My best case against popularism

The fundamentals still matter most

Ezra Klein’s profile of David Shor and David Shor Thought generated a lot of controversy and response, and I found most of the counterarguments unpersuasive enough that I wanted to write my own.

Most of the responses missed the biggest elephant in the room of any argument about political tactics, which is the general consensus that the effect size of absolutely anything you do is small. Literally anything. A really amazing campaign ad has a tiny effect, and the effect tends to fade quickly. A reputation for moderation helps you win congressional elections, but we’re talking about a very small boost.

Professional political operatives are supposed to do everything they can to help candidates win. That’s their job. So they are correct to offer advice like “murdering that squirrel will boost your poll numbers by 0.001 percentage points, so you should go do it.” But when making a comprehensive decision about what to do in politics, you need to ask yourself whether the juice is worth the squeeze. And the actual amount of juice involved in any kind of political tactic is very, very small.

That’s why in practice, a lot of these debates hinge on different people’s evaluations of issues on the merits. I believe that mainstream progressive groups’ flirtation with “defund the police” was politically costly — but I also think defunding the police is a really bad idea, so the political cost of that idea bothers me a lot. By contrast, I’m pretty enthusiastic about the expanded Child Tax Credit, so if Democrats want to run some risks here, it doesn’t worry me much as long as they do it with their eyes open.

Election outcomes are very important, but campaign tactics are a relatively minor factor in determining them.

An alternate vision of 2016

Neil Irwin wrote a great piece about three years ago called “The Most Important Least-Noticed Economic Event of the Decade.”

It’s about what he called a “mini-recession” (starting in 2014 and lasting through the end of 2016) characterized by a collapse in investment spending paired with a small slowdown in GDP.

The way I would put it is that we saw a tremendous surge in the value of the dollar, starting in the summer of 2014 and continuing until the winter of 2016-17.

During this period, the Consumer Price Index fell way below the Fed’s 2% target. But interest rates were already at zero, and the unemployment rate was already low. Under the circumstances, the Fed felt the right thing to do was to focus on unwinding quantitative easing rather than talk about doing new monetary stimulus.

This turns out to have been a big mistake. Even though the unemployment rate was low, the employment-population ratio was still very depressed from the Great Recession. Creative people made up all kinds of explanations for why this had happened, but at the time, some of us argued that the economy was simply under-stimulated. And in retrospect, we were clearly right. Over the course of 2016-20, the labor force kept growing and growing. Monetary policy could have been more aggressive back in 2015 and 2016 in countering the dollar surge, the investment collapse, and the disinflation. Had that happened, job growth would have been more rapid. And the benefits would have been particularly notable for people involved in export-oriented commodity production (i.e., farmers) and import-competing manufacturing (i.e., factory towns).

Now on some level, the reason rural areas and Midwestern manufacturing communities swung against Democrats had a lot to do with Donald Trump and the way he took Social Security off the table to put immigration squarely in the middle of it. But at the margin, a more prosperous agricultural and industrial sector would have helped Democrats win votes. And Clinton only needed a tiny number of extra votes to win. And had she won, we’d be having a very different conversation about politics today.

The fundamentals matter most

David Dayen has outlined an alternative to Shor’s theory of politics that he calls “deliverism” — basically, Democrats need to deliver on their big promises to win.

I think that’s wishful thinking. One of the most robust results in presidential scholarship is that public opinion is “thermostatic.” If it’s hot, the thermostat turns on the AC. The hotter it gets, the more the AC runs. In other words, when policy shifts right, views shift left; when policy shifts left, views shift right.

But what matters a lot is the fundamentals; basically, “how are things going?”

Bill Clinton didn’t really deliver any big progressive policy change. But after a rough first two years, the economy really started cooking and he became super popular.

Conversely, John McCain was an incredibly strong presidential candidate. His favorable ratings were very high, he had a great relationship with the press, he had moderate positions on certain key issues, and he had the edge in experience. But he got his butt kicked not just because Barack Obama is a shrewd politician, but because the economy was collapsing. The policy achievements of 2009-10, in turn, flowed from huge Senate majorities that were only possible because Obama not only won, but he won big. Absent the collapsing economy, Al Franken never would have won that race in Minnesota. Republicans were playing defense on so many fronts that they didn’t even mount a challenge to incumbent senator Mark Pryor in Arkansas.

Looking back further in history, Roosevelt didn’t take office until three full years after the Great Depression had utterly and completely discredited Herbert Hoover. Then FDR rapidly ditched the gold standard and set off several years of record-fast growth. At that point, it didn’t really matter what specific choices he made. He’d saved the economy! When Adolf Hitler took over in Germany and rapidly ditched the gold standard, he also saw soaring approval despite an otherwise completely different set of policy choices.

This is not the utopian view that good policy will be rewarded. There are lots of kinds of policy. But short-term economic conditions are very important. Joe Biden came out of the gate with vaccines and a huge stimulus bill and seemed to be riding high. Now, thanks to inflation, real wages are falling and he’s unpopular. If the inflation does prove transitory and the economy booms next year, people will like him more. Beyond taking care of the economy, though, you may as well do what you want. The effect sizes of everything are small, and there’s a lot of randomness in politics, so you take your shots when you can.

How bad is it to lose?

Still, even though effect sizes are small, they can be consequential.

America has winner-take-all elections. A 50-50 Senate with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is very different from a 51-49 Senate with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If Biden had done one point worse, he’d have lost the tipping point state and Trump would still be president.

So given how consequential tiny shifts in voting outcomes can be, maybe you ought to sweat all the details after all. Maybe.

Here I think there’s a big question. There used to be a raging argument in left-wing circles about whether or not it was appropriate to go throwing around the idea that Trump is a “fascist.” And one of the points made by the not-a-fascist camp is that convincing rank-and-file progressives that the GOP is an incipient fascist movement is, among other things, a means of limiting political imagination and ambition.

Like, say you concede that Joe Biden is more electable than Bernie Sanders, but not a lot more electable. Say Bernie is 5% less likely to win. That’s a small risk to take for the huge boost to the socialist movement that would come from having a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in the White House. But if Trump getting reelected really does mean the United States becomes a fascist autocracy, the 5% seems pretty costly. After all, it’s not like the Sanders administration would actually get the chance to sign Medicare for All into law, whereas the downside risk of fascism is enormous.

I tend to think the fascism stuff is overblown. But there is a real tradeoff here, and I think all kinds of American progressives have been in some denial about it.

The specter of fascism

Anti-Netanyahu forces in Israel finally triumphed by forging a broad tent coalition anchored in centrist parties but including everyone from Islamists to dissident anti-Bibi rightists to the pitiful remainder of the Jewish left. The Czech Republic’s Trump-esque leader was just defeated by a broad church opposition coalition that deliberately suppressed its internal policy disagreements.

But in the U.S., any time Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden was seen as aggressively courting Trump-skeptical GOP elites, progressives offered significant pushback. Having John Kasich speak at the Democratic Convention was considered controversial. No consideration was given to trying to form a big-tent anti-Trump coalition where Kasich would be in the cabinet and there’d be an explicit focus on “return to normalcy” rather than policy ambition. That was a reasonable choice to make, but it’s not a choice you make when you believe that the future of our democracy is at stake. It’s a choice you make when you believe, instead, that we are basically practicing normal politics and you want to win in order to advance your policy agenda, and you don’t want to compromise your policy agenda in order to win.

By contrast, I think Shor is one of the few people who really takes this fascist stuff seriously, and it informs his thinking about all kinds of topics.

If this is what you believe, then I think you ought to fully embrace popularism in all its implications.

If the endgame of a GOP electoral victory is, in fact, that progressive activists will be thrown out of helicopters, then progressive activists should be leading the charge in favor of a more cautious approach to politics.

What frustrates me about contemporary progressive politics is that if I were to say “I don’t like Donald Trump, but I also don’t think he’s on the verge of establishing a fascist dictatorship,” people would see that as a squishy sellout position, but if I were to say “in order to avert Donald Trump’s fascist dictatorship, I think Democrats had better cut back their policy ambitions and act more like second-term Bill Clinton,” I’d also be accused of holding a squishy sellout position. But you really do have to pick a lane here. The higher the stakes of winning per se, the less sense it makes to emphasize ambitious policies.

It’s good to set priorities

What I do think is correct about the popularist view of governance is that progressives need to get back in the habit of setting priorities. I enjoy the “Why Not Both?” GIF, but this mindset has become an impediment to clear political thinking.

It’s pointless to try to govern from a position of total defensive crouch on all issues at all times. But it’s also true that while taking calculated political risks makes sense, you do need to choose your battles. There is no GIF of Frederick the Great saying “to defend everything is to defend nothing,” but it’s still true. It’s just not tenable to maintain that absolutely everything is vitally and equally important, and if you don’t agree, you’re a racist who wants to see the entire human race literally burn and also doesn’t care about the future of democracy.

I was looking at some old exit polls recently, and it’s striking the extent to which self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified moderates, so much so that sometimes Democrats win a majority of moderates and lose the election anyway.

This doesn’t necessarily say anything about specific policy ideas. But I think it does suggest pretty strongly that if you portray yourself as wanting to lead a “political revolution” or generate “big structural change,” you are putting yourself in a branding hole. Whatever it is you want to do, people want to hear that it is moderate. Probably Bernie’s best line about Medicare for All was pointing out that they do it in Canada and several other countries1 — something that makes it sound non-radical and reassuring.

But here are some Vox headlines:

Nobody wants to tell anybody no, so leadership keeps lining up behind “sweeping” bills that are DOA in the Senate and that (whatever their individual merit) create the impression of a party that wants to bring sweeping change to a wide range of policy areas. If this cost you some votes but also led to sweeping policy change on all fronts, it might be smart.

But that’s pretty clearly not what’s happening. Democrats are posturing for reasons of internal coalition politics and because nobody wants to tell anyone explicitly that their ideas are going to need to take a back seat. That’s not calculated risk-taking for the purpose of substantive gains. It’s not political courage or governing boldness. It’s leaders refusing to take responsibility for choices, and it’s bad.


This is somewhat undermined by the fact that his actual proposal is way more expansive than the Canadian single-payer system.