Arguing About Popularism Is a Dead End. Fix American Democracy Instead. – Washington Monthly
Why governing by polls cannot save the Democrats or the country.
The hottest conversation in influential liberal punditry these days is about “popularism.” The basic idea is that Democrats should use survey data to find out what ideas and policies are most popular, then promote those ideas and policies while forcefully marginalizing unpopular ones. Adherents of this strategy believe that, because of the structural disadvantages Democrats face in gerrymandered legislatures, the Senate, and the Electoral College, it is necessary for the party to minimize messages that offend the largely rural and exurban white working-class voters who are overrepresented by these structures, as well as voters of color who bend more conservative.
Popularism says, in short, that Democrats should sideline activists pushing for more radical social change and prioritize the average voter in a Montana general election for Senate.
There are many reasons why this approach, currently in vogue in powerful liberal circles and even in the White House, is likely misguided. First, quantitative policy surveys are a terrible methodology to gauge what really motivates voters. Second, Republicans seem to have no trouble winning elections—even occasionally in blue areas—despite pushing for a host of deeply unpopular policies. Third, it’s impossible and unwise to tell unelected activists that they have to stop pushing for social changes unpopular with the broader electorate, much less the median rural, conservative, older white voter. Fourth, it’s not at all clear that if Democrats were to de-emphasize, say, police reform or climate change or antiracism that it would bring back any low-trust voters lost to Trumpism or Q-adjacent conspiracy theories. Finally, it’s likely that any potential voters won over by minimizing liberal priorities would crush the mobilization of progressives and younger voters who already feel desperate and marginalized by a climate-ravaged future and exorbitant housing, health care, and education costs.
But the real problem of our politics doesn’t come from the activists, or the legislators, or the strategists. It comes from the broken and anti-majoritarian structures of American democracy. Both the popularists and the anti-popularists are trapped in a cage bounded by an unrepresentative Senate, a gerrymandered House, and an increasingly unstable Electoral College. Both sides are fighting one another when they should be focused on how to escape the cage entirely.
After all, it’s important to remember that Democrats are, in fact, popular! Democrats have won seven of the last eight presidential contests in the popular vote. Democrats represent 41 million more voters in the Senate. Republicans haven’t represented a majority of Americans in the Senate since 1996. Democrats consistently win the popular vote for the House overall. And there’s no telling how many more votes Democrats could win if running up the margins in major cities, among the young and among nonwhite voters, yielded electoral benefits.
Democrats, it turns out, are broadly effective at persuading voters—just not in the “right” places. The losers of our national arguments are overrepresented by a structurally racist system designed from the outset to prioritize the interests of rural white voters over everyone else. Democrats, however, win outright in a fair system. This is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement: a party committed to multiracial democracy, relaxed immigration policies, and strong safety nets winning consistent and significant electoral majorities.
The problem, then, is the injustice of the system itself. Liberal strategists should be focused like a laser not on how to win majorities under the current structures but on fixing or eliminating those structures themselves.
These solutions would include reforming or getting rid of the Electoral College and the Senate; reforming the malapportioned and gerrymandered House—and then growing it, adding more states to the Union; ending the filibuster; ending gerrymandering; preventing Republicans from overturning popular votes and decertifying results in Democratic counties; and expanding the courts.
This seems like a radical approach, but it isn’t. What is radical is doing nothing and watching democracy fail while a polarized country flounders in inaction on our most pressing problems. All the while, an increasingly anti-democracy minority fearful of racial, social, and religious change tries to wield permanent illegitimate power to preserve its ill-won authority. Simply put, we can’t assume that the growth of this movement is just a phase in the American experiment. We have to proactively work to weaken it.
Arguing over the merits of popularism within this system is a dead end. While political coalitions can be unpredictable, it seems extremely unlikely that Democrats can pull together a coalition that 1) wins a Senate majority consistently when current trends show that two-thirds of voters will be represented by only 30 percent of the Senate by 2040; 2) wins Electoral College victories when Republicans are increasingly committed to a slow-rolling coup, warping an Electoral College already stacked in their favor to replace the popular vote in key states with the anti-majoritarian imposition of gerrymandered legislatures and House delegations; 3) wins statehouses and the House of Representatives in the face of gerrymandering to obliterate the power of growing urban and suburban areas, cracking and packing them to advantage a shrinking exurban and rural coalition.
There is no political party in the world that can win both 25-year-old urban voters of color whose key priorities are climate change and police reform and 70-year-old exurban whites whose key priorities are getting kitchen table benefits for themselves but not for city voters—and making sure schools don’t teach their children about the history of racism in America. It’s impossible.
Prominent popularists David Shor, Matt Yglesias, and Eric Levitz are correct that the current Democratic coalition cannot wield power as long as 60-year-old white men in exurban Missouri hold the keys. Anti-popularists like Elie Mystal, Will Stancil, and Ryan Cooper might be right (and I think they are) that this approach would be less electorally effective than hoped for, and would represent a betrayal of key Democratic constituencies—and be unenforceable practically in a vibrant democracy.
But these arguments are nothing new. The irony, in fact, is that the popularism currently described as reasonable centrism is the leftism of yesteryear. One of the key dividing lines between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns in 2016 was the instinct of Sanders strategists to de-emphasize what was then called “identity politics” in favor of a class-based agenda that could win over the white working class. Clinton strategists forcefully responded that this approach represented an unacceptable reversion to accepting racism and sexism in the electorate.
After Clinton’s primary victory, the left recalibrated toward a race-gender-class synthesis, an intersectional approach that highlighted structural social iniquities in the class framework, and oriented class analyses through the lens of racial and social equity. In response, the centrists are now ironically reverting to the prior leftist position, describing the new left consensus as too woke and too captured by overeducated, out-of-touch progressive elites using seminar-speak like “Latinx” instead of meeting voters where they are on social issues and speaking more directly to their kitchen table concerns. There is no escape from these endless fights as long as we remain trapped by the structures of injustice that prevent majorities from governing.
Of course, one might ask: If you can’t win enough Senate seats to pass universal pre-K, much less kill the filibuster, how can you possibly win enough seats to expand the courts or add states to the Union? That, indeed, is an important question. But it’s not at all clear that a party in enough of a defensive crouch to actually win a Senate seat in Missouri is likely to be bold enough, having won the election, to then proceed toward advancing maximalist policies in governance.
It may be time, then, to consider even more radical approaches to the problem. Blue counties already account for 70 percent of U.S. GDP, and that figure is growing. Might there be ways to leverage corporate and economic power to ensure that the areas on which the American economy depends receive the equal per capita representation they deserve? If it is impossible to alter the composition of the states in the Senate, might it be worth figuring out mechanisms to encourage more liberal voters to move to small red states?
Radical, wacky, and desperate as these ideas might seem, they are probably more productive conversations than endlessly arguing over the strategic value of popularism.
If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.
YES, I’LL MAKE A DONATION
David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.
Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin was raised on official, state-taught racism. I should know. So was I.
If House progressives drop their opposition, Biden will sign it quickly. That may save the Virginia governorship for the Democrats.
The GOP reflexively blocks any legislation that makes it easier to vote. But Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky shows a model for compromise.
The appointment of Kenneth Merten as chargé d’affaires signals a commitment to continued meddling in the Haitian government—despite warnings from the last envoy.
Pharmaceutical giants don’t have public opinion on their side. But they know how to stop Congress from passing laws most Americans want.
© 2021 Washington Monthly.