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Congressional Democrats' obsession with what's popular may doom them in 2022

To predicate your political strategy on popularity is to build a foundation on sand.
Photo illustration: A blue balloon with a smiley face lying on the floor.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Democrats know they’re in trouble. They’re saying as much to anyone willing to listen.

“We’re not trying to hide this,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Tim Persico told Politico.

“There is little margin for error,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee member Rep. Ami Bera of California said of the 2022 election cycle. “We have to run perfect races.”

Faced with a demand for perfection, some vulnerable Democrats are declining to run at all. Of the 10 House Democratic retirements ahead of the 2022 midterm election cycle, most “appear to be more motivated by electoral concerns,” according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich.

That word — popular — has become something of an obsession among anxious center-left Democrats.

The good news for Democrats, however, is they don’t believe they have to do much to avert an electoral debacle.

“It’s about emphasis,” Persico told Politico. “Everything we are doing and everything we’ve talked about doing is incredibly popular.”

All Democrats must do is continue to be popular.

That word — popular — has become something of an obsession among anxious center-left Democrats. It’s contributing to a mania overtaking the liberal media ecosystem. And the unlikely figure around whom apprehensive Democrats find themselves rallying, 30-year-old political strategist David Shor, has the answer: Just talk about popular stuff.

Sounds easy enough. In a sprawling profile of Shor and his philosophy, New York Times analyst Ezra Klein drilled down into Shor’s “theory of popularism,” which consists largely of following the research into voters’ preferences. A commitment to popularism should lead Democrats to pursue minor, technocratic changes to existing programs — allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, for example, even if that conflicts with their moderate sensibilities — while eschewing more revolutionary changes to the social compact. Above all, Shor noted, Democrats should not allow their party’s young, white, “woke” and utterly unrepresentative activist progressive base to speak for them.

Of course, there is common sense to these recommendations. They are informed by Shor’s own bitter experience. Formerly an analyst with the left-wing consulting firm Civis Analytics, Shor was let go after those same activists demanded his head following his decision to tweet, sans commentary, then-Princeton University assistant professor Omar Wasow’s study establishing a connection between poor Democratic electoral performance and riotous urban violence. That outsize reaction to Shor’s prudent admonition in the long, hot summer of 2020 illustrates Shor’s point — as did the Democratic lawmakers who lashed out at progressive activists after the party’s poor showing in last year’s congressional elections. Defunding the police is not popular, nor is adopting a permissive attitude toward abject criminality. The strategist’s recommendation is simple: Don’t let ideologues drive the party into those cul-de-sacs.

Opposing radicalism is one thing, but what should Democrats be for? Beyond tinkering around the margins of the nation’s entitlement programs, Shor suggested Democrats endorse a federal jobs guarantee. “Honestly bummed that this never made its way into the reconciliation package,” the analyst confessed. “Super popular with working class voters and seems high salience enough to break through into the discourse!” When asked just what the people guaranteed a job would be doing exactly, he suggested something along the lines of a permanent and ongoing census.

Here, we encounter two core problems with the pursuit of popularity for popularity’s sake. First, popularity and salience are not synonymous. In August, 4.3 million people voluntarily quit their jobs — decisions that were surely informed by a profound labor shortage that has driven wages and hourly earnings up dramatically. People may like the idea of a federal jobs guarantee, in theory, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to take advantage of the opportunity.

The second problem with measuring popularity by polling alone is that it ignores all the other metrics we have to gauge the currency of a particular policy. In the case of a federal jobs guarantee, following the polls alone would lead the uninformed observer to wonder why this idea — which has been retailed for decades and floated in legislation, but which never made it off the starting block — isn’t already part of the American social compact.

From President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "economic bill of rights" to the 1978 Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (aka the Humphrey-Hawkins Act) to the Green New Deal, a federally guaranteed occupation is a recurring progressive dream. According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis, such a costly program would employ only about 10 million people in a nation with 123 million adults currently employed full time. It is not surprising that generations of elected Democrats empowered by their constituents to represent their interests have weighed the costs of their voters’ preferences against the expected rewards and determined that the demos shouldn’t always get what it wants.

“Doing things” via legislation is difficult by design.

Moreover, as NBC News policy editor Benjy Sarlin observed, popularity is dynamic. Sarlin noted that one of President Barack Obama’s least popular initiatives in his first term — a bailout of the overextended American automotive industry in 2009 — featured prominently in his 2012 re-election campaign and arguably kept the industrial Midwest in the Democratic camp. Indeed, the story of the auto bailout is instructive. The initiative passed the House in 2008 in the lame-duck session prior to Obama’s presidency and a Congress controlled by Democrats. But it only passed narrowly, and the Senate killed the measure. When it did become law, it was only as part of a broader relief package at the outset of the Great Recession, and it required substantial Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to pass it. In short, it took a liquidity and demand crisis and an undeniable mandate for Democratic politicians to get this done.

Which brings us to the last problem facing the popularists: Popularity is just not enough to make activist desiderata manifest — not in the United States. “Doing things” via legislation is difficult by design. Popularity without exigency is not enough. What’s more, initiatives that are undeniably popular can become unpopular (see the latitude once afforded labor unions in law and jurisprudential precedent) and vice versa (see the Affordable Care Act). The public’s attitudes shift, sometimes as a reaction to complex societal phenomena but often in response to stimuli policy wonks would dismiss as superficial. To predicate your political strategy on popularity is to build a foundation on sand.

What Shor has right, and what his progressive opponents are deliberately refusing to comprehend, is that Democrats are better off without needlessly antagonizing the public. Wild-eyed theories that would replace police with social workers and functionally end the enforcement of U.S. immigration law in workplaces offend on an essential level. Reducing financial pressures on families by doling out largess from the public treasury sounds great, but not to the point that the public welcomes disincentives to work indefinitely. There’s a difference between being popular and principled. Voters can tell the difference, even if the Democratic intelligentsia cannot.