How to Win Comrades & Influence People
Popularism is all well and good, but the real way to win is through The Cool Zone.
Last week, the New York Times published a profile of David Shor, the Democratic pollster and cherished subscriber to Vulgar Marxism (though as a Marxist I cherish all my subscribers equally). The piece was a meditation on the big debate within Shor’s area of research: how Democrats can succeed in the context of demographic trends that are intensifying the counter-majoritarian tilt of our institutions. This is an important question, so it’s unfortunate that the debate it set off was mostly a stale relitigation of the culture war.
Shor built his brand by calling out the party managers who seem to genuinely misapprehend the views of the Democratic base - especially working-class black and Hispanic voters - while claiming to speak on their behalf. For him, not only is this unethical, it’s political self-sabotage. He thus encourages Democrats to adopt a more pragmatic approach to campaigning and governance that places greater weight on public opinion. That means dialing back the rhetoric around high-salience issues on which the liberal position alienates more voters than it attracts, such as race and immigration. Naturally, this has earned him a legion of progressive detractors, though it won’t surprise my readers to hear that I usually agree with him.
But nobody bats a thousand. Shor often falls victim to a credulous understanding of what it is that opinion polls can actually measure. As a result, he’s accumulated a rather eclectic catalog of views, such as that phasing out the child tax credit at $150,000 of household income rather than $75,000 could provoke electoral backlash, but admitting Guam as the 53rd state in the union carries minimal risk. Others have noted that the way he presents his data can be somewhat dubious, and he often marshals it to advocate for moderation on economic matters as well as cultural ones. For this reason, many consider Shor to be a true-believing centrist, not a two-time Bernie bro grappling with the difficulty of building a coalition for radical change.
It’s a legitimate critique, but it’s an awfully strange one to hear from people who do essentially the same thing. In response to Shor’s flattering write-up in the Times, Democratic consultant Jenifer Fernandez Ancona penned a widely shared Twitter thread explaining that the party needs “a way to win without Shorism” that doesn’t “shy away from race.” Fernandez Ancona is a co-founder of Way to Win, a new consultancy whose mission is to improve Democratic performance with Hispanic voters in the Sun Belt. Way to Win got its own flattering write-up in the Atlantic last week. See if you can detect any familiar themes (emphasis added):
“The Way to Win study echoes other Democratic analysts who have seen signs through Biden’s first months that Republicans may be preserving the unexpected gains Trump recorded among Latino voters…One lesson that’s clear already regarding Latinos…is that emphasizing ‘a traditional Democratic message that’s centered on racial justice’ without delivering improvement in material day-to-day conditions is ‘falling on deaf ears.’
‘Sometimes we are missing the whole and we are not grasping that the multiracial coalition includes white people and people of color, and we have to hold that coalition together,’ Fernandez Ancona says. “Thinking about the whole coalition [means] we have to find messages that unite around a shared vision that includes cross-racial solidarity.’ One of those messages…is boosting economically strained families of all races with the kind of kitchen-table programs embedded in the Democrats’ big budget-reconciliation bill.
Confronting the limits of identity politics? Acknowledging the need to appeal to white voters? Enticing them with material incentives instead of moral invective? Democrats must be breathing a sigh of relief that they no longer have to rely on Shorism.
This response is characteristic of Shor’s colleagues in the consulting game: they know he’s right about Democrats’ need to beat a strategic retreat from the culture war, but their professional-class morality nags at them over it. For the Way to Win crowd, it doesn’t feel good to admit that Raphael Warnock’s way to win was accusing Kelly Loeffler of being the real enemy of the police, and cutting ads in which he cuddled a puppy to appear less menacing to suburban whites. To assuage their guilt (but keep their jobs), they construe Warnock’s anodyne references to Martin Luther King Jr. as “not shying away from race” and call it a day.
Shor’s socialist critics are more genuine in their critique of popularism, but just as misguided. Unlike Democratic operatives and power-brokers, the left understands that winning elections is necessary but not sufficient just to preserve the status quo - let alone build something better. As I wrote last week, Democrats are struggling to implement even a modest agenda to address the immediate crises the country faces. But the left can’t accept the fact that despite the urgency of the moment and the establishment’s manifest incompetence, it has failed to offer a compelling alternative. It copes by pretending its priorities are more popular than they truly are.
So how should the left navigate the tension between winning broader popular support and preserving the radical quality of its agenda? I haven’t conducted any polling or proprietary data analysis, but we can start by going through the little chart at the top of the page. Let’s call it the Pundit’s Square.
Quadrant 1: Normie Presentation, Normie Policy
Key people: Barack Obama, Joe Biden.
"We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years, is there's no longer any room for excuses." - Obama on black resilience, July 2013.
“For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect…When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child's heart that government can't fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.” - Obama on gun violence, February 2013.
Advantages: Many found President Obama’s colorblind liberalism grating even at the time, but it’s hard to argue with his results - at the polls, anyway. Contrary to the myth of the “rising American electorate,” it was Obama’s strength with voters of color and non-college whites - not the former supplanting the latter - that fueled both of his blockbuster victories. True, his most astonishing feats from 2008 (winning Indiana, nearly winning Missouri and Montana) would be impossible to replicate today. But the structural forces that make non-college whites in the Rust Belt less hostile to Democrats than they are elsewhere are still in play - if greatly diminished. A little aesthetic moderation could keep them from eroding further.
Disadvantages: Obama entered the White House at the moment of capital’s greatest weakness in nearly a century, with filibuster-proof majorities in Congress and a sweeping mandate for change. He used that opportunity to restore the power of the ruling class, financed by millions of evictions and the largest destruction of black wealth in the country’s history. The lingering effects of the Great Recession - left to fester by an anemic stimulus program - were the proximate cause of Donald Trump’s victory in the Rust Belt in 2016. Not only is winning not worth it you won’t deliver for people when you do, but not delivering for people makes it harder to win at all.
Quadrant 2: Radical Presentation, Normie Policy
Key people: Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke.
“I can explain to white women in the suburbs that when their son is walking down the street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot. I don't believe that it's the responsibility of Cory [Booker] and Kamala [Harris] to be the only voice that takes on these issues of institutional racism. As a white woman of privilege who is a U.S. Senator, it is also my responsibility to lift up those voices." - Gillibrand on white privilege, July 2019.
“This country, though we would like to think otherwise, was founded on racism, has persisted through racism, and is racist today. But this racism, though foundational - literally kidnapping people from West Africa, bringing them here to build the greatness of this country on their backs, and then denying their ancestors the meaningful opportunity to enjoy the wealth that they had created - for so long had flown under the surface, at least for people like me, a white guy from Texas.” - O’Rourke on American history, August 2019.
Advantages: There’s not much to recommend in this particular combination of style and substance, which is the least popular with the public by far. But it is pretty funny that the closest thing to bona fide critical race theory ever uttered by a senior Democratic politician came from a woman who got her start as a lawyer for Big Tobacco, so at least it has some entertainment value.
Disadvantages: Skepticism of government and celebration of cosmopolitanism is the signature ideology of the ruling class, and increasingly, their attendants in the professional class. But most people find this paradigm quite peculiar. In fact, it was voters who take the opposite tack - cultural conservatism and economic populism - who pushed Trump over the finish line in 2016. The fact that this mixture of views is the one least represented in government, media, and pop culture no doubt contributed to the confirmation bias that made Trump’s victory such a shock among the press.
By contrast, the Democratic Party’s rebrand as capital’s woke enforcer has damaged its prospects in an electoral system that amplifies the power of non-college whites - the demographic most turned off by their new aesthetic. Democrats had hoped the country’s growing diversity would make up for those losses, but it turns out they’re starting to alienate the non-white working class too. If this keeps up, the party will simply cease to be a viable contender for national power.
Quadrant 3: Radical Presentation, Radical Policy
Key people: Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib.
“It wasn't an accident. Policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist. Daunte Wright was met with aggression & violence. I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can't be reformed.” - Tlaib on state violence, April 2021.
“As a single mom, as a nurse, as an activist, congresswoman, I am committed to doing the absolute most to protect black mothers, to protect black babies, to protect black birthing people, and to save lives…Every day, Black birthing people and our babies die because doctors don’t believe our pain.” - Bush on maternal health, May 2021.
Advantages: Speaking the truth in public is an uncommon virtue in politics. Doing so can inspire a movement that can overcome resistance to a righteous but unpopular agenda, or at least shift the terrain of struggle to a more advantageous position. To a large degree, the left’s resurgence post-2016 has been driven by small cadres of activists exploiting the weakness of decaying machines in places like New York, Detroit and St. Louis, on behalf of firebrand candidates running on radical platforms. Though still far from power, they’ve found some opportunities to exert influence on the Democratic agenda at both the state and national levels.
Disadvantages: Only a mass movement has the power to confront the growing crisis of capitalism, but the left’s radical aesthetic has undermined its capacity to build one. The biggest problem isn’t that people find its boutique vernacular and insular culture alienating - though certainly that’s true. It’s that left-wing neuroses are discouraging organizers from grappling with just how distant their own politics are from those of the people they claim to represent.
Many people involved with progressive politics seem to genuinely believe things that are simply not true, including: most black and brown people support decreasing funding for law enforcement; most women believe claims of harm should not be evaluated for credibility; most working-class people share their secular morality, enthusiasm for cultural change, and distaste for the Democratic establishment. Attestations of belief in these nostrums are practically mandatory in left-wing spaces, and heretics are aggressively punished. This is a major barrier to building trust among the multiracial working class that will inhibit the left’s growth if goes unaddressed.
Quadrant 4: Normie Presentation, Radical Policy
Key people: Bernie Sanders, India Walton.
“There aren’t too many people, no matter how old you are, that I cannot convince that healthcare is a human right. But if I go to a senior center, and we’re going to talk about the New York Health Act, and I say ‘My name is India, I go by she/her, and I’m here to talk to you about universal healthcare,’ we’re going to spend more time talking about why I introduced myself as she/her than we are about the reason why I’m there.” - Walton on organizing, September 2021.
I’m disappointed in how we pay our police…We have a problem with police overtime because starting salaries are so low that people have to have overtime to be able to survive…As a nurse, if I’m responsible for someone else’s life, you can’t pay me $37,000/year. You have to pay me enough money for me to be comfortable enough - and for my own mental well-being to be good enough - for me to make prudent decisions, and we have not done that in our police department…There are some bad things happening with police in this country, but at the end of the day, police officers are workers too.” - Walton on policing, September 2021.
Advantages: Bernie Sanders never won the presidency, but his campaigns helped reignite the American left after forty years of neoliberal hegemony. He inspired a new generation to pick up the torch for socialism, and helped shift the Overton Window to a degree no one could have anticipated just six short years ago. A big reason for his success was making transformative change sound appealing to millions of voters who are not self-conscious radicals. His plainspoken language, appeals to class over identity, and emphasis on material concerns rather than cultural ones were critical to the development of his coalition. This was just as true in 2020, when he expanded his support among people of color by forgoing the professional-class consensus about what the multiracial working class is looking for.
Though the left has yet to build the infrastructure required for a national viability, socialist candidates are finding success on the state and local levels with a similar formula. In June, India Walton defeated three-term incumbent Byron Brown for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Buffalo. Walton has done a remarkable job articulating that another world is possible, but that we still need to live in this one while we build it. She’s been transparent about her commitments to socialism and abolition, but also frank about the fact that as mayor, she’ll have to responsibly manage the institutions that exist under capitalism. Most importantly, she’s been a rare voice on the left willing to admit that unless the left is more generous in helping people see the possibility for a better world, we’ll be stuck in this one until it boils.
Disadvantages: I’m sure my haters will let me know.