Here are some ways to change things
There's more to life than "activism"
A relatively brief item for the subscribers today since we have Jeff Mauer’s hilarious (and informative!) piece on Chad, but I wanted to address the thing that comes up every time I complain about politically counterproductive activists, which is that someone will come to me and be “well you’re just saying we shouldn’t try to change anything at all.”
The fact that I am obviously not saying that and yet people keep deciding to believe that’s what I’m saying has drilled into my brain that there’s a kind of meta-problem here, which is that a lot of folks have convinced themselves that noisy activism is the only modality of political change. I’m not really sure how anyone could have ever come to believe that since it’s so clearly not true, but I think a little explicit discussion of the many, many, many ways that people successfully create change in politics is worth doing.
Changing attitudes via pop culture
This strikes me as perhaps the one that people are being most willfully blind to, since modern-day cultural commentary is obsessed with the political implications of what we see on the screen.
But I think it’s very obvious that humanizing, sympathetic portrayals of gay and lesbian characters on American television in the 1990s and aughts was a huge deal politically.
Notably, even something as broad and stereotype-driven as early “Will & Grace” does the work here. Conversely, there’s been a lot of criticism of “copaganda” in network television portrayals of policing. I think there are formal, structural changes that need to be made to how policing works, but also, shifting the kind of background knowledge (or “knowledge”) that typical middle-class people obtain about policing via pop culture is very important.
Pop culture can also be a constructive, integrative force. I’ve read a lot of leftist commentaries online complaining that the bottom line of “Black Panther” is ultimately that it’s a good idea to work with the CIA and the American government. Normie centrists don’t really write a lot of movie takes, but the flip side of those complaints is that this is a great film for normie patriotism — Black kids love an awesome on-screen hero who they identify with, but there’s no subversive message.
Persuading people with arguments
Over the past couple of years, the worm has really turned on the U.S.-China relationship, and it’s now deeply unfashionable to believe that economic integration or growth in China will lead to democratization of the regime.
Any time anyone in the country thinks about U.S.-China rivalry, I want them to think “a constructive way to bolster the U.S. side of this would be to grow the population.” I wrote a book about this, “One Billion Americans,” and I want this to become a brain worm. If someone mentions U.S.-China tensions in a casual conversation, I want someone else at the table to say “maybe we should try to grow our population.” I want op-eds and talking heads on television to consider this idea. I want politicians to get questions about it in town halls.
In short — I want to take a fringy notion and make it mainstream.
But you don’t do this by acting like a jerk and calling people who find your idea weird and offputting names. You have to recognize that you are the weirdo who is trying to persuade other people. And you need to think about ways to market your idea to different kinds of audiences, and not just double-down on your own stuff. This is hard — I think pop culture probably works better — but it’s a thing you can do.
I’ve never discussed it explicitly with them, but in my mind, whenever I tout Alon Levy’s work on transit construction costs or write posts about similar issues, my mental model is that we are trying to persuade an elite audience.
One important step was writing about this enough that someone put up the money for Alon and Eric Goldwyn to do the Transit Costs Project. The project itself is valuable, but beyond the specific outputs, it now means there’s a little university-affiliated research center that can be a go-to source of quotes and citations for people who want to write about this stuff. Now there’s a Niskanen report too.
I don’t think people are ever going to be marching in the streets demanding “in-house project design now!” or “redesign federal grants to reward state officials for cost-effective decision-making!” The plausible theory here is that some politically ambitious governor (or ex-mayor turned Secretary of Transportation) will decide there are good points here, and that the potential upside of picking some fights is bigger than the downside.
Some of this can just be as simple as telling people things. Matt Bruenig is personally responsible for me being aware of the low participation rate of refundable tax credit programs relative to explicit expenditures. And I know I’m not the only journalist who was made aware of this by him. And now more people have written about it and more people know. In the future, I think policy design will be better thanks to this information getting around — it’s not going to require a mass movement with dozens of local chapters, and it could improve the lives of millions of people.
This is a cousin of elite persuasion, but a little different.
Members of Congress have hardworking staff, but they tend to be on the young side and pretty stretched-thin. A lot of people have a stereotype of lobbyists as bag-men who just bribe members to do what they want. But in practice, a lot of lobbying is what Hall & Deardorff call “legislative subsidy” — the lobbyist can do the staff work for you.
Say you represent State X and you think it would be a good idea to do something to help bring biotech jobs to your state. Well, the bad news is you have no idea how to craft a proposal that would do that. But if there’s a university in your state and that university has a competent lobbying team, they can come up with a well-crafted proposal that involves giving the university money combined with a plausible account of how this money that they get is going to create biotech jobs.
A lot of think tanks these days operate in a space dominated by the production of not-very-convincing partisan propaganda. But at their best, think tanks offer a non-profit version of the legislative subsidy. They can work with members of Congress to create proposals that are well-designed to actually achieve the members’ goals instead of just discussing them on a very broad level of generality.
Justice Democrats have now assembled a very strong track record of being able to deliver meaningful financial resources to non-traditional candidates who occasionally defeat incumbent members of Congress running in safe blue districts.
This not only delivers a number of solidly left-wing members to the halls of power, but it also sends a powerful message to every single safe seat Democrat that they’d better watch their back and not end up on the Justice Dems’ list. The model they are using here is essentially a tweaked and improved version of what the Club For Growth has long done on the right. The Club was extremely effective, but JD’s strategy in some ways even more potent since it doesn’t rely on the existence of an ambitious incumbent politician who wants to run the high-risk challenge. They didn’t find a Queens City Council member to run against Joe Crowley, they found AOC.
The other kind of electoral politics that’s useful is beating Republicans.
Activists like to say it’s not their job to win elections for the Democratic Party but … isn’t it? Suppose Jon Tester had lost in 2018 and that seat was held by a conservative Republican instead — how much does that reduce the odds of legislative action on your pet issue? How much does it reduce the odds of sympathetic federal judges being confirmed? How much does it constrain who can even be confirmed for cabinet jobs? If success on your issues requires Tester to win, then yes, it is your job.
An unfortunate common thread
Some of these modes are confrontational (primary challenges to incumbents) and some are friendly (legislative subsidy). Some are inside (elite persuasion) and some are outside (pop culture).
What they all have in common is that you have to know what you’re talking about.
Justice Democrats work because they’ve proven reliable at fundraising. But they’re only reliable at fundraising because they have some credibility with their constituents at actually winning races. There’s no shame in occasional losing, but their failed shot at Henry Cuellar revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of South Texas politics. If that kind of thing happened a lot, they would collapse. But it doesn’t happen a lot — they make reasonable calculations about who is beatable, which is hard.
“Will & Grace” was a funny show. I wish someone would write a successful sitcom geared toward advancing my political ideas, but I can’t do it personally because I can’t write a funny sitcom. It’s hard. Convincing insiders of things or providing meaningful legislative subsidies requires you to know what you’re talking about.
I think that’s the big reason why these modes of change are underrated. There’s an endlessly deep market for ideas and theories of why it’s okay to not really know what you’re talking about. The idea that the solution to everything is “activism” and that the state of public opinion is irrelevant is appealing because it suggests you don’t really need to bother to learn the details. If you toss out huge ideas that don’t make sense, you can always push back and say “that’s fine, it’s all about the Overton Window.” And if the specific things you’re asking for aren’t actually important, then the people who are complaining just don’t understand organizing.