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David Shor is Too Good for This World #1
The Democrats Have a Power Center Problem - And the Solution must be Elite
In the past week a new trendy ideology, popularism, has gained traction among areas of the liberal mainstream. It all started with Ezra Klein’s profile of David Shor, a Democratic data scientist. Here’s his backstory, according to Klein:
During the protests after the killing of George Floyd, Shor, who had few followers at the time, tweeted, “Post-MLK-assassination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon.” Nonviolent protests, he noted, tended to help Democrats electorally. But online activists responded with fury to Shor’s interjection of electoral strategy into a moment of grief and rage, and he was summarily fired by his employer.
Shor’s framework, also described as popularism, is simple. A major problem for Democrats is that they too often support policies that are unpopular with the public. It only gets worse with social media and education polarization, which have democratic staffers, donors, and candidates surrounded by people who hold the same out-of-touch views. This leads to the party adopting positions and terminology on so-called “woke” issues — race, illegal immigration, transgenderism, and education — that alienate working-class voters. These voters predominantly live in important swing states, which make winning the electoral map increasingly difficult for Democrats.
The solution is to orient both messaging and policy around polling, which while imperfect, provides a much better representation of the average American voter. This means emphasizing and campaigning on popular left-wing economic issues, such as healthcare, childcare, and the minimum wage, while avoiding unpopular cultural positions. It also means avoiding unpopular positions more frequently considered “moderate”, like opposing drug price negotiations. It means being more culturally working-class, in rhetoric at the very least.
This framework is simple, intuitive, and data-backed for electoral success. It offers a relatively straightforward way out of a tricky political situation in the imminent future. But one only needs to take a few steps backwards to see why it’s not as simple as making Shor required reading for any Democratic party staffer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a popularist Democratic party. However, accomplishing that is much harder than what Shor, or anyone else I’ve seen on this discourse, thinks. Imagining Republicans, who I think my audience is less sympathetic with, in the same situation makes this much more clear.
“Greg, maybe not do this abortion thing? The swing voters in Michigan won’t like it.”
“Mike, I know you’re really into this Christian stuff, but can you just take a step or two towards the center?”
“Don, can you please stop saying the election was stolen. Come on, do it for the polls?”
Like their Republican counterparts, Democratic ideologues don’t adopt policies based on either evidence or polling. It’s difficult to imagine that activists who can’t accept countless scientific studies on sex differences in physical strength, the uselessness of diversity trainings or individual differences in intelligence will suddenly act rationally when it comes to polling on issues that similarly contradict their worldview. If that were so, you might see the immediate dissolution of dozens of prominent activist organizations overnight. I’m not betting on that.
To be fair to Shor, he doesn’t have a purely rationalist take either. He displays his understanding of both messaging and political power in the aforementioned profile, as well as countless other articles and podcasts. My (extreme) disagreement with his diagnosis and especially his course of action so far is based on two points: where political power needs to be directed and how much of it is necessary.
The Origins of Power Centers
The generally-left-wing Shor acolytes seem in their actions to believe they can solve the problem by educating Democrats on the art of polling. I think this is due to a misreading of history, where progressive opinions emerge pseudo-randomly out of a primordial soup of elite echo chambers who simply don’t know any better. This, in fact, is not where any of the most out-of-touch ideas or terms originate. Defund the police, abolish ice, transgender language-policing, and “latinX”, for example, each have their origins in activist academic publications. From there, these ideas were passed through student groups, political activists, HR consultants and second-rate politicians. In other words, a highly-organized, well-connected and funded effort was leveraged in order to put these topics into the mainstream.
Some people can go overboard with this form of analysis, suggesting conspiracy theories like Joe Biden being secretly controlled by communists or big business consisting completely of these ideologues. This is not the case. This type of effort is no more nefarious than the efforts of the Federalist society or pro-life, conservative movements focused on the supreme court and opposing abortion respectively. In the case of the former, they openly say they want conservative supreme court justices. They create programs to train lawyers and judges. They have a connected network to promote those lawyers and judges. They receive funding from conservative donors at events where they talk about their mission. And they organize it all semi-publicly. No one would call this a conspiracy theory. Left-wing activists function in the same way. They are organized and intentional, but not conspiratorial.
Why is this a challenge for popularism? Well, let’s take a first-person hypothetical. Let’s say that you run a prominent activist organization that holds cultural and political influence within the Democratic party. Your income and your organization’s livelihood comes directly from your political and cultural influence. Along comes a left-wing pundit who brings light to data showing your organization is bad for the party politically (or based on scientifically false premises, for that matter). The only course of action is to aggressively wield political power against such opposition. Not only for the cause, but for your career, and possibly to put food on the table for your children.
Let me reiterate that clearly. The livelihoods of thousands of activists, consultants, and staffers are based on the Democratic establishment holding unpopular or false beliefs. They have control over enough political offices, media positions, and finances to force these beliefs into the
Democratic mainstream in the first place, despite their unpopularity, a task that is much more difficult than maintaining beliefs that are already considered mainstream. And they show no sign that they’re willing to back off so that the Democrats can win a few more senate seats. It’s also important to point out that the wealth and power of these groups are unrelated to, and in the case of Trump inversely correlated to, the success of the Democratic party. In fact, it is exactly these ideologues that went after Shor in the first place.
Which Side Are You On?
As is the case across history with political realignments, it is much more difficult to change someone’s mind than to keep it where it is. Ross Douthat, a conservative opinion columnist for the New York Times, points out the direct implications of this imbalance:
At the very least a Democratic strategy along these lines would probably need to go further along two dimensions. First, it would need to overtly attack the new progressivism — not on every front but on certain points where the language and ideas of the progressive clerisy are particularly alienated from ordinary life.
For instance, popularist Democrats would not merely avoid a term like “Latinx,” which is ubiquitous in official progressive discourse and alien to most U.S. Hispanics; they would need to attack and even mock its use. (Obviously this is somewhat easier for the ideal popularist candidate: an unwoke minority politician in the style of Eric Adams.)
Likewise, a popularist candidate — ideally a female candidate — on the stump in a swing state might say something like: I want this to be a party for normal people, and normal people say mother, not “birthing person.”
I generally agree with this analysis. Tens of millions of swing voters assume that your generic Democrat is out of touch on cultural issues, many more than in 2012. And in order to convince these voters otherwise you need more than just radio silence on the unpopular issues.
Are you beginning to see the problem yet? The problem is the power centers within the Democratic party, the same ones whose livelihood depends on the party holding ideas that are bad for politics, and the same ones who are willing to wield political power to silence and retaliate against Democrats like Shor who disagree with them. So long as they exist, they will do two things:
Through donations, press, and political connects, they will make it more difficult for “Shor-pilled” candidates to win primaries
Through slander and cancellation, they will create strong pressures against Shor-pilled media figures, consultants, and staffers
This doesn’t mean that no Shor-pilled individuals will find any success. Outliers will always exist. However, it does mean that activist-aligned groups can shift the entire party towards them by creating a cynical benefit of money, status and connections for those who conform ideologically. This is bad in two ways, one of which is frequently talked about and the other is not. The first is that some individuals will publicly espouse positions which they don’t actually believe. The second is that individuals who hold and express popular positions will nonetheless be disadvantaged in their careers.
The Big Accountability Problem
Here’s a question to ask: is popularism vs. cultural activism just another factional fight? Every few elections, the coalitions in either party will duke it out in media, organizing and political primaries to try to shift the direction of the party. Of course, it’s never easy to change a political party, but it also happens fairly frequently. If this were simply a factional fight, I would be much more optimistic for popularism. But let’s remember from two sections ago that the core advantage that cultural activists have is an organized effort of unelected NGOs, academics, pesudojournalists, and consultants. This activist class will not disappear if it is beaten in the primaries. They will not disappear even if a vast majority of the party is against them (which is already the case for many issues). They certainly will not disappear if their beliefs or policies are proven to be false and ineffective respectively. They will continue to exist unless there is a concerted effort to remove them that directly targets their employers, universities, and funding sources.
In other words, they are accountable only to internal pressure. However, most of the aggressive moves seem to be flowing in the opposite direction, including the cancellation of Shor himself. Unless the Democrats can do something about it, this serves as essentially a permanent tax on the voter turnout, fundraising, and media coverage of moderate or Shor-pilled candidates.
To make matters worse, Douthat and Nate Cohen’s distinction between keeping moderates and winning them back still applies. Sure, some voters may come around if their candidate is more moderate. But many others will see the very real influence of the fringes as a power center in the party and decide that the Democrats are not worth voting for, even if their own candidate is moderate.
What can be done to solve this problem? Nothing short of a full-on expulsion campaign against this unaccountable activist class. Recall that the reason many of these out-of-touch ideas gained traction in the first place was not only that the left-wing cultural and political elite were too polarized to notice their stepping out of line, but also that intentional, organized activist pipelines wielded their influence over journalists, staffers, and politicians. And what is fairly clear from Shor’s work is that many of these changes hurt the Democratic party electorally. If I were Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden, I know what I would call that: a poison pill. And I would make it very clear internally that any journalists, activists, or staffers peddling these poison pills would not be supported by the Democratic party. Of course, it will be quite different and frankly, undemocratic, to completely eliminate this fraction of the party from existence. But it’s a fairly practical solution to instead cut their power down to the size of the electorate that they represent: a small percentage.
The Cost of Cleaning Up
Put aside the costs of internecine conflict, which as I’ve mentioned before are likely to occur every few election cycles regardless of whether such a plan is immediately pursued. What other costs will the Democratic party face?
One area which I expect to be difficult and costly is the hit to mainstream Democratic narratives. While the policy suggestions of many activist groups are unpopular among the party, they are not easily disentangled from other beliefs that are much more widespread.
For example, roughly 54% of self-identified “very liberal” and 38% of “liberal” voters believe that “around one thousand” or more African Americans were killed in 2019 by police, according to a Skeptic Magazine/WFRT poll. The actual number ranges from 13 to 27, according to various estimates based on FBI data. However, if you have a grossly false idea of how many Black Americans are actually killed by police, it makes sense to believe that defunding the police is worth it, despite an increase in crime. Many other far-left policies are similarly entangled with misinformation. Certainly, dismantling activist organizations such as Black Lives Matter cannot be done without attacking these narratives. While we don’t know for sure that believing distorted numbers about police killings makes a voter more likely to support Democrats (all we know is correlation, which does not necessarily imply causation), it isn’t a very big stretch to assume that this is the case for at least some of these false beliefs. Moreover, it may cast doubts on the trustworthiness of other Democratic party sources, both extreme and moderate. All of this is to say that taking on unpopular positions explicitly requires substantial political effort and sacrifice in the short term, even for the moderates within the party.
So should the Democrats take the Shor-pill? Especially if it means all-out-war with entrenched, powerful ideologues? I haven’t settled on an answer. I hope this article makes its way back to the popularists and they make their re-assessment. Because the worst timeline of all may be one where a naive popularism dies in bloom, taking many of the Democratic party’s brightest minds with it.
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