Progressives' mobilization delusion

Anatomy of a political dead end

If you want to understand the politics of the past five years, one of the best places to start is a 2016 article Nate Cohn wrote for the New York Times titled “There Are More White Voters Than People Think. That’s Good News for Trump.”

Narrowly, Cohn was making a point about the 2012 exit polls: their sample skewed younger, better educated, and less white than the actual electorate as revealed by later and more careful work. And he was correct, of course, that an older, whiter, less-educated electorate was better for Donald Trump and the GOP.

But the real significance of this fact isn’t that the actual American electorate is too old, too white, or too working class for Democrats to win.

After all, we know that Obama won in 2012. The exit polls weren’t wrong about that. What they did get wrong was the nature of Obama’s win. The way exit polls work is that they survey people about who they voted for and what demographic group they belonged to. But then, unlike a pre-election survey where you use those results to try to guess who’s going to win, you already know who won. So you weigh your sample to the actual results. By undersampling working-class whites, the exit polls wound up asserting that Obama got absolutely creamed in this demographic but won anyway thanks to his support among nonwhite voters and younger college graduates. This was a particularly significant coalition concept because educational attainment is rising, and so is the nonwhite population share. So if Democrats could win while doing this poorly with older working-class whites, future Democrats could afford to do even worse with these voters.

As Ron Brownstein put it in 2013, “With New Support Base, Obama Doesn’t Need Right-Leaning Voters Anymore.”

Progressive Democrats — those frustrated with the moderation and neoliberal incrementalism of the Obama administration — took this concept even further. Observing that young and nonwhite voters participate at a lower rate than older and whiter voters, they concluded that further progressive gains could be wrung out of the electorate by seeking to supercharge turnout and embracing left-wing cultural politics. Might doing this alienate more culturally conservative voters who still back Democratic positions on health care and Social Security? Sure, but who cares? We didn’t need ’em anyway.

Fallacies of mobilization

As tends to happen in life, a lot of this story ended up involving rhetorical slippage from accurate analytical points to wild and sloppy overstatements.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there were lots of swing voters — people who’d vote for LBJ then George Wallace then Nixon then Jimmy Carter then Ronald Reagan. There were also lots of crossover voters. In 1984, twelve Democratic senators got reelected in states that Reagan won. Democratic Senate candidates actually picked up three GOP-held seats, all in Reagan states, since there were 49 Reagan states. But amazingly, in the one state that went for Mondale, a GOP incumbent was re-elected to the senate.

Today’s politics is nothing like that, with the number of swing voters and potential crossover voters having diminished to a tiny rump of the population.

But there’s a world of difference between that observation and John Long proclaiming in the New Republic that swing voters are “a persona from a political landscape that simply no longer exists,” and progressives should instead see that “mobilizing more Democratic voters is the key to the 2020 election.”

Some journalists were more blunt, just proclaiming falsely that “there are no fucking swing voters.”

Supercharging this way of thinking, a lot of people went to bed on Election Day 2016 not only despondent at Donald Trump’s victory but convinced that plummeting turnout had played a key role in it. But that was a mix-up; the vote totals reporting on Election Day simply didn’t reflect a ton of mail-in ballots. Turnout was actually really high in 2016 — Clinton got almost the exact same number of raw votes as Obama. The problem was she got 48% of the total while he got 51%. And she picked up a lot of “wasted” votes in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Houston while trading away key votes in rural portions of the Midwest.

But during this period, there was nonetheless an obsession with mobilization strategies. Articles like “How Democrats Can Mobilize Millions of Non-Voters” appeared in the press, almost always engaging in further analytic slippage. You would start with the observation that the demographic characteristics of non-voters (younger, poorer) were characteristics associated with Democrats, and then assume that meant those voters were clamoring for left-wing policy.

In reality, both Obama voters who didn’t vote in 2016 and Obama voters who voted third party in 2016 were more moderate than consistent Democrats.

So the whole idea of a tradeoff between mobilization and polarization or of a lurking army of secret leftwingers never made any sense. It is, of course, good to mobilize voters. But just as donors are more ideological than rank-and-file voters, highly engaged people who vote all the time are more ideological than sporadic voters.

Silos and opportunists

One of the biggest problems with mobilization theory is that in politics (and also other spheres of life), there are a lot of opportunists. And by moving from a straightforward question like “is this popular?” to something harder to measure like “does this mobilize voters?” a lot of people who have specific agendas can make up hazy reasons why you need to prioritize their issues.

Take climate change, an issue with some odd dynamics.

It is a very important issue, but most people don’t think it’s a very important issue. A lot of issues have that same structure (global public health, lead contamination, pandemic prevention, asteroid detection, animal welfare), but unlike the typical important neglected issue, climate has a ton of money behind it.

The actual state of opinion on climate is hard to characterize, but I think it’s summed up pretty well by these two facts:

  • 69% of Americans say the United States should take “aggressive” action to fight climate change.

  • 34% of Americans say they would be willing to pay $100 more in taxes per year to curb emissions.

In other words — people kind of care about this, but they sort of don’t really.

So climate groups invested a ton of money over the years in creating a kind of Potemkin mass movement around climate change and have gotten lots of journalists to write articles about how climate is a key voter mobilization tool.

There’s no evidence this is true. Where they test ads and decide what to put on TV in the inner sanctums of Democratic Party strategy, they know it isn’t true, and so they don’t highlight climate in their paid media. But that fact is not communicated forcefully out to wider circles of the progressive movement, which are convinced not only that it’s good to act on climate change but that really portraying yourselves as the gung-ho climate people is a great mobilization strategy.

You saw a similar dynamic on immigration. Hispanic voters don’t like it when politicians run around the country saying racist stuff about immigrants from Latin America because it’s offensive. Trump did way better with Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016 in part, I think, because he toned that stuff way down. What he didn’t do was embrace comprehensive immigration reform. But is securing a path to citizenship for undocumented residents a top priority of Hispanic voters, people who are by definition U.S. citizens? As it turns out, no! But immigration advocates started developing esoteric theories whereby immigration activists’ work was the key to mobilizing Hispanic voters, so taking left-wing stances on immigration was a Hispanic mobilization tactic, even though Latino people don’t rank it especially highly as a priority.

Some of that, of course, just came down to the Obama team’s spin in the winter of 2012-13. They had just won reelection, but Republicans still controlled the House. They knew there was some GOP support for comprehensive immigration reform. So they wanted to encourage the theory that Hispanic voters who were fired up about immigration were the key to their victory in hopes it would bring more Republicans to the table.

That almost paid off with a bill in 2013, but they fell short. And it never made sense as a theory of how Obama won in Ohio and Iowa and Wisconsin. The boring truth is Obama won in an electorate that was older, whiter, and more working-class than the exit polls said by pandering to the views of the poorer and more secular segments of the white working class.

There’s a lot of sucking it up in politics

It’s hard to deprogram people from thinking that a topic they feel passionately about ought to be a major high-profile priority in partisan politics once they start assuming that it should.

But think about something totally different. If you’re like me, you know some people who are vegan for ethical reasons. And you probably know a much broader segment of people (people like me) who eat meat and feel kind of guilty about it and try to buy the more humane kinds and have been flirting with the Impossible Burger. And I even know some people who, on a policy level, are very, very focused on improving the incredibly inhumane conditions in which chickens are raised before they’re sent to the slaughter. But absolutely nobody I know who is anywhere on the spectrum of concern about animal welfare is confused as to why Joe Biden isn’t giving speeches about this or doing “animal welfare is infrastructure” tweets and getting mad at Congress.

Which isn’t to say they’re giving up on the issue! There are low-key animal welfare bills that people are working on. There are people trying to persuade other people about the importance of this. There’s a boom in investment in alt-meat products. People share vegan recipes. The topic is important, so people plug away at it.

On the right, there are obviously a lot of people who believe that redistribution is immoral and that the old Bush/Ryan agenda of privatizing Social Security and Medicare is correct. What those people have concluded is that they have a losing argument politically, and what they need to do for the short-term is help Republicans win elections and stop Democrats from expanding the welfare state. Right now, Democrats are trying to expand Medicare benefits. Republicans are trying to stop them. Conservative movement leaders are not tweeting “the very existence of Medicare is the compromise position.” That would be toxic and play into Democrats’ hands.

So what about welfare state rollback? Well, who knows. Those folks are still out there, and if given the chance, they’ll try again. But for now, they’re laying low. I think that must be very frustrating. But it’s life.

The point is just that it’s actually very normal for there to not be some obviously viable path to victory on Issue X. If the majority of the people aren’t with you (and they often aren’t), then you either need to pursue an inside game or you need to do persuasion work in the broader culture or you need to do both. This happens all the time, and it’s not equivalent to “giving up.”

But there’s no secret mobilization sauce whereby you can replace the actual electorate (old, white, non-college, change-averse) with some different one that’s more to your liking.