Democrats Are in Peril. Can They Talk Themselves Out of It?
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Last week my colleague Ezra Klein wrote an extended column on the work and political thought of David Shor, a pollster and progressive consultant who, according to Politico, has “an audience in the White House and is one of the most in-demand data analysts in the country.”
A prophet of the Beltway, Shor has news to share, and the news, for Democrats, is bad: The party is on the cusp of falling into a decade of powerlessness, he warns, and its best hope of avoiding such a fate is to tailor its messaging and policies to win over non-college-educated voters, especially white ones, who have defected to Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Klein’s piece brought to a boil a debate that had been simmering for months on Twitter, a debate that poses uncomfortable questions about what the Democratic Party should stand for and how, in the face of an increasingly authoritarian opposition party, it can best prevent the erosion of U.S. democracy. Here’s what people are saying.
Are Democrats really doomed?
Since 2019, Shor’s been modeling every House, Senate and presidential race between now and 2032. Again and again, his models predict the Senate will almost certainly return to and stay in Republican hands. (You can play around with a version of his model here.)
In 2022, if Senate Democrats manage to win 51 percent of the vote, they are likely to lose a seat — and the chamber. They would have to beat Republicans by an extraordinary four percentage points to have just a 50-50 chance of holding the majority.
In 2024, Shor’s model projects that if Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, they will end up with only 43 seats in the Senate.
The Senate has always been a relatively unrepresentative body, but since the 1970s it has increasingly disadvantaged Democrats, to the extent that Republicans can hold a majority of Senate seats while representing only a minority of Americans. There are a couple of forces, in Shor’s view, that have made the Senate’s electoral math newly punishing for Democrats:
Educational polarization: In recent years, Democrats have started winning more college-educated white voters and fewer non-college white voters. Democrats have also lost ground among Latino voters and, to a smaller extent, Black voters, with the sharpest drops among those who did not attend college. Because college-educated voters cluster around cities and non-college voters are heavily rural, this trend puts Democrats at a disadvantage in the Senate.
The decline in ticket-splitting: As recently as 2008, the correlation between how a state voted for president and how it voted in Senate elections was about 71 percent. In 2020, it was 95.6 percent, which means it’s much harder now for individual Democratic Senate candidates to win in states that lean Republican.
It should be said that not everyone is quite as certain as Shor about the portent of these trends. David A. Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, writes: “There are simply too many moving parts in the parties’ coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing electoral outcomes to gain much confidence in foreseeing future developments, and even smart arguments made by smart people drawing on smart data sources can quickly fall apart when the political world changes.”
Can ‘popularism’ save the Democratic Party?
Shor argues that to avoid being locked out of power, Democrats need to start winning Senate seats in Republican-leaning states. And to do that, as Klein summarizes, “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.”
This theory, often called “popularism,” doesn’t necessarily require Democrats to tack to the right on every issue: As Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine: “Many substantively radical ideas enjoy broad public support, while many putatively moderate ones do not. Political pragmatism is not synonymous with Beltway centrism.”
For example, letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices is the most popular policy Shor has tested, but it’s so-called moderates who are standing in the way of it becoming law. A similar dynamic has characterized the fights to pass a $15 minimum wage, raise taxes on the rich and legalize marijuana.
Where the popularist imperative ruffles progressive feathers, though, is on racial justice and immigration issues. Shor argues that broadly speaking, swing voters in states that Democrats need to win are not socially liberal and do not share the same worldview as the mostly college-educated, city-dwelling liberals who run and staff the Democratic Party.
“If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented,” he said. “That’s morally bad, but it also means eventually they’ll leave.”
Shor believes that this discrepancy explains why Hillary Clinton failed to become president: She “lost because she raised the salience of immigration, when lots of voters in the Midwest disagreed with us on immigration,” he told Klein. (His evidence is a chart showing that among voters who supported universal health care but opposed amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, 60 percent voted for Obama in 2012 but 41 percent voted for Clinton in 2016.) “A lot of people on the Clinton campaign tricked themselves into the idea that they didn’t have to placate the social views of racist white people,” Shor said last year.
The solution for Democrats, in Shor’s view, is to practice a ruthless messaging discipline that avoids discussion of race and immigration. Otherwise, the party resigns itself to political irrelevance.
The problems with popularism
As Shor’s star has risen, his unified theory of American politics has also received plenty of critiques. Here are four.
Popularism underestimates the challenge of winning back defectors: As my colleague Nate Cohn notes, the past 10 years have seen millions of white voters without college degrees who used to vote for Democrats become loyal Republicans. Would merely talking about popular policies and shutting up about unpopular ones really be enough to win them back?
Popularism overestimates the importance of Democratic Party messaging: “It’s almost laughable to me the notion that what people think about Democrats is made out of what Democrats think,” Anat Shenker-Osorio, the founder of the progressive firm ASO Communications, told Klein. “I wish we lived in that world. I’d probably be on vacation. But that’s not our world.”
As the journalist David Roberts points out, whatever messages the Democratic Party might wish to send to voters get filtered through a right-wing media ecosystem that is “specifically designed to make Democrats look horrible.”
Popularism misunderstands the nature of public opinion: Edward Lawson, a political scientist and data analyst, responded to Klein’s piece by noting that most people don’t actually know very much about policy issues, and the positions they take on them tend to be shaped by external forces.
“Republicans have a whole infrastructure of media designed to shape and alter not just people’s issue positions, but their beliefs about essentially everything,” he writes. “This, by the way, speaks to a major reason Dems are so electorally disadvantaged: They still generally think people’s issue positions are independent and fixed, so they usually try to move toward the middle to get them. G.O.P. knows they aren’t, and they work to change them.”
Popularism cedes the premise of a politics governed by racial resentment: The Times columnist Jamelle Bouie is sympathetic to Shor’s conclusion that talking about racial justice and immigration incurs an electoral cost for Democrats. “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,” he says. “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.”
What might move the needle, he argues, is what worked for the generation of Democrats led by Bill Clinton, who fought to align his party with the white mainstream by emphasizing its 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.”
But could Democrats afford to adopt such a strategy today? In Georgia, where Black voters helped propel President Biden and Senate Democrats to victory, Black activists, politicians and organizers say their patience with the president is wearing thin: He promised Georgia voters “the progress we need to make on jobs, on health care, on justice, on the environment,” but he and his party have failed to pass a $15 minimum wage, a public option for health insurance, voting rights protections or comprehensive police reform. Nationally, Biden’s approval rating among Black Americans fell from 85 percent in July to 67 percent in September.
“I think the frustration is at an all-time high, and Biden can’t go to Georgia or any other Black state in the South and say, ‘This is what we delivered in 2021,’” W. Mondale Robinson, the founder of The Black Male Voter Project, told The Washington Post. “Black men are pissed off about the nothingness that has happened.”
Another future for the Democratic Party
Is there a way for Democrats to reverse their declining fortunes with non-college-educated whites and Hispanics without embracing reactionary racial and immigration politics? One possibility, Bouie suggests, is running liberal but not leftist Black politicians who, like Barack Obama, are able to “triangulate between the racial liberalism of the Democratic Party’s professional class and the racial conservatism of the voting electorate.”
Another possibility comes from the Race-Class Narrative Project, an initiative seeking to develop empirically tested messaging that appeals to popular economic interests while neutralizing racially divisive rhetoric.
“Shor is making the same mistake leaders of the Democratic Party have made for decades: to jump from the insight that attacking racism as a white problem backfires with most voters (true) to the unsupported/seemingly unshakeable article of faith that Democrats should largely stop talking about racism (false),” writes Ian Haney López, a founder of the project and a law professor at Berkeley. “The fundamental challenge for Democrats is not to stop talking about race but to shift the basic political conflict in the United States from one between racial groups (the right’s preferred frame) to one between the .1 percent and the rest of us, with racism as their principal weapon.”
The Times contributing writer Thomas B. Edsall wrote at length in April about whether such “a class plus race frame” could help Democrats achieve larger electoral majorities, putting the idea in conversation with critics who warn against highlighting racial injustice.His conclusion? “This debate is not one that lends itself to resolution.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Popular-ism and the Democratic Messaging Deficit” [The Message Box]
“Democrats are having a unity problem. That’s familiar territory for them” [NPR]
“The Democrats’ Privileged College-Kid Problem” [Politico]
“Why Democrats Are Losing Texas Latinos” [Texas Monthly]
“Why America Can’t Have Nice Things” [The New York Times]