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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Popularism? What a Party Cares About is Often Unpopular, Including Civil Rights

Seattle rally in June 2020

I’m a bit late to this but wanted to weigh in on the Democratic “popularism” discussion. Ezra Klein and David Shor are quite right that President Biden’s agenda, and indeed Democratic control of government for the foreseeable future, currently sit on a knife’s edge. Should the Democrats embrace more popular stances and messaging to try to avoid legislative and electoral catastrophe?

On a certain level, this sounds obvious. Yet there are echoes in what Shor is arguing in many, many Democratic campaigns for the past half century. To put it perhaps too bluntly, white Democrats are often convinced that overtly catering to the needs of racial minorities either just cost them the last election or is about to cost them the next one.

I detail many of these instances in my book Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020. Just to give a few examples, a Democratic Party leader complained going into the party’s huge 1972 rout that “we don't want a party that consists of Bella Abzug on one hand and Jesse Jackson on the other.” Another complained in the 1980s, "Blacks own the Democratic Party.... White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species."

A Southern state party chair said after Walter Mondale’s landslide 1984 loss, “The perception is that we are the party that can’t say no, that caters to special interests and that does not have the interests of the middle class at heart.” The Democrats developed the Super Tuesday primaries after that loss in part to strengthen the voices of the Southern white wing of the party.

After Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, a former Democratic member of Congress worried that Democrats “gave the impression that the minorities and small special interest or identity groups were more important than the broader community as a whole.” A consultant advised, “Democrats should listen to more country music.” Another warned about calling out racism too much: “Every time somebody says something questionable you throw the racist flag out there and you’re going to drive people away. Because they think you’re the boy who cried wolf.”

This historical pattern goes even deeper. As political scientist Paul Frymer shows in his book Uneasy Alliances, you can see it among the post-Civil War Republicans. Yes, they’d championed the needs of freed slaves, and new Black voters had become profoundly loyal Republicans as a result. But the party was quick to backpedal on advocating for Black citizens for fear of offending white swing voters in the next election.

White Democrats are often convinced that overtly catering to the needs of racial minorities either just cost them the last election or is about to cost them the next one.

All this is to say, there’s a pattern. The modern Democratic coalition contains people of color advocating for structural changes to address longstanding inequalities, as well as whites who may sincerely want to see racial progress but also want to deemphasize racial policies because they fear that they’re unpopular and will cost them white working class votes and the election.

(It’s become a rather striking opposite of the Republican coalition. Many Democrats seem convinced that anything anyone in their coalition says or does over a two year period matters in the next election. Many Republicans seem to think that nothing does.)

And here’s the rub: Democrats’ beliefs here are not obviously wrong. There are a considerable number of white voters who see gains for Blacks as a loss for them, and they’re not all committed Republicans. Shor may well be correct that messaging on “defunding the police” and other policy goals actually makes the Democrats less popular and may reduce their candidates’ vote shares.

The catch, though, is that this is the nature of parties. Parties are coalitions of many different individuals and groups who want the government to do something. Yes, it’s in their interest to be popular in elections and nominate appealing candidates. But the things they care about aren’t necessarily popular, so much as important to key constituencies within the party.

The Republicans’ 2017 tax cut bill was deeply unpopular; the party pushed it through Congress anyway because tax cuts are central to the Republican Party’s beliefs. Democrats pushed through the Affordable Care Act in 2010 not because it was popular (it wasn’t) but because it was a longstanding policy commitment of the party, one it was willing to sustain significant losses for. Texas Republicans didn’t ban abortion because it was a popular thing to do. Democrats are committed to abolishing the death penalty despite its popularity. The infrastructure and budget bill the Democrats are struggling with right now are actually unusual in that they poll well.

Picking policy priorities is truly not a popularity contest. Black activists within the Democratic Party didn’t champion the defund the police movement because they misinterpreted some polling data, but rather because unarmed Black men were dying at the hands of police in unacceptable numbers and they viewed the party as the vehicle for changing that.

At its best, a party is always trying to navigate that balance between presenting a popular face to the public and fighting for the changes it believes in. But there’s no guarantee that those changes they believe in with themselves be popular. Quite often, they’re not.

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