So we’re all discussing the work of Democratic data wonk David Shor — Ezra Klein, Jamelle Bouie, Nate Cohn, and Politico’s Ian Ward are all writing about Shor’s notion that Democrats are doomed in future elections unless they stop emphasizing policy ideas that matter to young, white, college-educated party staffers and instead stress what matters to voters who are closer to the median, which means voters (of all races) who are older and have less education. Prioritizing messages that appeal to ordinary voters is what Shor calls “popularism.”
I think there’s something to this — discussions of defunding the police probably didn’t help Democrats in 2020, and might have hurt them enough to cost them some races, in a year in which they won control of D.C. but lost many key races they should have won. (Shor thinks the effect was significant; other Democratic data wonks disagree.)
But how many Democratic candidates actually ran on a defund-the-police platform in 2020? Joe Biden certainly didn’t. Also, why doesn’t this seem necessary for Republicans? They run on banning all abortions, increasing the availability of guns, and cutting taxes on the rich. None of these ideads are popular. Republicans win anyway. Why?
I’ll start with the first question: “Defund the police” mattered in 2020 not because Democrats made it a central issue (they didn’t), but because the right said it was a central issue for Democrats. The problem wasn’t that Democrats missed an opportunity to stress policy positions that are broadly appealing — it was that Republicans seized an opportunity to make Democrats appear evil to Republican and swing voters.
My problem with Shor’s “say popular stuff” message is that it doesn’t take into account an earlier set of ideas about why Americans vote the way they do: because they’re motivated primarily by negative partisanship. Voters vote for one party because they hate the other party. Unpopular messaging hurts Democrats because Republicans and Fox News use it to make conservatives and moderates hate Democrats.
And Republicans don’t have to worry about being “popularist” because Democrats rarely try to make voters hate Republicans.
Democrats refrain from taking advantage of negative partisanship even though, as that recent Larry Sabato survey argued, Democratic voters are nearly as angry at Republicans as Republicans are at Democrats. The Democrats win elections mostly when negative partisanship is thrust upon them — as it was during Trump’s presidency or George W. Bush’s second term. Unlike Republicans, they don’t stir up grievances, and they’ve never been good at nationalizing anger about local issues. (By contrast, Republicans make national issues out of nothing, as in the current panic over critical race theory in schools.)
Of course, Democrats don’t have a media operation that can compete with Fox and talk radio. So I guess they have to run on ideas, and make sure they’re the right ones. Meanwhile, Republicans simply say, “We’re the party that doesn’t want to end civilization as we know it!!!!” And that’s enough to make them competitive in nearly every election cycle.
Published with permission from No More MIster Nice Blog.