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“Popularism” but for Organizing
Debates over the best Democratic message may be intellectually appealing, but the real impact lies in recruiting center-left leaders and community members to deliver that message.
Last week we spoke to Slate about our thesis as part of a series on the future of the Democratic Party. Below is more context on one aspect of that future: the need to move beyond debates over messaging (and “popularism”) to organizing a distinct faction that can effectively deliver the message.
Our team has grown in recent months, focused on building the programming and network that can operationalize our thesis on what threatens our democracy and the Democratic Party. As we continue building out our effort, we welcome comments, feedback, and compelling articles or research that can strengthen this perspective.
The present is faction. We're just missing an important one.
Democrats like to make things complicated. Parsing the impact of last month’s Virginia and New Jersey elections has been no different, with competing historical theories, exit poll interpretations, and revived debates around messaging that previously focused on the “popularism” argument made by controversial left-wing data whiz David Shor.
However intriguing these messaging debates may appear, they operate in a fantasyland where it is possible for today’s Democratic coalition to deliver a unified message. The pernicious result of all this attention is misguidedly centering the party’s future planning on a pragmatic communications strategy — not pragmatic organizing — as the path to victory. As political scientists (and creator of the ‘political hobbyism’ frame) have recently noted, the ratio of debates over messaging to actual power-building tells us where Democrats are right now:
The most important lane for such organizing is on the center-left. Glenn Youngkin demonstrated there are three coherent political factions: Trumpists, suburban-friendly vaccinated vest-wearing Republicans (including Youngkin himself), and the progressives.
Terry McAuliffe is a “centrist” Democrat, but what does that mean? In the context of last month’s election, not enough. That should put Democrats on notice on the urgency to build a coherent center-left.
Specifically, the post-election strategizing on message and the “popularism” debates are rendered moot by the structure of how today’s far-left political marketplace functions within the contemporary political-media landscape. It is impossible to incentivize the kind of disciplined, pragmatic messaging that would appeal to the majority of voters in the face of strong market demand for the opposite, rendering the concept of popularism a quixotic distraction.
As we noted earlier this year, today’s far-left political entrepreneurs are so empowered by data, technology, and social media that a deluge of tweets and small-dollar donations will find their way to fringe politicians and organizations who oppose messages with the potential to appeal to the majority of voters. The ensuing conflict captivates the mainstream political media, and fosters the symbiotic relationship between the far-left and the right-wing media ecosystem (hence all the Squad emails with Fox News subject lines).
The far-left may not believe in markets, but the far-left market has become so large and efficient that a robust and thriving current of unpopularism within the Democratic Party is now a given.
Savvy center-left pundits have proposed policy and messaging that can allow Democrats to both win elections and govern effectively. But even with a clear policy and communications vision, debates over a single Democratic message are largely fruitless as the actual mechanics of building the faction that can operationalize this vision are rarely discussed.
Niskanen Center and The Liberal Patriot are the outliers in this conversation, offering both a holistic worldview and organizing strategy to create a coherent, durable faction that can actually deliver the messages that will appeal to a majority.
Earlier this year, The Liberal Patriot explicitly rejected the popularist poll-focused approach and called for new investments in a set of organizations and outlets to build a new political narrative.
Liberals need to invest in big-picture, meaning-making institutions and outlets outside government, academia, existing think tanks, and major media outlets. They cannot outsource their narratives to academics, activists, and political journalists, or rely on think tanks that exist to shelter technocrats and increasingly see unrepresentative activists chart their courses to do the job. Looking forward, a new breed of institution that can see and describe the whole picture from an outside perspective will be necessary to build new liberal political narratives that connect particular policies and programs with underlying principles in a compelling and easily comprehensible way.
More explicitly, in “The Future is Faction,” Steve Teles and Robert Saldin of the Niskanen Center articulate our current reality of highly organized political factions on the extremes, and what the majority-making center should do about it. Writing in National Affairs, they propose the tactical path forward to build political identities distinct from the national party brand:
… activists, donors, and intellectuals alienated by the polarized direction of their respective parties will need to redirect their activity toward finding a base of support to mobilize and creating organizations to facilitate their pursuit of power. In places where their respective national parties are weak, these moderate factions will have an opportunity to establish a power base for intra-party conflict. They will need to form new coalitions of elected officials — along the lines of what the Democratic Leadership Council established in the 1980s — to create a political identity distinct from that of the national parties for aspiring officeholders.
As demonstrated on the far-left by Justice Democrats and others, operationalizing this approach has never been easier. As journalist Matt Zeitlin notes, “the parties themselves have never been more flexible and open to political entrepreneurs who can bring in or consolidate a bloc of voters and elected officials.”
Shor, who rose to prominence as a twenty-something socialist, is a provocative messenger for “The Democrats’ Privileged College-Kid Problem,” in which highly educated white progressives are blamed for driving the party leftward to the point of electoral inviability — and defeat. Yet his focus on data and polling overcomplicates the present and obscures how to actually move forward.
We don’t need complicated math to know the far-left doesn’t win swing districts, we just need to look at Kara Eastman. The only Justice Democrats-backed congressional candidate in a swing district was also the most critical underperformer of 2020, losing a district Biden won handily.
This is not an aberration. Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, the political arms of the Bernie Sanders and AOC-led far-left faction, have flipped zero GOP-held seats. Ever.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is too little investment in understanding how overperforming Democrats are able to differentiate from the national party brand. As Matt Yglesias noted recently, in West Virginia, the “Democratic Party brand is trash. The good news is that the Joe Manchin brand is decent.” There are a few other examples of Democrats who have succeeded in developing their own brand, like the three House members who won Trump districts. But the unique nature of these successful individual brands leaves the center-left with only vague descriptors — “moderate,” “centrist,” “establishment” — that are mushy at best (and usually pejorative).
Worse, many seem to actively ignore overperformance. In his Shor debate-sparking column, Ezra Klein puts more weight on former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s present-day employment as a lobbyist than on her 2018 electoral performance as a moderate Democrat, in which she garnered more than 44.3% of the vote (17 points ahead of Clinton’s performance in 2016 and 13 points ahead of Biden’s in 2020). Instead of asking how she lost by less than eleven points in a state Clinton lost by 36 points, Klein dunked on Heitkamp for becoming a lobbyist. Such consistent over-performance would lead to Democrats holding 76 senate seats.
The future must be faction, because a unified Democratic message is impossible. And also because the present is faction.
Clearly identifiable factions abound, on all sides of the center-left. In addition to the coherently branded progressive attacks from the left flank and red-hatted Trumpists, the eyes of the majority-making middle are wandering back to the vested country club Republicans of pre-Trump yore. Youngkin demonstrated an ability to retain the full support and energy of the Trump base while creating enough brand-differentiation, the magic formula so challenging for the left.
There is a silver lining for pragmatic Democrats. The un-popularism of the far-left faction will continue, in the process creating a wider gulf in which to build a distinct faction that can win the majority: the more extreme the far-left and clearer the feedback loop with the right-wing and media, the easier it is for a mainstream Democratic faction to differentiate itself.
There is certainly work to be done on a more effective communications strategy for the Democratic Party. But it can only be executed by those who organize and build within it a mainstream, pragmatic faction.
Best in the Big Tent
Here is what our team is reading — and acting on — this week:
Joe Biden’s agenda is popular, but the Democrats aren’t. Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine on Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze.
Everyone loses when we make assumptions about our political opponents. Lynn Schmidt in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Lessons from the Felix Unger school of political philosophy.
Democrats need to focus on kitchen table issues, not Republican authoritarianism, to win swing voters next year. Daniel Strauss and David de la Fuente in The New Republic on Why Democrats Can’t Make GOP Extremism a Campaign Issue.