forthright about what it would actually take to stem the tide and reverse the trend. If anti-Black prejudice is as strong as this analysis implies, then it seems ludicrous to say that Democrats can solve their problem with a simple shift in rhetoric toward their most popular agenda items. The countermessage is easy enough to imagine — some version of “Democrats are not actually going to help you, they are going to help them.”

What might move the needle is what worked for a previous generation of Democrats who fought to align their party with the white mainstream. In the early 1990s, the historian Thomas Sugrue writes in “Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race,” liberal journalists in influential periodicals like The New Republic, The Washington Post and The New York Times argued that “the Democratic Party had lost its appeal on the national level because of backlash against the social programs of the 1960s.” Worse, Democrats had capitulated to “identity politics.”

Here’s Sugrue:

Black power radicals, aided and abetted by white leftists, alienated well-meaning, color-blind, working- and lower-middle-class whites and drove them from the New Deal coalition. The “lesson” from this history was clear: so long as the Democrats were captive to “special interests” (namely, minorities), they would never be a majority party on the presidential level. Democrats, in this view, needed to distance themselves from civil rights activists and flamboyant black political leaders like New York’s Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

The Democrat who broke the party’s presidential losing streak, Bill Clinton, took these recommendations. He spoke about the party’s most popular policies while also taking every opportunity to show that he was not, and would not be, beholden to the interests of Black Americans. Invited to speak at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition conference, Clinton concluded his remarks with a now-notorious denunciation of the rapper and activist Sister Souljah, an attack by proxy on Jackson, who had brought Souljah to the event. Jackson, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was a stand-in for the Black activist class, and Clinton’s audience got the message. “What Clinton got out of the Sister Souljah affair,” noted the historian Kenneth O’Reilly, “were votes, particularly the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats like the North Philadelphia electrician who said ‘the day he told off that [expletive] Jackson is the day he got [mine].”

…All of this is to say that if Shor’s analysis is correct, then this is what it could be like to change course. Progressives would complain, as they did in 1992, but — a proponent of this approach might say — Clinton still won 85 percent of the Black vote. And once in office, he would try to reverse course: to moderate and to show his commitment to the people who put him in the White House.

…Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there is a way to stop the bleeding with non-college whites and Hispanics without pandering to the worst forms of racial conservatism. There is the “race-class” narrative, which appeals to economic interests while also trying to pre-empt division along racial lines. I can also imagine a version of Barack Obama’s strategy of publicly rebuking some Black leaders and lecturing Black audiences about “respectability.” Black politicians, in fact, might be uniquely positioned to triangulate between the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party’s professional class and the racial conservatism of the voting electorate.

My larger point is that I think this debate needs clarity, and I want Shor and his allies to be much more forthright about the specific tactics they would use and what their strategy would look like in practice.

To me, it seems as if they are talking around the issue rather than being upfront about the path they want to take.

Ultimately, the problem with Shor’s messaging approach is that it ignores a very fundamental problem: until Democratic programs are perceived as helping non-college whites and Hispanics–and not just lower-income ones, but also the middle class–Shor is fiddling at the margins. This is a much larger problem of narrative (or ‘meta-narrative’). If the populism pollsters were doing it right, they would be asking ‘what would help you?’, as opposed to what is a good policy? (and a more focus-group orientation might get at why people think these policies would be helpful).

Shor’s prescription of looking for a four percentage point increase simply can’t resolve this larger issue of people believing that government is helping the unworthy and not improving the lives of the worthy. Some of that is racism, as Bouie notes, and some of that is based in class. But what ‘populism’ if it were done right could potentially do is figure out how to pitch universal(ish) policies that help multiple groups of people without having the perception of ignoring the supposed worthy.

I don’t think Shor’s approach gets us there.

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2 Responses to If You’re Calling for New Democratic Messages, Be Clear about What You Mean

  1. It’s rabbit holes all the way down — lots of them, by now.

    The maundering (which does not deserve the honorific of “debate”) about “identity politics” and/or “wokeness” has completely forgotten — if it ever knew — how those things arose, where they came from, what they were originally a reaction against; and without understanding those things, there is no hope of understanding what they have since become.

    Let’s look at two levels. (There are many more, but I think these two can be isolated without irretrievable misdirection.)

    I am going to appropriate the word “lynching” to refer to every kind of persecution of any out-group. This is partly because I refuse, as a moral absolute, to make any distinctions among out-groups, as far as any one or ones being more unjustly persecuted than any others, or better placed to defend themselves, or any other kind of invidious pseudo-distinction. It is also because “lynching” is a useful Schlagwort and the public discourse has degenerated to a point where it consists almost entirely of Schlagwörter.

    If you are woke, you are anti-lynching. If you are anti-woke, you are pro-lynching.

    Yes, it is that simple, and it must always be framed in these exact terms, never in any others.

    That’s one level. Now here is the other.

    Why lynching? Who is the target? Think that through, because the answers are as essential as they are non-obvious.

    The target is not the immediate victims. The target is the members of the attackers’ own community who are offended by the persecution. The game is to provoke them to speak up and thereby identify themselves, so that they can be eliminated from the community.

    In other and more disgusting words, it was never about (e.g.) “ni66ers”. It was always, and still is, about “ni66er-lovers”. (“Kikes” on line 1. “Faggots” on line 2. “Eggheads” on line 3. Etc. ad infinitum.) To the peasant mentality, threats outside the community are abstract, hypothetical, allegorical. The real threat always comes from inside, because you can’t see it: it looks like it belongs inside. The trick is to force it to identify itself.

    As the First Law of Modern Politics is that nothing may ever be called by its right name, these simple concepts have accreted so many layers of euphemism, misdirection, and sophistry that they eventually emerge, twisted beyond any possible recognition, as the patent absurdity of “identity politics” or the cheap and easy laughingstock of “wokeness”.

  2. mnitabach
    mnitabach says:


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