racial justice

Smearing Popularism Does Not Help Black Voters

Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I am not normal. And, in all probability, neither are you.

People like me — city-dwelling college graduates who know what a “Senate parliamentarian” is — comprise an extremely small share of the American population. But we are damn near the only people who earn a living by writing about politics, or helping the Democratic Party win elections.

Meanwhile, people like you — who choose to read political commentary by people like me — are also (sadly) quite atypical. And in very similar respects. Odds are, you too are a college graduate who lives in a metropolitan area, spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating Kyrsten Sinema’s psyche, and subscribes to a more progressive worldview than the vast majority of the American public.

Over the past two weeks, weirdos like me (and perhaps, you) have been locked in a fierce debate about whether our mutual abnormality is a problem for the Democratic Party — and, if so, what should be done about it.

The impetus for this discourse was a New York Times article about the political data scientist David Shor, and his gloomy forecast for the Democratic Party. Shor’s analysis will be familiar to regular readers of this blog (where it was first published). It has diagnostic and prescriptive elements. The former goes roughly like this: Unless Democrats start winning a much larger share of non-college-educated voters, they will lose the Senate by 2025, and be unlikely to regain the chamber for a decade thereafter. Meanwhile, the Electoral College will likely remain historically biased against the Democratic Party for the next two presidential elections; to have a better than 50 percent shot of securing an Electoral College majority in 2024, Joe Biden will need to win the two-way popular vote by at least four points.

Shor attributes the Democrats’ plight to many structural factors outside their control. But he contends that failures of message discipline have exacerbated the party’s difficulties. Specifically, Shor argues that Democratic analysts and activists have not been sufficiently conscious of their milieu’s abnormality. Blue America’s professional core is better educated, more urban, and vastly more progressive (especially on social issues) than the voters whom Democrats must win to wield federal power. For this reason, Democratic operatives can’t afford to trust their instincts about which rhetorical modes and policy appeals will mobilize disaffected voters or persuade undecided ones. Rather, they must check their intuitions against high-quality opinion polling and unblinkered analysis of election results, and allow such data to inform the Democratic Party’s campaign messaging and policy prioritization. Shor and his fellow proponents of this not-so-novel operating procedure have christened it with the (hideous, constantly auto-corrected) name “popularism.”

Popularism has proven somewhat unpopular among the milieu it critiques. And not without reason. Unfortunately, bad faith and imprecision have muddled the debate over Shor’s analysis. This is partly the popularists’ fault; Shor has not published a comprehensive account of his worldview, opting instead to dole it out piecemeal through interviews and tweets. But responsibility for the muddle also lies with a few of popularism’s most prominent critics, who’ve evinced less interest in scrutinizing Shor’s arguments than in stigmatizing them.

The vitriolic tenor of the popularism debate reflects its high stakes. This year began with a vivid demonstration of the GOP’s hostility to democracy, and it is poised to end with an illustration of the Democrats’ self-defeating political timidity. In this context, how progressives should navigate the dual challenges of keeping Republicans out of power and getting Democrats to wield it more justly is a vital question with no obvious answer.

Unfortunately, one of the least productive interventions in the popularism discourse has also been one of its most widely read. In a column titled, “Democrats Are Ready to Abandon Black Voters, Again,” The Nation’s Elie Mystal misrepresents Shor’s arguments while baselessly indicting his motivations. I have admiration for much of Mystal’s work. And his column on popularism was praised by a great number of other estimable reporters and commentators, including the New York TimesNikole Hannah-Jones, the Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr., and MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, among others. It is precisely because Mystal’s argument has resonated with so many I respect that I feel compelled to outline my objections to it in some detail.

Mystal’s rebuttal to Shorism is comprised of the following claims:

• David Shor “became famous by warning Democrats that taking Black people seriously after George Floyd’s murder would lead to whites’ leaving the Democratic Party.”

• Shor “was right” about that, as the George Floyd protests triggered a “whitelash.”

• In light of the party’s losses with racist white voters, Shor has advised Democrats to “figure out what the racists want and give it to them.” More specifically, Shor “would have us believe that by not addressing Black concerns, by refusing to deliver on promises to fix the election system, the immigration system, and the police system, Democrats are actually helping themselves.”

• This strategy is not only morally repugnant, but doomed to fail, since “the swing voter Shor speaks of will always gravitate toward Republicans offering white pride over the Democrat offering racism as a guilty pleasure.” Meanwhile, all efforts to appeal to that swing voter will necessarily depress Black turnout.

• Therefore, the Democrats’ only viable strategy is “to turn out every Black or brown voter they can find” along with “every white college-educated voter who rejects bigotry.”

Most of these claims are factually inaccurate. The others are highly suspect.

Shor did not become famous by advising Democrats to avoid “taking Black people seriously” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder unless one posits a very peculiar definition of that phrase.

The actual facts about Shor’s rise to prominence are as follows: Amid the racial justice protests of May 2020, Shor tweeted out a study on the electoral implications of the riots that erupted in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He noted that, according to the paper, these riots had “reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon.” By contrast, Shor continued, “Nonviolent protests *increase* Dem vote [share].” Some activists objected to this tacit criticism of violent resistance to police brutality. Partly as a result of the ensuing social-media backlash, Shor lost his job at a Democratic data firm and became a “cancel culture” cause célèbre.

At no point in these developments did Shor advise Democrats to avoid taking Black voters or racial justice seriously. To the contrary, he argued that nonviolent protests in general — and the nonviolent George Floyd protests in particular — helped Democrats electorally. In an interview with Intelligencer in July 2020, Shor claimed that the racial justice protest in D.C.’s Lafayette Park had provided Biden with the biggest polling boost of his campaign.

Subsequently, Shor did argue that defunding the police was extremely unpopular and that Democrats would be well-advised to distance themselves from that demand. But he also argued that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was the Democrats’ most popular non-economic policy, and thus that the party would likely benefit from passing it.

So, Shor argued that (1) the Democrats should celebrate nonviolent protest and condemn riots, while (2) reforming the police without defunding them.

In taking this stance, Shor was effectively imploring the Democratic Party to listen to its Black constituents. By overwhelming margins, African American voters oppose defunding the police, even as they demand action to curb police violence. Meanwhile, Black elected officials of myriad ideological stripes condemned last year’s riots, in terms far stronger than Shor’s (which were, after all, merely empirical).

One can argue that Black voters’ faith in the possibility of police reform is naïve, and that only abolition will end police violence. And one can insist on the utility of property destruction as a tactic. Regardless, it remains the case that Shor advised Democrats to adopt the typical Black voter’s views on policing, and tacitly endorsed that voter’s preference for nonviolent protest.

Mystal’s second core claim is that Democrats’ support for the George Floyd protests led “to whites leaving the Democratic Party.”

There are a lot of white voters in America. So it is surely true that some white voters swung toward Trump in response to 2020’s racial justice demonstrations. But typically, when a pundit says that something will cost Democrats with “white voters,” they are referring to that racial group as an aggregate. And in the 2020 election, Democrats actually gained support among white voters, while losing support among Black and Hispanic voters, according to both Pew Research and the Democratic data firm Catalist.

Now, it’s possible that Joe Biden would have enjoyed even more white support had Democrats distanced themselves from nonviolent racial justice protests (in defiance of Shor’s advice). But there’s little direct evidence to support that claim. What we do know is that, in 2020, more white voters entered the Democratic coalition than left it — and that this was indispensable to Biden’s victory.

Mystal’s third claim is straightforwardly inaccurate. Shor and likeminded “popularists” do not advise Democrats to give racists what they want. Nor has Shor encouraged Democrats to take no action on issues of racial justice or civil rights. In fact, he has been one of the party’s most prominent advocates for redressing Congress’s systematic underrepresentation of nonwhite voters. Shor has implored Democrats to grant statehood to D.C., Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territory that wants it, and to ban partisan gerrymandering. In March, he told Intelligencer that “our immigration system is a humanitarian crisis, and we should do something about that.”

Shor and his fellow popularists do advise Democrats to avoid foregrounding immigration in campaign messaging, since there is a large bloc of predominantly working-class voters who lean left on social welfare but right on immigration. And popularists also discourage the party from framing race-neutral redistributive programs as racial justice initiatives, since a large body of political science suggests that such rhetoric reduces support for social welfare among white voters.

At the same time, popularists do not argue that Democrats should never enact policies that racist white voters oppose. Rather, their view is that when Democrats do things that could alienate swing voters — and thus increase the risk of Republican victory — the substantive payoff should be big. A pathway to citizenship for the undocumented would yield a transformative improvement in the lives of millions. Describing a race-neutral wealth redistribution policy as “reparations” delivers no immediate improvement to anyone’s living conditions. So, in the popularist view, using such rhetoric isn’t worth the risk of alienating voters. One can dispute this analysis on empirical or normative grounds. But it is not the case that popularists are advising Democrats to enact racist white voters’ policy preferences.

Mystal’s final two points are his most significant, as they convey an outlook on electoral strategy that is widely held within the progressive firmament. Mystal contends that Shor’s concern with appealing to white working-class swing voters is both morally objectionable (because doing so will require selling out Black voters) and strategically foolish (because white, working-class swing voters will inevitably “gravitate toward Republicans offering white pride,” while the Democrats’ feeble attempts to win such voters back will depress Black voters). Therefore, the Democrats’ only viable strategy is “to turn out every Black or brown voter they can find” along with “every white college-educated voter who rejects bigotry.”

This analysis is tendentious at best. Mystal’s reading of the electoral landscape elides several realities that are integral to Shor’s. Among them:

• There are a lot of working-class white voters in the United States. In 2020, such voters comprised about 44 percent of the electorate. Due to the sheer size of this demographic, it has remained an indispensable part of the Democratic coalition. Biden won more total ballots from white working-class Americans last year than he did from Black ones.

• America’s electoral institutions heavily overrepresent white working-class voters. This is true in the House, due partly to Republican gerrymandering. But the Senate’s biases are even more profound. Congress’s upper chamber gives overwhelmingly white, rural, low-population states like Wyoming the same amount of representation as California, a relatively diverse and highly educated state of 39.5 million people.

• These biases are a bigger problem for Democrats than they used to be. For decades, Democrats have been bleeding support among working-class voters and gaining ground among college-educated voters. And over that same time period, Americans became dramatically less inclined to “split their tickets” by backing one party’s presidential nominee and the other party’s congressional candidates. Taken together, these two trends make it very difficult for Democrats to compete for Senate control.

• The party’s current paper-thin majority is a product of luck. In 2018, Democrats won the popular vote across all House elections by a historically large margin — and still lost Senate seats. They were fortunate, however, to have many of their most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot in an unusually favorable year: Thanks to a national environment that favored Democrats by about eight points, Joe Manchin and Jon Tester held on in deep-red states. But their margins were slim. Had they faced voters in a general election year — like 2020, when the national environment only favored Democrats by about four points — Manchin and Tester probably would have lost. According to Shor’s calculations, if Democrats do not increase their level of support among white non-college-educated voters, they will likely be down to 43 Senate seats by 2025, and will not reclaim a majority until well into the 2030s.

• Swing voters, while less numerous than in earlier eras, still very much exist. And “persuasion” (voters switching their partisan allegiance from one election to the next) usually has a bigger impact on election outcomes than “mobilization” (partisan voters who sat out the last election turning out). Between 2016 and 2018, Democrats gained about five points in the two-party vote margin. Voters who had backed Trump in 2016 — and then a Democratic House member in 2018 — were responsible for nearly 90 percent of that gain, according to Catalist.

• Nonwhite voters who don’t regularly participate in elections are less firmly Democratic than those who do. In 2020, Trump gained significant support by mobilizing previously Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters, according to the progressive data firm Equis Research.

The upshot of this analysis is simple: For Democrats, appealing to white working-class voters is not optional. Unless the party gains ground with that demographic, Republicans will control the Senate for most of the coming decade. And during that period, Democratic presidents will be unable to appoint Supreme Court justices or pass major legislation on issues of race or economic redistribution. That state of affairs will not redound to the benefit of Black voters.

Mobilizing nonwhite voters is critical. But it is not an alternative to persuasion. There simply aren’t enough nonwhite Democrats in enough different states for them to solve the the party’s Senate problem. Fortunately, it is actually possible to persuade white Trump voters to support Democratic candidates; if it weren’t, today’s Democratic trifecta would not exist.

All this said, popularists aren’t monomaniacally focused on white swing voters. They are also concerned by evidence that Democrats are beginning to alienate working-class nonwhite voters. In 2020, the party’s support among Hispanic Americans fell by about eight points, with that loss heavily concentrated among the non-college-educated. It’s not clear whether these results are the start of a trend, or a mere aberration. But it is cause for concern. If working-class Hispanic voters follow the same political trajectory as the so-called “white ethnics,” then the GOP could simply become America’s majority party.

Mystal acknowledges this trend, and suggests (quite plausibly) that many Hispanic “Clinton-to-Trump voters” were motivated by anti-Black sentiment. But even if that is true, it would not be in the interest of Black Americans for the Democratic Party to renounce the support Hispanic Clinton-to-Trump voters.

If Democrats forswore the votes of all Americans who are bigoted against at least one marginalized group, then Republicans would govern the entire United States. According to the General Social Survey, about 47 percent of Black voters believe that it is “always wrong” for “two same-sex adults to have sexual relations.” Yet it clearly would not be in the interest of LGBTQ+ Americans for Democrats to kick such voters out of their coalition. In a 2017 analysis of survey data, meanwhile, Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartles found that 33 percent of Democratic voters agreed with the statement, “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” That is a deeply ignorant sentiment. Yet African Americans would clearly be worse off if that racially resentful third of the Democratic electorate started voting Republican.

All of which is to say: There is nothing inherently anti-Black about wanting the Democratic Party to avoid alienating bigoted voters, much less white working-class ones more broadly. A “mobilization” strategy will only benefit African Americans to the extent that it keeps the Republican Party out of power. Black families surely need a Justice Department that cares about civil rights, an NLRB that sides with working people, and a Congress interested in expanding social welfare more than they need Democratic messaging that rhetorically centers systemic racism. Yet Mystal makes no effort to demonstrate that the electoral math on his preferred strategy adds up. He does not sketch out how Democrats could afford to disregard white working-class voters and still capture a Senate majority. By all appearances, he simply presumes that there must be a way for the party to do so.

Meanwhile, Mystal misrepresents Shor’s prescriptions for how Democrats should go about expanding their appeal among working-class Americans. Far from arguing that the party should “abandon Black voters,” Shor contends that it should be “nominating more non-white Democrats” and deferring “to them more on policy/messaging choices.”

In Shor’s view, there isn’t actually a tension between “mobilization” and “persuasion” strategies, at least from a messaging perspective: The median Black voter and typical white working-class swing voter are both more moderate than the largely white, socially liberal professional class that (in his view) currently exercises outsize influence over Democratic messaging. And, contrary to popular wisdom, bread-and-butter economic appeals tend to play better with both groups than race-specific messaging (at least according to Shor). Therefore, in the data scientist’s reckoning, Democrats can become more responsive to their Black base and less alienating to white working-class voters simultaneously.

Personally, I’m skeptical of that claim. Like Jamelle Bouie, I think that there is a gap between the bleakness of Shor’s electoral forecast and the innocuousness of his prescriptions. He and his fellow popularists primarily ask the Democrats to compromise on messaging, as opposed to policy. Yet they do sometimes suggest that some degree of substantive moderation is also necessary, without ever going into too much detail about what that would look like; it is not clear precisely what Shor means when he says that his party should defer more to the “policy choices” of nonwhite Democrats.

Regardless, it seems to me that popularism works better in theory than in practice. By which I mean: If the Democrats were an ideologically committed vanguard party, then one could advise them to avoid talking about immigration without effectively discouraging them from doing something to help the undocumented. Republicans do not campaign on making it easier for corporations to poison children; they recognize that such a message would be politically inadvisable. Once safely in office, however, Republicans do their best to help corporations get away with poisoning kids because they are ideologically committed to that project.

And yet, if one posits that at least some Democratic lawmakers care more about their job security than they do about immigrants, then Shor’s analysis could have the effect of pushing the party right on immigration policy, whether he intends that or not. Mystal’s most plausible critique of popularism is that it has already done this: The Biden administration’s immigration policies — from its low refugee cap to its harsh treatment of asylum seekers — bespeak a perception of political vulnerability on the issue. Whether that perception comes from David Shor’s punditry or, say, the 2016 election, is unclear. Either way, though, some aspects of popularism are useful to the most reactionary forces within the Democratic Party.

So, I think there are a lot of reasonable critiques one can make of Shor’s outlook. But I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that his analysis is motivated by an indifference toward marginalized communities, rather than an earnest concern for the harm that a Republican government would do to them.

We live in a polity that was founded on white supremacy, and which has been a multiracial democracy for less time than the sitting president has been alive. Over 70 percent of all U.S. voters are white, and Congress grants that population disproportionate representation. The most popular cable-news show in the country is all but explicitly white nationalist. In this context, I think that it is possible for genuinely progressive strategists to reach ideologically uncomfortable conclusions about the bounds of political possibility. And I don’t really understand why so many left-wing commentators seem to think otherwise.

If Shor’s conclusions are mistaken, then it is vitally important for his errors to be exposed. Identifying an alternative strategy to popularism — that addresses the political challenges it highlights, at less substantive cost — would do a great service to our society’s most vulnerable.

But one can’t persuasively rebut popularism’s arguments without first trying to understand them.

Smearing Popularism Does Not Help Black Voters