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Last week, my colleague Ezra Klein wrote a long column on the work and political thought of David Shor, a progressive pollster and consultant who Politico says has “a White House audience and is one of the analysts of most requested data. in the countryside.”
Prophet of the Beltway, Shor has news to share, and the news, for Democrats, is bad: the party is on the verge of falling into a decade of helplessness, he warns, and his best hope to avoid such. fate is to tailor its messages and policies to convince unqualified voters, especially whites, who have defected from Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Klein’s article boiled a debate that had been simmering for months on Twitter, a debate that posed uncomfortable questions about what the Democratic Party should stand up for and how, in the face of an increasingly authoritarian opposition party, it can at best prevent the erosion of American democracy. Here is what people are saying.
Are Democrats really doomed?
As of 2019, Shor has been modeling every House, Senate, and Presidential race by 2032. Over and over, his models predict that the Senate will almost certainly return and remain in Republicans’ hands. (You can play with a version of his model here.)
In 2022, if Senate Democrats manage to win 51% of the vote, they risk losing a seat – and the chamber. They would have to beat the Republicans by an extraordinary four percentage points to have only a 50-50 chance of holding a majority.
In 2024, Shor’s model predicts that if Democrats win 51% of the bipartisan vote, they’ll only get 43 seats in the Senate.
The Senate has always been a relatively unrepresentative body, but since the 1970s it has increasingly disadvantaged Democrats, as Republicans can hold a majority of Senate seats while representing only a minority of people. ‘Americans. In Shor’s view, several forces made the Senate electoral calculations newly punitive for Democrats:
Educational polarization: In recent years, Democrats have started winning more college-educated white voters and fewer non-college white voters. Democrats also lost ground among Latino voters and, to a lesser extent, black voters, with the largest declines among those who did not attend college. Since university educated voters cluster around cities and non-university voters are strongly rural, this trend puts Democrats in the Senate at a disadvantage.
The decrease in ticket splitting: As recently as 2008, the correlation between how a state voted for president and how it voted in senatorial elections was around 71%. In 2020, it was 95.6%, which means it’s now much more difficult for individual Democratic Senate candidates to win in Republican-leaning states.
It must be said that not everyone is as certain as Shor of the foreshadowing of these trends. David A. Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, writes: “There are simply too many moving parts in party coalitions and too many contingent factors influencing election results to gain confidence in predicting future developments, and even Smart arguments made by smart people who rely on smart data sources can quickly collapse when the political world changes.
Can “popularism” save the Democratic Party?
Shor argues that to avoid being excluded from power, Democrats must start winning Senate seats in Republican-leaning states. And to do that, as Klein sums it up, “Democrats should do lots of polls to find out which of their views are popular and which aren’t, and then they should talk about popular things and keep quiet about unpopular things.”
This theory, often referred to as “popularism,” doesn’t necessarily require Democrats to turn right on every issue: as Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine: “Many ideas radically. Political pragmatism is not synonymous with Beltway centrism.
For example, letting Medicare negotiate the prices of prescription drugs is the most popular policy that Shor tested, but it is the so-called moderates who oppose this becoming law. A similar dynamic characterized the fights to lower a minimum wage of $ 15, raise taxes for the rich, and legalize marijuana.
Where the popularist imperative ruffles progressive feathers is on issues of racial justice and immigration. Shor argues that, generally speaking, the shifting voters in the states Democrats must win are not socially liberal and do not share the same worldview as the mostly college-educated city liberals who run and endow the Democratic Party.
Will Democrats face a mid-term erasure?
“If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative non-whites than very liberal whites, but very liberal whites are infinitely more represented,” he said. “It’s morally wrong, but it also means they will eventually leave. “
Shor believes this discrepancy explains why Hillary Clinton failed to become president: She “lost because she raised the importance of immigration, when many Midwestern voters disagreed with us on the issue. ‘immigration,’ he told Klein. (His testimony is a graph showing that among voters who supported universal health care but opposed the amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, 60% voted for Obama in 2012, but 41% voted for Clinton in 2016.) I didn’t to appease the social views of racist whites, ”Shor said last year.
The solution for Democrats, according to Shor, is to practice ruthless messaging discipline that avoids discussions about race and immigration. Otherwise, the party resigns itself to political uselessness.
The problems of popularism
As Shor’s star rose, his unified theory of American politics also received much criticism. Here are four.
Popularism underestimates the challenge of winning back the defectors: As my colleague Nate Cohn notes, over the past 10 years millions of white voters without a college degree who used to vote Democrats have become loyal Republicans. Would simply talking about popular policies and keeping quiet about unpopular policies really be enough to win them back?
Popularism overestimates the importance of the Democratic Party’s messages: “It’s almost laughable to me that the idea that what people think of Democrats is made of what Democrats think,” Anat Shenker-Osorio, founder of progressive company ASO Communications, told Klein. “I wish we lived in this world. I would probably be on vacation. But this is not our world.
Like journalist David Roberts points out, whatever messages the Democratic Party wishes to send to voters, they are filtered by a right-wing media ecosystem that is “specially designed to make Democrats look horrible.
Popularism ignores the nature of public opinion: Edward Lawson, political scientist and data analyst, responded to Klein’s article by noting that most people don’t know much about political issues and the positions they take on them tend to be shaped. by external forces.
“Republicans have a whole media infrastructure designed to shape and change not only people’s positions on issues, but their beliefs about basically everything,” he said. writing. “This, by the way, explains one of the main reasons Democrats are at such a disadvantage electorally: They still generally think that people’s positions on issues are independent and fixed, so they usually try to stand up.” move to the middle to get them. The GOP knows they are not and they are working to change them.
Popularism cedes the premise of a politics governed by racial resentment: Times columnist Jamelle Bouie supports Shor’s conclusion that talking about racial justice and immigration comes at an electoral cost for Democrats. “My problem is, I don’t think Shor or his allies are upfront about what it really takes to stem the tide and turn the tide,” he said. “If anti-black prejudices are as strong as this analysis implies, then it seems ludicrous to say that Democrats can solve their problem with a simple rhetoric shift to 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 with a focus on his most popular policies “while 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 running out: he has promised Georgian voters “progress what we need to do on jobs, on health care, on justice, on the environment ”, but he and his party failed to adopt a minimum wage of $ 15, a public option for the government. health insurance, protection of voting rights or a comprehensive reform of the police. Nationally, Biden’s approval rating among black Americans rose from 85% in July to 67% in September.
“I think the frustration is at an all time high, and Biden can’t go to Georgia or any other black southern state 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 by the nothingness that has happened.”
Another future for the Democratic Party
Is there a way for Democrats to reverse their declining fate with whites and uneducated Hispanics without embracing reactionary racial and immigration policies? One possibility, suggests Bouie, is to lead liberal, but not left-wing black politicians who, like Barack Obama, are able to “triangulate between the racial liberalism of the professional class of the Democratic Party and the racial conservatism of the voting electorate.”
Another possibility comes from the Race-Class Narrative Project, an initiative to develop empirically tested messages that appeal to popular economic interests while neutralizing racial divisive rhetoric.
“Shor is making the same mistake that Democratic Party leaders have made for decades: going from the idea that the attack on racism as a white problem backfires on most voters (true) to the unsupported article of faith / seemingly unwavering that Democrats should largely stop talking about (false) racism, ”writes Ian Haney López, founder of the project and professor of law at Berkeley. “The fundamental challenge for Democrats is not to stop talking about race but to shift the grassroots political conflict in the United States from a conflict between racial groups (the right wing’s preferred cadre) to one between the 0.1% and the rest of us, with racism as our main weapon.