The tension between "popularism" as an electoral strategy and a democratic one 📊 June 13, 2021
What is popular with a true majority of people is not always electorally feasible in a system with counter-majoritarian electoral institutions.
This is my weekly data-driven newsletter on politics, polling, and democracy — and whatever else I’m thinking about. If you want more frequent posts on these subjects please sign up for a paid subscription. I send out subscribers-only posts twice each week.
Some historians trace political populism to Ancient Rome. The populares (Latin for “favoring the people”), a political faction that existed at the time of the Republic and included figures such as Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Publius Clodius Pulcher (no, not that Publius), Julius Caesar, and Augustus, pushed for reforms to make life easier for normal plebeian Romans — and usually at the expense of Rome’s ruling-class patricians. (Of course, the fuller story is not so black and white. Many popularis consuls and tribunes were patricians themselves, and often used the “friend of the people” label just to consolidate power.)
One could also posit that so long as there have been societies, there have been hierarchies; and so long as there have been hierarchies, there have been people struggling for equity, and champions of their interests. In Ancient Athens, where democracy flourished before crumbling internally and being ultimately stamped out by external armies, representation came originally at the expense of the upper echelons of the ruling class (though full political membership was never actually extended to the poorest residents, not to mention slaves).
When I think of some wings of the modern progressive movement, I always end up coming back to the populares. They have in their likeness a group of progressives now calling themselves “popularists” who argue that left-leaning politicians should emphasize the popular parts of their platform — like wealth redistribution, social spending, and progressive tax structures — and distance themselves from unpopular aspects — like abolishing the police or highlighting race in campaign messages (or so the argument goes). The most recognized faces in this faction might be David Shor, the progressive data scientist who is having a bit of a prolonged moment in the media spotlight, and Sean McElwee, the founder of the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress.
Journalist Lisa Lerer has a profile of McElwee’s company in the Times this week. There is a good bit of editorial puffery in the piece — I am not sure the group really deserves credit for recent sci-tech funding bills or for getting Deb Haaland nominated as the first Native American cabinet secretary, as Lerer implies — but some quotes sound pretty, well, popular — in the majoritarian sense. To quote at length:
For Data for Progress, the strategy is Politics 101: Politicians like policies that are popular.
“The secret sauce here is that we’ve developed a currency that they’re interested in,” says Sean McElwee, the executive director of the group. “We get access to a lot of offices because everyone wants to learn about the numbers.”
The big “secret”? Polling data that’s targeted, cheap and fairly accurate.
Aides to Democratic congressional leaders say Data for Progress can quickly poll on policies — like expanding the Child Care Tax Credit or unemployment benefits, or spending $400 billion on senior care — that would be considered too specific for a full survey by some other polling firms. And by finding ways to do operations that pollsters traditionally outsource, the organization can charge tens of thousands of dollars less than more established firms, according to Mr. McElwee.
Data for Progress then uses those quick-turnaround surveys to push its version of a progressive agenda, boosting liberal candidates in primaries and persuading Democrats to rally around popular liberal policies once in office.
One note is: of course they’re doing this — it’s basic politics. Every progressive group is trying to do the same thing. That’s not to knock the strategy, but the missed story here is in how Data for Progress has been more progressive than other groups (if, indeed, they have been — success here is hard to quantify). Maybe they’ve been able to do this because they have shied away from endorsing more unpopular progressive policies, a choice that has drawn them fire from the left. Or maybe they have mastered social media circulation for their reports. Maybe it’s a combination of both!
But what I find really interesting is in analyzing where the “do popular things!” strategy matches what you’d expect from a majoritarian political movement, and where it doesn’t. To quote Lerer at length again:
“The point of being a progressive and being involved in politics is to make progress happen,” said NoiseCat, an activist and author who was Data for Progress’s first employee. “At a certain point progress should mean we got x and y thing done that made people’s lives better. I think it’s kind of ironic that a lot of progressives forget that the main point is we’re supposed to do the progress thing.”
Over the past three years, Mr. McElwee made his own shift from self-described “Overton Window mover” to a more pragmatic approach, coming to embrace Mr. Biden — “I don’t like him very much,” he said in 2019 before meeting with his campaign less than a year later — and moving away from calls to #AbolishICE, a slogan he helped popularize that became a rallying call for the left in 2018. (Only about a quarter of voters backed the idea of eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to polling at the time.)
Now, his group advocates what Mr. McElwee has called a “normie progressive theory of change,” backing liberal candidates who can build broad coalitions around popular policies. Think lawmakers like Representative Lauren Underwood, who flipped her suburban Illinois district, rather than more firebrand progressive leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On policy, they’ve come to embrace what they believe are the most popular parts of a liberal agenda as a way of persuading voters who might be skeptical of bolder rhetoric. Emphasizing a clean electric standard, instead of a carbon tax, for example. Or focusing on passing Mr. Biden’s agenda through reconciliation rather than fighting over abolishing the filibuster, a proposal that currently lacks sufficient support among Senate Democrats.
… “We’re relatively young, but my belief about progressive politics is that first and foremost we have a moral obligation to win,” Mr. McElwee said. “The demands in a lot of corners for policymakers to hold positions that are highly unpopular is wrong.”
Of course, what is popular is not always right, and what is unpopular is sometimes good. I don’t think McElwee or NoiseCat would disagree! But their case for progressivism dovetails with a lot of the majoritarianism that seeps into the literature on public opinion polling and American, democracy, and that got me thinking…
One big challenge for the progressive electoral case for doing popular things is that it is definitionally different from doing popular things for the sake of majoritarian representative democracy. That’s partly because our electoral system is biased towards Republicans, as a feature of both the House and Senate punishing voters who live in cities. So the effective electoral majority of voters is different from the majority of all voters, or even all Americans — who we might think have more domain to decide the general will of the nation.
The progressive “popularism” is also different from majoritarian “popularism” because the voters who live in marginal states or districts are demographically different and have different issue attitudes and policy preferences. So the progressive “do popular things” is often a re-stylization of “do things that a coalition of politically engaged non-whites, educated whites and non-college whites can tolerate.” That might lead you to adopt a different set of policies, and a different politics, than you would if we had higher-turnout elections or a more proportionally representative electoral system.
Now, I admit that this is all fine if your goal is to win elections and pass good, progressive policies. But if you’ve adopted a more inclusive definition of public opinion, our modern populares still leave a lot to be desired. That is ultimately the fault of our framers, and I support the general direction the likes of McElwee and Shor are taking things (with some other disagreements on data and narrative-building), but the shortcomings of electoral popularism are nevertheless real.
Posts for subscribers
June 10: Polls show non-voters, not Trump voters, make up the largest share of vaccine-reluctant Americans. Luckily, they are also particularly responsive to monetary incentives to get shots
June 12: A thread for subscribers on global views of the US recovering from their Trump-era lows.
Links to what I’m reading and writing
I regret that I have no reading recommendations for you this week. I have been too busy writing for work and finishing the first round of edits of my book to really dive into anything substantial. I will have more to link for you next week.
That’s it for this week. Thanks so much for reading. If you have any feedback, please send it to me at this address — or respond directly to this email. I love to talk with readers and am very responsive to your messages.
If you want more content, you can sign up for subscribers-only posts below. I’ll send you one or two extra articles each week, and you get access to a weekly gated thread for subscribers. As a reminder, I have cheaper subscriptions for students.
In the meantime, follow me on Twitter for related musings.
“Do popular things!” might also lead you to ignore policies that are currently unpopular but could be made popular through the political process, but we can leave that for another time. Making this point in a parenthetical distracts from the flow of the argument.