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Organizing Beats Debating
In the debate on the future of the Democratic Party, one side has the facts — but the other side is more organized.
There is a debate on what messages can best repair a Democratic brand that’s gone toxic with too many swing voters: communicate popular mainstream messages to voters, especially swing voters (“popularism”) or go to ideological extremes to fire up the base.
But this argument, unfolding in upscale media outlets and online, is relatively low stakes because Democratic message discipline is not available at the party level.
If message discipline were possible at the party level — if there were a Board Chair for The Democrats, Inc. who could approve a multi-year strategic plan enforceable for a range of party actors (from candidates to advocacy groups to media outlets) — then this debate might be worthwhile. But no such structure exists.
As Matt Yglesias pointed out this week, this “debate” is not much of a debate at all — at least among those concerned with winning elections:
“It is an almost childishly silly thing to argue about. But I believe that it is counterproductive to progressive causes to push candidates in tough races to take high-salience public stances in favor of unpopular progressive causes. Instead, you should encourage candidates to embrace popular progressive causes and allow them to make tactical retreats from fights where conservatives have public opinion on their side.”
This theory of politics, commonly called “popularism” and a favorite of prominent Democratic data czar David Shor (whose cancel culture tribunal we covered last week), is so intuitive that it is difficult to even understand why there is a debate. But, as Yglesias pointed out, the 2020 Democratic presidential primary unfolded in the context of intentional unpopularism — activist groups pressuring candidates to take deeply unpopular stances on a wide range of issues that also happen to be legislatively unfeasible.
This is bad for Democrats. But it is a good business model on the far-left. As we wrote in December, “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.” As long as the far-left marketplace rewards candidates and pundits for taking unpopular stances, there will be supply to meet demand.
Perhaps this explains why the far-left only wins in deep-blue districts. The far-left’s abysmal performance in swing districts is a reminder that it’s a losing strategy to run a Brooklyn-style campaign in the heartland.
While enforcing message discipline on high-profile far-left leaders is impossible, the good news is that pragmatic Democrats focused on winning swing districts can achieve message discipline (focused on popular issues) at the faction level.
The “popularism debate” is a waste of time. Even if it is possible to win, there is no payoff — the benefits accrue to those who organize. We don’t need better facts, we just need to organize.
More on that below, but first a few things our team was reading and discussing this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Mona Charen in The Bulwark on how Democrats need to get better at politics — fast:
“The story of Biden’s first year-and-a-half could have been about the robust recovery, the dramatic support for struggling parents, and the passage of the much-overdue infrastructure plan. Instead, the message from the Democrats in Washington was that Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema were traitors and enemies who stood in the way of a bill that was never described in any way except as a price tag. A bunch of progressives wanted to spend another $2 trillion and Manchin and Sinema thought it was a bridge too far. Since most Americans are probably ideologically closer to Manchin and Sinema than to Bernie Sanders or Pramila Jayapal, the message they received was that the Democratic party was not representing them. Ninety percent of the attention has gone to what Democrats were (unrealistically) shooting for rather than what they achieved. So they drowned their own accomplishments in a miasma of recriminations.”
2. Civis Analytics with a detailed analysis of last year’s Virginia and New Jersey vote history, with a warning for 2022 about the importance of persuasion:
“Vote switching accounts for about 80% of the shifts in each state from Biden in 2020 to the Democratic candidates for governor in 2021. Changes in turnout only account for about two-tenths of overall movement. In terms of the final margin, a switched vote is worth twice as much to the recipient because one side loses a vote while the other side gains one.”
3. Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times on what the Ginni Thomas saga says about today’s Republican Party, with a reminder that the task of defending democracy falls to the Democrats:
“For Democrats, and especially for Democratic leadership, the upshot of all of this is that they should give up whatever hope they had that the Republican Party will somehow return to normal, that the fever will break and American politics will snap back to reality. From its base to its leaders, the modern Republican Party is fully in the grip of an authoritarian movement animated by extreme beliefs and fringe conspiracy theories.”
The Present is Faction (On the Far-Left)
The far-left was able to get away with — and even get rewarded for — its distinct brand of unpopularism (running on fringe stances unsupported by most Americans) by investing diligently building a rich ecosystem to support its burgeoning faction.
As we’ve written before, the entrepreneurs who spun up many of the organizations and campaigns that powered the far-left’s recent rise cut their teeth working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
These organizations — from Justice Democrats to Our Revolution to Middle Seat Consulting and beyond — formed a far-left backbone capable of sourcing and recruiting ideologically-aligned candidates, providing them with messaging, media, and voter outreach support, and ensuring that they were connected to one another throughout the process.
The “Democratic Party” is little more than a loose network of institutions (political committees, think tanks, media outlets, organizing and advocacy groups, etc.) and individuals (politicians, activists, voters, etc.). There’s no formal recruitment arm for the Democratic Party (although some establishment committees do some recruitment of their own), and there’s certainly no unified approach to recruitment, organizing, or messaging.
This meant that the party landscape was ripe for disruption by the entrepreneurial far-left.
By building out independent organizing infrastructure at the front-end of the campaigning funnel (ahead of the DNC’s or any other arm of the party establishment), the far-left was able to define itself as a coherent faction of the party with real (albeit limited) power. That faction (which happens to be whiter, richer and more educated than the rest of the party) took massive risks that, while pushing the Democrats further to the left, have jeopardized the party’s stance with too many voters in the middle.
The far-left didn’t have to take control of “the party” writ large to have an outsized impact — all they needed to do was build a robust faction by out-organizing the mechanisms in place across a vast, fragmented, and inefficient party ecosystem.
Towards a Robust Center-Left Faction
Since our inception, we’ve talked about our aspirations for building the “Justice Democrats of the Center”. As we wrote in our first post here on Substack, that means investing in building real-world, on-the-ground organizing capacity to mirror what’s been achieved on the far-left.
As Steve Teles and Robert Saldin explain in their 2020 paper The Future is Faction, moderate and mainstream elements of both parties have long assumed that they would be fine simply outsourcing much of the hard work of politics to third-party institutions. This meant externalizing policy shopping to think tanks, comms and outreach to traditional media outlets, and campaigning to existing party establishment infrastructure.
In other words, mainstream Democrats have backed away from true organizing:
“Perhaps because they believe the broader public is already on their side, they tend to think control of politics by those mobilized at the ideological poles is illegitimate. Hence, they look for ways to redesign rules to allow the sensible but unmobilized middle to have its preferences govern without needing to do the hard work of organizing for action within the two major parties.”
As moderates stepped back, ideologues at the poles stepped forward. They put in years of work and planning to build their own independent ecosystems within their parties. Those investments have paid dividends in recent years as mainstream candidates on the left and right have been out-organized by more extreme elements in both parties.
If we in the center want to fight back, we need to organize.
If mainstream Democrats want to win back the ground we’ve lost to the unpopular far-left faction, we need to make our own investments in faction-building.
The facts are on our side: Democrats must win the middle to save democracy from Donald Trump’s radicalized GOP. It’s time for those of us committed to doing so to roll up our sleeves and do the messy but highly-rewarding work of on-the-ground organizing.
The future is faction — and the Democrats are, in effect, whoever organizes and mobilizes within them.
It’s time to take the far-left strategy and bring it to disrupt the political middle.