Popular-ism and the Democratic Messaging Deficit

The raging debate over what Democrats should say ignores the fact that people aren't hearing what we are saying.

Ever since Donald Trump came disturbingly close to defeating Joe Biden, an online and offline debate continues to rage among Democratic operatives about what happened and what happens next. This debate has recently centered around David Shor, a Democratic strategist and data analyst, who is highly critical of the strategic direction of the Democratic Party. Shor’s interviews and tweets generate a vituperative response from people who disagree with the accuracy of his diagnosis and the feasibility of his prescription.

Over the weekend, this debate jumped from political Twitter to the pages of the paper of record. Ezra Klein wrote a long, thoughtful column about Shor and his approach to politics. Fellow New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, a Shor critic, wrote a dissent.

One on hand, this level of attention on the views of one previously obscure data analyst seems insane. But the David Shor debate is a proxy for a more significant and contentious discussion about the future of the Democratic Party. And more fundamentally, how does a political party, representing a growing majority of Americans, avert a coming electoral catastrophe?

The David Shor discourse reminds me of the old saying from Senator Mo Udall. “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” However, as a Democrat active on Twitter and Substack, I am professionally obligated to offer my take (Sorry, Tommy).

For the purpose of full disclosure, I worked with Shor on the Obama 2012 campaign and periodically collaborated with him and his organizations in the years since. I also worked with a lot of dissenters quoted in the Klein column. There are very smart, well-meaning people on all sides of the popularism debate.

Popular-ism Distilled

At the risk of over-complicating the simple, here is a very distilled version of David Shor’s argument, which is often known as popularism:

  • The movement of working-class voters towards the Republican Party puts Democrats at a massive disadvantage in the Senate and Electoral College. According to Shor’s analytic model, if the Democratic presidential nominee wins 51 percent of the vote in 2024, Democrats will lose seven Senate seats. A hole like that could take us a decade or more to climb out of.

  • The salience of immigration, race, “wokeness,” and other cultural issues pushed many of these voters into the Republican Party. The Democratic problem is about more than working-class White voters. According to Shor, Defund the Police caused some working-class Black and Latino voters to support Trump in 2020.

  • There is a massive disconnect between the largely progressive, young, very online donors, activists, and operatives that dominate the party and the voters we need to win.

  • To address this challenge, Democrats must talk about popular things and stop talking about unpopular things. In practice, this means more populist economic issues and less race and immigration.

  • The model to follow is Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, which relentlessly focused on the economy and ran up huge margins with Black and Latino voters and persuaded enough white working-class voters to get the job done.

There are several counters to Shor’s argument. The bulk of them are included in the two New York Times pieces linked above. I would also recommend this post from Ian Haney Lopez, the University of California Berkeley law professor, who worked on the Race Class Narrative Project.

There is a lot to unpack. Some of Shor’s conclusions cannot be verified because they are based on work he did for various clients. A lot of the discussion is purely theoretical, involving impossible-to-prove counterfactuals. Some of the responses have distorted his argument. Like any Twitter debate, perspective and nuance left the building a long time ago.

Ultimately, I think this debate is more complicated than right or wrong, yes or no. But popularism and the reaction to it are obscuring two critical issues.

Diagnosis vs. Prescription

Whatever your opinion of Shor’s popularism prescription, his diagnosis must be reckoned with. Klein wrote about Shor’s assessment of the political environment:

Democrats are on the precipice of an era without any hope of a governing majority. The coming year, while they still control the House, the Senate and the White House, is their last, best chance to alter course. To pass a package of democracy reforms that makes voting fairer and easier. To offer statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. To overhaul how the party talks and acts and thinks to win back the working-class voters — white and nonwhite — who have left them behind the electoral eight ball. If they fail, they will not get another chance. Not anytime soon.

Think about 2020 for a second. Joe Biden was better liked than Trump. Ran a better campaign. Had a huge monetary advantage. And was running in the middle of a raging pandemic Trump failed to prepare for or respond to. Yet Biden barely won the presidency. The Democrats barely won the Senate. We lost seats in the House and down-ballot. It only gets harder from here.

Democratic activists are screaming into the void about a looming electoral apocalypse borne of the structural biases that favor Republicans and give disproportionate power to the very voters who have been fleeing the Democratic Party since 2012. These activist pleas fall on deaf ears in Washington as voting rights and political reform legislation is pushed to the wayside.

I appreciate Shor’s recognition that if Democrats keep doing what we have been doing, we are going to get our asses kicked. Democrats are in desperate need of big, bold ideas and new strategies. Too much of the conversation ignores the scale of the problems we face. In that sense, Shor’s work serves as a corrective.

The Folly of the Message Fixation

At face value, Shor is correct. Talking about popular things more and unpopular things less is a good idea. What counts as popular vs unpopular is an important debate; as is the debate about whether only focusing on popular legislation is a viable strategy. We all must reckon with the point that Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO Political Director, made to Klein:

He’s done much more than I thought he’d be able to do. All the things he’s doing are popular. And yet he’s underwater.

Amanda Litman, the Democratic strategist and co-founder of Run for Something, is correct when she points out that messaging depends on the messenger.

A messaging strategy that worked in 2012 for Barack Obama may not be available to someone else in 2022.

But the popularism debate obscures two bigger, related problems for Democrats. What we say doesn’t matter much... because our voters aren’t hearing it.

First, the Right-Wing media ecosystem, defined by Fox and powered by Facebook, consistently drowns out Democratic messaging. The Right-Wing defines the four corners of the political conversation. There are fair critiques of the messaging decisions of Hillary Clinton’s 2020 campaign, but I do not think it was possible for them to center the entire election around the economy — as Obama did in 2012 — with Donald Trump making outrageous racist statements about immigrants. Outrage-inducing cultural issues — especially ones that touch on identity — drive online traffic and cable ratings. Facebook traffic is a major economic driver for most media outlets. If a topic gains traction via the Facebook algorithm, the press will give it even more coverage. In the past, what led the news trended online, but now the opposite is true. The tail is wagging the dog.

The second problem is this: while Republicans spent decades building a massive media operation to deliver their messaging directly to their voters, Democrats continue to rely on the traditional media as the primary means of distribution. This is a real problem as David Roberts, the author of the Volts newsletter, pointed out on Twitter:

In other words, the success of any Democratic messaging depends on the whims of mainstream media executives like Jeff Zucker and Dean Baquet. The challenges of adhering to this old model of communication are present every single day. A CBS News/YouGov poll shows the Democratic message on Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is not breaking through to the public at large.

Democrats are talking about the popular details of Biden’s plan, but the messaging is not reaching the people we need it to reach because the people carrying the message do not share our interests. This was the problem in 2016. It was the problem in 2020. It will be the problem until the Democratic Party, its donors, politicians, and activists commit to building a progressive media infrastructure to compete with the massive MAGA megaphone dominating politics.

There are no easy answers, but we need to take a lot of the energy spent on developing the words Democrats say and focus on ensuring that voters actually hear what we are saying.