An attempt to reboot a tedious conversation
The myth of all powerful corrupting corporate money in politics has lead to a ‘stab in the back’ narrative on the left where the reason great left wing ideas don’t pass under ‘unified democratic governance’ is that dem pols secretly don’t believe anything they say and are taking bribes from big bad business. So candidates must be made to walk costly planks to demonstrate that they are true believers who can be trusted with nominations.
One thing you haven't touched on is that Sunrise and others have learned all the wrong lessons from right-wing advocacy groups like Club for Growth and the Right to Life campaign. Those groups have enforced strict messaging and will only endorse Republicans that support their full platform.
So why shouldn't left-wing groups do likewise? Because like it or not, the median vote in the Senate is coming from an R+3 state. Democrats have to play by different rules. It ain't fair, but that's the constitution we have.
"It is an almost childishly silly thing to argue about."
The elevation of young adults - VERY young adults - into positions of influence is, IMO, a real problem for the Progressive wing. I made the mistake this morning of following a couple of Matt's links to the Sunrise movement. The reported founders -- Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash -- were in their early 20s when Sunrise began its rise in the Democratic Party in 2016-2018. The organization is filled with college students, professional college students and young people filled with idealistic and simplistic notions about how the world should work. There is a place for this enthusiasm. But that place isn't in leadership positions.
The media - also filled with young and idealistic people - fawn over and provide favorable coverage of these groups. As one example, Ezra Klein interviewed Prakash in 2019 (she was 26!) and the transcript is full of support and encouragement, with no difficult questioning. Add to this the 'coverage' in the NYTimes, WaPo, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Time, etc., and you see how these movements become convinced of both their righteousness and the perfidy of anyone who disagrees.
I don't know how this is solved -- it seems to be hard-wired into the DNA of Progressives to believe Young People™ have some special insight and wisdom to which we should defer (Greta Thunburg comes to mind) -- but at some point, adults need to be in charge.
"Again, I concede that this is a really stupid argument and certainly uninteresting on an academic level."
People overrate the importance of saying smart things. Sometimes, saying the stupid thing is much more clarifying. I started winning more cases when I started to explain to my witnesses that I was deliberately asking stupid questions and expected stupid answers. The witnesses stopped trying to be clever and just gave dumb answers when I needed them. The judges/administrative boards understood what my case was so much better after that.
This problem is going to get worse, not better, now that Democrats have counter-gerrymandered the hell out of quite a few places themselves.
Everywhere the real election is a primary, the activists are further incentivized to go hog-wild, which will reflect badly on the national stage and atrophy the muscles needed to win competitive elections.
Just look at the GOP since 2012…
I blame social media and activist engagement with it for the phenomenon. I can't be the only person with a Facebook feed that periodically features someone going on an aggressively, woker-than-thou screed. It then gets 15 or 20 likes and a handful of enthusiastically supportive comments. From that person's perspective what they are saying probably feels both subversive and popular. So the best thing ever.
I am not in remotely activist circles but I can imagine if I was it would be even more extreme. My take is that even where people intellectually understand that certain ideas don't have broad-based support, if they are Extremely Online, as I imagine most left-wing activists to be, they don't at a gut level understand how unpopular these things can be. It isn't so much popularism vs. whatever the opposite is, it's failure to accept that they are actually not popular.
I think any analysis of the counterproductive actions of activists needs to take into account their incentives. Activist groups are not necessarily primarily incentivized to work towards likely progress on their stated aims. Instead, their chief interest is fundraising. Those two aims can align at times—particularly when donors prioritize outcomes—but they don’t have to. At times donors themselves may care more about supporting ideological purist movements that reinforce the donor’s personal identity than a boring pragmatic cause.
Hence, activists can be incentivized to create the most compelling ideological product to sell to donors. Further, they need to differentiate themselves from competing activism products by developing a unique brand. And of course they want to maximize their courting of free media coverage, including distribution on social media. That can incentivize taking extreme and outrageous positions that are more likely to garner engagement.
One needn’t even assume activist leadership is deliberately scheming to craft optimal ideological products for sale to donors. Market forces alone could ensure that more compelling and engaging movements outcompete lesser ones and thereby garner more funds for continuation and expansion. Through this Darwinian evolution we’d be left with ideological products optimized for donor consumption.
More and more I think this is the Pauline Kael situation for Democratic staff and activists. They are in such a bubble away from the vast majority of voters they don't recognize the unpopularity of their positions. I've been following the unionization efforts of Democratic congressional staff and some of the statements clearly indicate a divide from "average" Americans. Last week the House voted on a pretty robust marijuana legalization bill, but it was being faulted for not going far enough--despite going so far it's largely lost any bipartisan appeal--by Democratic staff who insisted that the vast majority of Americans are regularly using marijuana. It's totally missing the public polling on some of these issues and making the class of fellow activists in DC the focus group.
Isn’t the steel man argument just that the activists believe these issues are morally righteous and that when the public is exposed to them outside the ‘right wing/corporate media’ filter they will be convinced of this?
Then they run push polls that show that people can support something like their idea when not presented with any criticism, which ‘proves’ the point.
You are right on about “defund” though - that is just pure cope.
Matt is obviously right, which begs the question: why doesn't the Dem establishment stand up to these extremists more?
With Republicans, the answer is supposedly obvious. Republican have to deliver red meat to their base so they can pass their unpopular tax cuts.
I suspect Dems are not so different. Dems share plenty of culpability for the orgy of rent seeking that is the American economy, and these symbolic gestures are penance for or distractions from their inaction on that front.
The Obama administration actually raised taxes and passed regulations that, for good or for ill, Wall Street hated. I can't recall equivalents under Biden. He's mostly sprayed a load of cash around
1. There are a fair number of people that argue that politicians taking a position will change the public's viewpoint in a positive direction. Thus, a candidate that jettisons "safe, legal, and rare" will help destigmatize abortion and push the public to become more pro-choice.
2. I think an awful lot of this was just about trying to clear the field for Bernie. You didn't see many people talking about how "Medicare for All" is a neoliberal sellout policy, since it leaves a role for privately run hospitals.
3. Being a YIMBY teaches you a lot about political pragmatism. It's hard to argue that voters will support your anti-free parking agenda if only you spend more time explaining it to them.
I’m fearful that a lot of progressives greatly misread the damage that over-zealous pandemic policies did for us, especially among working class voters. I think that early in the pandemic, as a direct result of Trump and other Republicans’ insanely irresponsible view to ignore the pandemic, many progressives changed how they viewed NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions - masking, distancing, shutting down indoor dining- everything except vaxing) from “important tools to help deal with this pandemic” to “a public talisman that I take this emergency seriously, unlike the horrible Republicans I already hated”. I don’t think they ever understood the perspective that much of the country was unhappy with continued insistence of NPIs even after vaccine availability as well as a failure of leaders to provide clear and transparent metrics as to when these interventions would be made optional. Yet because so many progressives are viewing these things as talismans they have a big blind spot on this: “why are you demanding clear metrics? Masks aren’t that big a deal- they show you care, DON”T YOU CARE?” Left out of that is the fact that occasionally being asked to wear a mask to enter a grocery store is very different from being asked to wear one all day if you work there.
My view is that we should assume NPIs will be unpopular and we should limit their usage and rapidly update our guidance as we learn more about effectiveness. If we find out that cloth masks are almost worthless (which we have), then we should either update our mask mandates to require better masks or kill the mandate entirely. We should develop clear and transparent rules and make a commitment to the community that our NPIs go up based on X metric and as soon as it comes down we pull them down. In short we should be doing everything we can to communicate to as broad a public as possible that we recognize the burdens that we are asking people to take and as a result we are doing everything we can to minimize them. And our failure to do that is costing us with many otherwise winnable voters.
Here is my attempt at a steelman version of antipopularism:
1. Nothing really matters. The effect of adopting popular positions, as opposed to antipopular positions, is so small as to be insignificant. Elections are decided almost exclusively by trends in the economy, thermostatic public opinion, and other larger trends.
2. Therefore the way to achieve social change is not by maximizing your likelihood of winning elections, but rather to maximize the likelihood that your program will be implemented when your side wins the elections it was always going to win anyway. So we should focus all our energies on ensuring that the right people are in place, ready for that moment: people who are committed to using their power as sweepingly (and perhaps as ruthlessly) as possible once they have the opportunity.
The problem with popularists is that they assume the American public is more left-wing than in reality.
I'm in the odd position of being a pro-Bernie guy who agrees with the popularists because:
-I genuinely don't much care for the sort of people who run the Democratic party, I think that i) they confuse "I-went-to-college" snobbery with enlightenment and virtue; ii) they are wrong about a lot of things that Sanders is correct about, in particular about foreign policy.
-I dislike them so much that although I always vote blue, I think that they are sometimes overwrought about the danger posed by Republicans or the specific evils of Donald Trump. I'd take a chance on a less-obviously-electable Democrat I agreed with.
-Sort of a corollary: I'm completely immune to this anti-Joe-Manchin BS. There are lots of centrists in the party (I'm still pissed off about Biden and Schumer voting for the Iraq War). Part of being in the center of the party involves endorsing an interlocking set of commitments that seem to me misguided & to be about solidarity within the blob that is the Democratic establishment.
-I really think a Sanders-style campaign would win more votes from working people (I don't think the contemporary far-left has absorbed his wisdom). It is weird and unpleasant for the supposedly left-wing party not to get the votes of the poorer and less educated. You can blame FOX News or any number of things, but if you promise and deliver clear material benefits to this demographic it will vote for you and if you don't why should it?
-I have basically culturally liberal positions (& am a middle-aged gay man, I'm aware how much this stuff can matter) but would dial them all many ticks back to focus on "economic culture war." The only exception is climate change, which I guess is a kind of cultural issue.
It's easy to see Matt's point when I think the popularist position is correct on the merits, like with police funding. But on issues where I think an unpopular position is correct, the point gets a lot harder to swallow.
Like if I imagine a candidate strongly supporting rolling back protectionist measures or increasing legal immigration, I can't help imagining that people would be convinced and public opinion would shift. Because they *should* be convinced, those positions are correct!
And I notice Matt pushes candidates hard on housing issues even though NIMBY positions are still popular...