The merits of a "narrow target" campaign
Peace in our time in the popularism wars?
Anthony Albanese recently won an election for the Australian Labor Party running what’s been characterized in the press Down Under as a “small target” strategy.
And with concepts like “popularism” and “moderating on policy” having grown contentious in the U.S. context, I think this framing could offer an appealing alternative.
Perry Bacon, who hates popularism, recently called for Democrats to run on a set of Contract With America-style promises that I think actually amounts to a small target strategy, so perhaps thinking in these terms could generate a useful consensus and offer a path forward.
What is the small target? It’s a strategy that calls for limiting the range of topics that are under discussion in a campaign. Australian conservatives (called the Liberal Party, which is confusing for Americans) tried to import U.S./U.K. culture war topics, and Albanese just refused to engage. He took a fair amount of crap from the media because it seemed like (and indeed was) an effort to duck the issue, but duck it he did. His campaign made a relatively small number of campaign promises on a relatively small number of issues, and he hammered those home, perhaps aided by the credibility that comes from his political origins in one of the more leftward factions of the party.
Bacon’s proposal for Democrats offers similar merits.
His 10 ideas are not the ones I would pick, and that’s in part the virtue of him drawing up the list — the goal is to come up with something that people who find me annoying could get on board with. But the basic exercise of picking a finite list is very different from how even moderate Democrats like Joe Biden ran in 2020. The options Democrats considered two years ago ranged from “sweeping, dramatic change on every single issue” to “more modest amounts of change on every single issue.” Bacon characterizes his proposal as an agenda to get excited about, but what I think is most exciting about it is that it offers a smaller target.
Perry Bacon’s 10-point plan
Here are the 10 ideas, which he suggests calling “Promises to the People,” exactly as worded in Bacon’s column:
Eliminate the filibuster.
A national law guaranteeing a right to an abortion in the first trimester and in all cases of rape and incest.
A democracy reform law mandating independent commissions to draw state and congressional districts lines free of gerrymandering; vote-by-mail and two weeks of early voting; proportional representation through multi-member congressional districts; and measures to prevent election subversion.
A ban on the sale of military-style weapons such as AR-15 rifles and high-capacity magazines, along with universal background checks for gun sales.
A minimum income tax of at least 20 percent on billionaires.
A ban on members of Congress buying individual stocks.
National marijuana legalization.
A climate change plan that puts the United States on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
A required civics and life-skills course for high school seniors, with the same curriculum throughout the country.
Voluntary term limits of 12 years in Congress for all Democrats (six terms in the House, two in the Senate).
Again, this is not the list I would write if I got to write the list. But I think it’s pretty good!
On abortion, Bacon rightly recommends that Democrats recalibrate their stance to be popular while protecting the overwhelming majority of actual abortions. His election reform proposals in item 3 rightly jettison a lot of the provisions that were lumped into Democrats’ original political reform bill — notably, the unpopular idea of public financing and the also unpopular idea of opposition to voter ID rules. On marijuana, Chuck Schumer has been fighting not only for legalization but also to expunge the records of people with past marijuana convictions, and Bacon proposes a more narrow course.
The national civics idea is, I take it, intended to be a bone thrown to more conservative and centrist concerns about K-12 curriculum development, and I think it’s pretty smart. Whenever conservatives get into official high-profile discussion mode, they tend to concede that we should, in fact, teach people about the history of slavery and racism in the United States, about the Civil Rights Movement, and other such matters. But when the conversation devolves into people yelling at school board meetings, you end up with the racist parents who don’t want to read about Ruby Bridges. Having this conversation on a national level would perhaps let us get to a responsible, inclusive version of civically-minded patriotism in the spirit of bipartisan action to create the Juneteenth holiday.
Items 6 and 10 are classic populism, the billionaire minimum tax is solid, and while filibuster elimination is going to alarm some, its inclusion underscores the virtue of the small target strategy. Framed Bacon’s way, filibuster elimination means “we have this narrow list of things we want to do, and eliminating the filibuster means that it will happen.” If you keep the target small, I think that can work. If you tell people the filibuster is the only thing standing between the status quo and Elizabeth Warren’s big structural change, then you have a problem.
So while it’s not my list, I think it’s a huge improvement on the status quo, and it’s dramatically more moderate than recent Democratic Party positioning.
A charter of moderation
It’s worth remembering exactly how much of a goofy race to the left the Democrats’ 2020 primary became. You had Beto O’Rourke promising to confiscate people’s assault rifles, multiple candidates arguing we should decriminalize illegal entry into the United States, Kirsten Gillibrand endorsing ICE abolition, and virtually everyone endorsing the abolition of the death penalty.
What’s particularly striking is those promises weren’t from the leftmost candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
And while Joe Biden ran and won as a moderate, he did so on a platform that was much more left-wing than Bacon’s Promises to the People. Biden promised trillions of dollars in new spending on an expanded welfare state, proposed a major immigration reform bill during his first month in office, and ran on a platform that pledged to “embed racial justice in every element of our governing agenda.”
Bacon’s list drops that new racial focus, makes no mention of trans issues, and gives up on welfare state expansion in favor of a narrow focus on climate, plus more moderate versions of the current progressive agenda on voting rights and abortion rights.
Of course focusing the party on a specific list doesn’t mean everyone needs to give up working issues that are outside of the scope of the small target. But for the concept to work, the party has to tolerate heterodoxy on everything that isn’t on the list. If you sign up for all 10 items, you’re a mainstream member of the party in good standing even if you love capital punishment or have doubts about the wisdom of creating a new federal child care program. If you support, say, nine of these ideas but aren’t sure about the assault weapons ban, then you’d be in the conservative wing of the party.
Bacon does not portray it this way in his column, but taking his idea seriously would be a genuinely transformative move back to the center for Democrats, one that would involve giving up on the mobilization delusion, reopening the door to Obama-style pandering, and reversing a decade of leftward ideological delusion. And that would be great!
Changing minds happens on a different track
The one item on this list that is clearly more progressive than Biden’s current position is the straightforward call to legalize marijuana.
This is a popular idea that lots of Democrats have embraced but that Biden hasn’t and that Obama didn’t while he was president. I find that frustrating. But I also think it is noteworthy and important to understand that marijuana legalization became popular in advance of high-profile politicians endorsing it. That’s the exact same trajectory we walked in the past with marriage equality, which started out as a cause that a minority of the public and virtually no elected officials supported. As it became more and more popular, more and more elected officials came out in favor of it.
It was through Bacon’s Twitter feed that I found Loop Me In, a blog that describes itself as written by an anonymous group of progressive staffers. They opened with two blistering posts criticizing “popularism” (and naming me as a target of the criticism), followed by a third post “Reimagining the Movement” that I largely agree with.
The whole point of that third post is that you don’t create durable political change by trimming your sails and pandering to public opinion to try to win elections, you do it by rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work of building institutions and changing minds. They posit this as a counterpoint to popularism, but like Simon Bazelon, I think this is entirely compatible with what we are saying.
My view is that Kamala Harris, if she wants to become president of the United States, should pander relentlessly to public opinion and try to be super popular. But the “if” is important. If what she actually wants to do is long-term movement building, then she should not pander relentlessly, but she probably also shouldn’t run for president.
The hard part is priorities
The tricky thing is that while you can make big gains by narrowing the target, someone has to actually make the choices.
I think Bacon’s 10-point plan is a huge improvement over the status quo. But it’s not the 10-point plan that I would have written. And if you put Patty Murray in charge of writing the 10-point plan, she’d come up with some third thing. What would be in it? I’m not sure. But unless she went totally insane, it would be an improvement over the status quo. Because the gains come less from the specific details of the plan (though the details do matter) than from the simple fact that the target is narrowed, creating space for individual members to be heterodox, and the entire coalition gives off calmer vibes.
The problem is that someone does actually need to write the list and make it stick — someone needs to set priorities.
And prioritization is hard. Who does it? There’s no formal mechanism through which America’s loosely defined political parties can do priority setting. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Congressional parties do write “Contract With America”-style documents (Democrats had their “Six for 2006” back in the day), and it wasn’t a law of nature that the candidates running in the 2020 primary had to take such a both/and approach to everything. Part of building a more broadly appealing coalition is going to be rebuilding the muscle that knows how to set priorities.