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  • Writer's pictureJulia Azari

Why is the popularism debate so popular? Because it's about who really controls the Democratic Party

Ever since winning the 2020 elections more narrowly than expected, Democrats and political observers have been asking what the party did wrong. A tense, moving-target discourse about “popularism” has centered on the observations of Democratic data analyst David Shor. Two major lines of argumentation have mostly dominated the discussion: whether the Democrats’ electoral shakiness with key constituencies (voters without college degrees of all races, maybe) and in crucial areas can be attributed to “excessively woke” messaging that emphasizes race; and the policy and moral implications of this reasoning.

But much of this discourse takes internal Democratic dynamics as a given, and, in the wake of the complex 2020 nomination process and subsequent early months of the Biden presidency, they deserve a closer look. My argument is this: part of the reason that this debate has taken off and captured the interest of so many is that it gets at the ambiguity surrounding who has power in the Democratic party. I’m not trying to guess at Shor’s motivations or those of the people who’ve made him the center of this debate, but I think party politics are at least part of the reason that the debate has been so resonant and lasted so long.

Ambiguity as a feature of party politics

Being able to seem like many things to many people is an advantage in presidential primaries. This was the case for Obama, whose identity and ideology lent themselves to many interpretations, as a presidential nominee. As a candidate for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump managed to be both Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot to different people. At first, Joe Biden seemed easily pigeon-holed, a candidate for a particular faction of the Democratic Party: safe, white, and moderate. But, in a set of surprises we have yet to process from early 2020, Biden proved to have a broader and more ambiguous set of appeals: he was the candidate of Black voters, at least older ones. He was also seen as more moderate than Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but used talking points that harkened back to older forms of New Deal and Great Society liberalism – hardly the rhetoric of the Bill Clinton New Democrats. Perhaps because his identity provided cover, Biden was able to speak about structural racism, the rights of transgender Americans, and other topics associated with the party’s far left.

In general, this kind of ambiguity is probably a relatively healthy reflection of a big tent party: it shows that different constituencies are shaping the presidential nomination and the direction of the party. One possible test of a functional nomination contest is that no faction is clearly dominant over the others. But the current nomination process obscures much of the jockeying among factions, highlighting the contest among personalities instead. We have relatively little idea what was offered to whom in order to unify the party around the nominee, and this makes it hard to know exactly who has leverage.

This has been true for a long time, but several developments amplify its importance. First, parties have become increasingly dominated by presidents in many ways. One important way is that sitting presidents are rarely really challenged for renomination when they’re eligible. This makes it harder for factions who see themselves as having slipped out of power to reassert themselves, and harder for everyone else to see the internal dynamics of the party that holds the White House. (Obviously, we’ve seen plenty of Democratic infighting in Congress. But I think there’s a sense that while Manchin and Sinema hold the power in the Senate, they aren’t exactly representative of the party, which adds to the uneasiness.)

A more recent development is the preoccupation with electability. Obviously, parties have always been interested in getting elected and the Democrats have long faced an uncomfortable balancing act. Jamelle Bouie describes how Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign at various points went out of its way to demonstrate that it “would not be beholden to the interests of Black Americans.” Political scientists have also documented the ways in which campaigns – especially Democratic ones – balance between appealing to white swing voters and addressing the needs of voters of color, often engaging in what LaFleur Stephens-Dougan calls “racial distancing.”

The political context has changed

But after 2016 these debates have taken on a totally different character. A couple of things have changed. The stakes of getting it wrong seem very high: control of the federal government is closely contested, and not all the players seem to believe in legitimate opposition anymore. It’s hard not to think about the 2022 and 2024 elections as having the potential to really alter American government, bringing back a period of minority rule that could last much longer, and have serious consequences.

Furthermore, the factions within the Democratic Party are much blurrier than they have been historically. As I noted at FiveThirtyEight a few weeks ago, the factions are much closer ideologically than in the mid-century tangles between liberals and Southern conservative Democrats. The divisions that exist are also cross-cutting: for all the talk about fights within the party, its Congressional faction leaders seem to be from all sorts of districts – high and low percentages of college degrees, different racial breakdowns, different regions and types of areas (suburban, rural, urban, etc.) This is probably good for the overall coherence of the party, but it makes it even harder to know who has and might be gaining power within the coalition.

Who really has power in the party?

Nevertheless, it’s clear that there’s at least a chance that groups who haven’t ever wielded a lot of power are shaping the Democratic Party’s agenda. There are obviously people in the “popularism” conversation who think that progressives – too young? too woke? too educated? – have too much influence in the party. And there are others who point to the more tangible realities of American life and note the ways in which disadvantaged groups are still, well, disadvantaged. Moving to the center would do little to help this and might even hurt. Shor, for his part, has insisted that he’s not advocating a move to the center, but a focus on economic issues rather race and immigration.

Still others have suggested that the connection between politics and policy is pretty broken anyway. And it seems like the fascination with this debate can be explained by looking mostly at politics. Both within parties and between them, power is a complicated currency. Convincing people that you’re out of power and that the wrong people wield it – that is, populism – can be a successful political strategy. And the use of this strategy doesn’t seem to be all that closely linked to reality: recent developments have shown that white people are not that hard to convince that they’re about to lose their grip on the levers of political power. The obscurity of how power flows through political parties opens up new opportunities to make these kinds of appeals – and to resist them. Maybe the real division in the Democratic Party is between those who are doing their best to make things transparent, and those who benefit from the murky ambiguity of modern politics.

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