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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Limitations of the ‘Popularism’ Debate

At The Washington Monthly David Atkins explains why “Arguing About Popularism Is a Dead End. Fix American Democracy Instead: Why governing by polls cannot save the Democrats or the country” :

The hottest conversation in influential liberal punditry these days is about “popularism.” The basic idea is that Democrats should use survey data to find out what ideas and policies are most popular, then promote those ideas and policies while forcefully marginalizing unpopular ones. Adherents of this strategy believe that, because of the structural disadvantages Democrats face in gerrymandered legislatures, the Senate, and the Electoral College, it is necessary for the party to minimize messages that offend the largely rural and exurban white working-class voters who are overrepresented by these structures, as well as voters of color who bend more conservative.

Popularism says, in short, that Democrats should sideline activists pushing for more radical social change and prioritize the average voter in a Montana general election for Senate.

There are many reasons why this approach, currently in vogue in powerful liberal circles and even in the White House, is likely misguided. First, quantitative policy surveys are a terrible methodology to gauge what really motivates voters. Second, Republicans seem to have no trouble winning elections—even occasionally in blue areas—despite pushing for a host of deeply unpopular policies. Third, it’s impossible and unwise to tell unelected activists that they have to stop pushing for social changes unpopular with the broader electorate, much less the median rural, conservative, older white voter. Fourth, it’s not at all clear that if Democrats were to de-emphasize, say, police reform or climate change or antiracism that it would bring back any low-trust voters lost to Trumpism or Q-adjacent conspiracy theories. Finally, it’s likely that any potential voters won over by minimizing liberal priorities would crush the mobilization of progressives and younger voters who already feel desperate and marginalized by a climate-ravaged future and exorbitant housing, health care, and education costs.

But the real problem of our politics doesn’t come from the activists, or the legislators, or the strategists. It comes from the broken and anti-majoritarian structures of American democracy. Both the popularists and the anti-popularists are trapped in a cage bounded by an unrepresentative Senate, a gerrymandered House, and an increasingly unstable Electoral College. Both sides are fighting one another when they should be focused on how to escape the cage entirely.

Among Atkins’ strategic alternatives, “It may be time, then, to consider even more radical approaches to the problem. Blue counties already account for 70 percent of U.S. GDP, and that figure is growing. Might there be ways to leverage corporate and economic power to ensure that the areas on which the American economy depends receive the equal per capita representation they deserve? If it is impossible to alter the composition of the states in the Senate, might it be worth figuring out mechanisms to encourage more liberal voters to move to small red states?…Radical, wacky, and desperate as these ideas might seem, they are probably more productive conversations than endlessly arguing over the strategic value of popularism.”

4 comments on “Limitations of the ‘Popularism’ Debate

  1. Candace on

    A refreshing perspective for sure. I like all of the solutions suggested particularly reforming or getting rid of the Electoral College and the Senate.

    Reply

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