What was the popularism debate?
An attempt to reboot a tedious conversation
I find the “popularism” dialogue on Twitter to be pretty frustrating, so I wanted to reboot a bit and clearly outline both my main, original interest in this topic and the stakes as I see them.
In particular, one bloc of active-on-Twitter political scientists seems to have confused the issue by interpreting a debate that’s about one thing as instead being about some different thing1 of greater scholarly interest. Some of this is just sincere difference of opinion about what’s interesting; in academia, pointing out that an obviously wrong viewpoint is still wrong doesn’t win you anything. But in real-world politics, people doing obviously wrong things really does matter, even if the fact that they are wrong is not intellectually interesting.
I am happy to concede that there are lots of interesting and important questions to debate besides the question of popularism. Indeed, I don’t think popularism is interesting at all. But I think it was important across the 2020 cycle because so many influential leaders in the progressive community took actions that were foolish and counterproductive. And while I don’t think checking those impulses (or not checking them) has much to do with the forward-looking fate of an incumbent president, there will be other open primaries.
And in the future, we need smarter behavior from issue advocacy groups, their donors, and the people who cover them.
The 2020 Democratic Party primary
In April 2019, Beto O’Rourke unveiled a climate change policy agenda that featured $1.5 trillion in direct federal spending (he claimed this would mobilize an additional $5 trillion in private sector investment) in order to get the American economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 30 years. For his trouble, he got blasted by the Sunrise Movement, which denounced his plan as inadequate.
Looking back from a universe in which Joe Biden is struggling to get $350-500 billion in climate funding through the Senate, one might wonder about the point of shitting on a plan that was already unrealistically ambitious.
At the time, though, Sunrise’s moves were somewhat widely considered strategically savvy, with many progressives concerned that the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee would adopt an insufficiently left-wing platform. Here’s Josh Voorhees from Slate:
By creating a little chaos, as Sunrise tends to do, the group make it harder for candidates, the media, and voters to complacently downplay the full scale of the climate crisis. And in the process, these rabble-rousers can notch a few tiny victories along the way, as they did this week when O’Rourke announced Wednesday—after Sunrise had softened its criticism of him—that he’d no longer accept campaign donations above $200 from fossil fuel company executives, which Sunrise had been pushing him to do. A small step, to be sure, but a step nonetheless.
This style of thinking set the stage for a primary campaign that was dominated by activists asking candidates to endorse ideas like:
A national ban on hydraulic fracturing
A national ban on private health insurance
A repeal of the statute that makes it a felony to enter the United States without proper paperwork
A moratorium on deportations
A repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion
But in no plausible universe would a fracking ban would get 60 votes in the Senate. And while activists were hoping to reform the filibuster, the concerns that filibuster reform might lead to an effort to pass a national fracking ban only made reform less likely. Getting the presidential nominee to campaign in favor of a ban on fracking was not going to lead to a ban on fracking. What it could lead to was the re-election of Donald Trump and/or worse down-ballot performance for congressional Democrats. And that would lead to worse climate policy, not better.
You could run down this whole list and reach the same conclusion.
I’m not sure how big of a difference it made that Joe Biden flip-flopped and endorsed Hyde Amendment repeal. But I was sure on the day he did it that repeal of the Hyde Amendment was legislatively impossible and that, by pushing the party to adopt an unpopular stance, the cause of abortion rights had become more imperiled rather than less. Much more imperiled? No. The number of lost votes attributable to any one unpopular stance is usually going to be small. But the sign of the effect is predictably negative.
And that is popularism. It is an almost childishly silly thing to argue about. But I believe that it is counterproductive to progressive causes to push candidates in tough races to take high-salience public stances in favor of unpopular progressive causes. Instead, you should encourage candidates to embrace popular progressive causes and allow them to make tactical retreats from fights where conservatives have public opinion on their side.
That’s genuinely the whole debate
Again, I concede that this is a really stupid argument and certainly uninteresting on an academic level.
But the reason I am making the point is that activists really did push Democratic Party candidates to say those things. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker said they would ban fracking and decriminalize illegal entry, and they were on the moderate side of the factional divide because they didn’t want to ban private health insurance. Joe Biden, who attracted nothing but disdain from activists, was for the deportation ban and Hyde Amendment repeal.
So why push for politicians to say this stuff? I’m not really sure.
It’s important to consider the tradeoff between taking political risks and doing things that are substantively important. But that’s not what this debate is about — there was no universe in which Biden endorsing Hyde Amendment repeal would lead to the Hyde Amendment being repealed.
There’s also an interesting conversation about whether activists themselves should advocate for unpopular positions. But this conversation is about something else: pressuring candidates for office into publicly endorsing those activists’ least-popular views.
And finally, there is an ongoing conversation about how much position-taking matters in vote-choice relative to other things. But, again, as long as it matters at all, why ask people to do something that is so plainly counterproductive?
I genuinely don’t know why anti-popularist political science professors think this is a smart thing for activist groups to do, because rather than engage with the issue at hand, they tend to tackle strawmen and engage in obfuscatory tactics. But what the activists themselves claim to believe is that elections are won not by appealing to the ideological predilection of the median voter but by mobilizing the base.
The mobilization myth
Just mathematically speaking, you need to mobilize two non-voters to obtain the same value as convincing a single voter to switch parties, so to the extent that you face a choice between these two things, it is clearly better to focus on persuasion. But when making messaging choices, you actually don’t face a tradeoff because sporadic voters are more moderate than regular voters. The people who vote all the time are more engaged with the political system, more ideological in their thinking, and more extreme in their views. There may be a tradeoff in terms of resource allocation — which population should you target for mailers or online ads or whatever — but in terms of message, there is no tradeoff. You want to portray yourself as a moderate politician with popular stances on issues.
Indeed, as Hall & Thompson showed in a very nice paper a few years back, extreme candidates mobilize their opponents’ base and hurt themselves.
Of course certain specific issues that are clearly coded as left-wing are nonetheless very popular. Price control for prescription drugs is one that gets kicked around a lot, and though it doesn’t get as much attention in D.C., the capping of credit card interest rates has a similar quality. And many of Democrats’ most unpopular views (support of affirmative action in college admissions, for example) are not the subject of factional controversy.
But back to 2020: activists were not demanding that candidates take clearer positions in favor of prescription drug price controls or capping credit card interest rates. They were specifically asking candidates to come out — in public, in high-salience venues like debates — in favor of ideas that were both unpopular and wildly unrealistic in legislative terms. And I still don’t know why. My suspicion is that the whole popularism debate has become so poisoned in part because the groups themselves realize that this was an error and don’t like to admit it or be reminded of it. And to an extent, I sympathize. I have had the experience of being loudly and publicly wrong, and it is unpleasant to have to admit error, publicly or privately, and annoying to be reminded that you were wrong.
Nonetheless, they were wrong. And the people reinforcing the norm that it’s wrong to criticize left-wing activists are contributing to poor public comprehension of this topic, a topic that I will admit is of only limited contemporary relevance.
This doesn’t have much to do with 2022 and 2024
It really is worth saying that while this is a general argument about American politics, it was particularly relevant to the circumstances of the 2020 campaign.
Joe Biden won the primary despite getting crushed in fundraising and broadly denounced by activists, and he did so while swallowing fewer poison pills than his main rivals. He then won the general election, and good for him.
But he is now in a fair amount of political hot water and people naturally want to argue about why that is. And while I think all else being equal, taking popularist advice is better than ignoring popularist advice, there is no reason to think that Biden is dramatically less popular in April 2022 than he was in February 2021 because of his messaging choices. The issue is events and governing.
The left likes to say that “people are mad about the governing results” means “people are mad that Biden didn’t do what left-wing activists wanted.”
And I disagree with that — I think people are mad mostly about inflation and the fact that crushing the virus didn’t go as well as hoped. But that also is a whole other argument.
There’s also an ongoing debate as to whether having tons of progressive people and progressive institutions embrace “defund the police” caused spillover harm to Democratic Party politicians who didn’t embrace it. I’m pretty agnostic about that. I do think that if the best defense of your activist campaign is “it can’t have been counterproductive because nobody agreed with us,” that seems like a pretty bad campaign. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act polled well and would have been good for the country — I wish people had taken to the streets across America to call for its passage instead of demanding something that’s bad on the merits.
In 2022 and 2024, Democrats will be running incumbent campaigns. And I hope they will be in the same situation in 2026 and 2028.
But in either the 2028 or the 2032 cycle, Democrats will have an open presidential primary. And my hope is that when that cycle comes along, the people who give money to issue advocacy groups will tell them not to spend their time and energy trying to coerce politicians into walking the plank with high-profile public embraces of unpopular ideas.
If you run an issue advocacy group, don’t do this.
If you work for an issue advocacy group, don’t encourage your colleagues to do this.
If you work for a politician, urge your boss to refuse to give in.
If you give money to groups, tell them not to act like this.
If you are a take-writer, don’t embrace chaos.
That’s my pitch. I don’t think this is particularly interesting relative to state-of-the-art political science scholarship, but at some point in the future, it will once again be relevant to real-world electoral politics.
What thing exactly? Well that seems to change according to what people are interested in. But I see a lot of takes zooming around about the size of campaign effects vs. fundamentals, how to empirically measure the electoral impact of media agenda-setting, why ticket-splitting has declined, and a dozen other genuinely difficult questions.