Indignity Vol. 1, No. 28: Popular fronting.


Indignity Vol. 1, No. 28: Popular fronting.
June 5, 2021 - Minneapolis — Protesters take to the streets for the 3rd night after Winston Smith was killed by law enforcement in a Minneapolis Parking ramp on June 3rd.. Photo: Chad Davis, via Wikipedia CC 2.0

EVERYBODY LOVES FORBIDDEN knowledge, especially if they agree with it. "David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don’t Want to Hear," the New York Times declared in a headline that was untrue on multiple levels. Influential Democrats and liberal political journalists very much want to hear what David Shor—a successfully controversial pollster and data analyst—has to say, which was why Ezra Klein was writing about him and why so many people were tweeting and writing to argue about it.

At least, people want to hear some of what Shor has to say. Shor is the voice of, and mascot for, a political attitude calling itself "popularism," which is dedicated to announcing that Democrats should talk about things that people like and not talk about things people dislike. This general outline of an idea is much older than Shor; what makes popularism so popular as a topic of argument is the question of which things are good and which things are bad.

Shor has some definite ideas about that question, though the people who are enthusiastic about Shor seem to be even more definite about it than he is. Here is Klein's summary of the basic opinion Shor formed about the state of the Democratic Party:

The Democratic Party was trapped in an echo chamber of Twitter activists and woke staff members. It had lost touch with the working-class voters of all races that it needs to win elections, and even progressive institutions dedicated to data analysis were refusing to face the hard facts of public opinion and electoral geography.

What could be more attractive to coastal elite political analysts than the chance to blame other coastal elite political analysts for being out of touch? Politico jumped into the Shor discourse with its own piece built around a caricature of the fresh-out-of-college political-professional whippersnappers who are leading the party astray, the kind who "might have a faded campaign button from some bygone presidential race dangling from their Fjällräven backpack—maybe for Bernie, or more likely for Pete."

If the incorrect tendency of the professional Democratic Party is something that spans the Sanders and Buttigieg campaigns—that is, the Medicare for All candidate and the candidate who staked out a place attacking Medicare for All—it seems as if it could be tricky to say which policies the party should promote less, and which it should promote more. Somewhere over the horizon, though, the popularists believe there is a real public whose opinions are the opinions that really matter.

Where, though? It would be nice to say in South Carolina, where Black working-class Democratic primary voters started to fall in line behind Joe Biden. But the popularists are chiefly focused on the swing states of 2016, and the white voters without a college education who abandoned their place in the Obama coalition to get enthusiastically behind Donald Trump, and who are reluctant to come back.

Hence the business about "activists" and being too "woke." For all Shor's talk about future strategy, Democratic Party disputes always want to be about recriminations. Here, the recriminations revolve around the belief that the Democrats eked out such fragile majorities in 2020 because voters were put off by the party's embrace of the "Defund the Police" movement. Shor's position is that Defund the Police was even responsible for the crucial softening of Democratic support among working-class Latino voters. As he told New York magazine, in a passage Klein revisited:

I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

The roots of what's wrong with that microstory, though, can be found in a different microstory: the superhero origin tale of how Shor became so influential. His first real burst of fame came when he was forced out of his job at a progressive data-analysis firm because he wrote a bad tweet. It was an unjust incident, a classic turn-of-the-'20s performance of managerial hypersensitivity by his bosses, and people were outraged over it (although, as Klein noted, it worked out very, very well for Shor's career).

But the tweet that got Shor in trouble was a pernicious and stupid one. In the midst of the public reaction to the murder of George Floyd, he had tweeted a link to a study by the professor Omar Wasow, accompanied by his own message:

Post-MLK-assasination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon. Non-violent protests *increase* Dem vote, mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage.

The tweet, in the name of making a neutral political-science observation, managed to be wrong about history, strategy, and political agency all at once. What does it mean to argue that the uprisings of April 1968 cost the Democrats the White House? American cities didn't go up in flames because the Democratic National Committee had decided that civil unrest was a good campaign theme for the coming fall. They went up in flames because people—not undecided swing voters, just human beings—were overcome by grief and rage at the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

To the extent there's a story about election tactics to tell about this, it is that the American right wing successfully turned back the political success of the civil rights movement and drove Democrats out of the White House by murdering King, then by using the aftermath to rouse white voters against Black people. The elite discourse and media coverage went along with it, in ways that have carried down to the present day.

And this is how the story of the story of Defund the Police became what it is today. May and June 2020 were nearly a year and a half ago, long enough for most people who narrate news and politics to set aside what really happened. To the extent that there was a moment when "Defund the Police" was briefly allowed in the leftmost side door of mainstream discourse—before being swiftly ushered out again—it happened because the Minneapolis police had just murdered someone, slowly and with conscious intent, on video, and then they and other police departments went on a nationwide spree of beating and gassing and maiming the people who protested the murder.

By coincidence, two days before Klein's piece about Shor came out, the Minnesota Reformer published body-camera footage of police laughing as they rode around in a van during the George Floyd protests, shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately at demonstrators, bystanders, and reporters. But the political debate about Defund the Police had already moved on beyond any uncomfortable facts about what the police were doing with their funding. Joe Biden ran for president and got elected while disavowing the slogan.

This should be good news for the Democrats, if popularism were to be taken literally, since the policy slogan that caused them so much trouble is now behind them. The police are getting more money than ever. The Democrats' progressive wing is pushing as hard as it can to make sure Biden's proposed spending agenda passes with the middle class getting a full share. Messagewise, the Democrats ought to have smooth sailing in 2022 and beyond. But no one believes that, least of all Shor.

There are, for one thing, those hard facts of electoral geography that Klein alluded to. A huge part of Shor's message is that the Democrats face brutal structural disadvantages, because the Republican party has dug into the anti-majoritarian rules of United States politics to build a stubborn power base as a minority. Republicans' control of the sparsely populated Western states gives them wildly disproportionate weight in the balance of the Senate and keeps the bottom from falling out for them in the Electoral College; their strategic control of state legislatures has created a self-reinforcing cycle of partisan gerrymanders, blessed by the federal courts they likewise carefully reshaped to their advantage.

But there are also even harder facts about public opinion that the popularist argument avoids addressing. Suppose that Shor is correct that Defund the Police was a liability in the 2020 campaign—that working-class Hispanic voters were meaningfully put off by it, rather that that a small-C conservative slice of the public simply trended toward an incumbent president while the economy was going reasonably well for them. No matter how influential the Defund movement may have been in the Democratic Party, it was categorically less influential than the QAnon conspiracy theory was in the Republican Party in that same election year, or than anti-public-health agitation or support for Donald Trump's attempted coup are among Republicans right now.

Yet the Democrats are the ones who stand accused of letting the fringe run away with their message, even—to repeat—after the party nominated and elected Joe Biden as president. The silence surrounding this subject from the popularists does not make it a mystery: the biggest messaging problem for the Democratic Party is that the Republican Party possesses an immense, generously funded, and totally committed nationwide multimedia propaganda machine.

Every conversation about whether the Democrats are too off-putting on the subject of immigration has to ignore the fact that Barack Obama intentionally made American immigration policy more cruel and restrictive, and the Republican Party under Trump successfully rallied its voters with xenophobic panic anyway. Joe Biden could personally go from city to city shoving blank checks through the windows of police cruisers, and Fox News and the Daily Wire and an army of radio hosts and coordinated Facebook posters would still tell their audiences that the Democrats are defunding the police. Only they won't bother, because by now they have pivoted to Critical Race Theory and vaccine mandates instead.

Who is in a position to discipline this messaging? Democratic leaders will never be able to tell left-wing activists what to do, or what to want (however Defund the Police may have played in swing states, Derek Chauvin was tried and convicted of the murder of George Floyd). But political analysts and members of the press can try to discourage other political analysts and members of the press from embracing a dangerously incomplete model of what happens in American politics.

The Shorist position—that Democrats can try to save themselves by chasing voters who do not like the party—confuses a tactical premise with a moral one. It is true, and a serious problem, that the political system of the United States is stacked against the Democrats. But the Democrats are still the more popular political party. The structural problem they face is that the Republican Party has dedicated itself to nullifying their majority.

By casting the Democrats' problems as a matter of woke young people failing to maintain message discipline, Shor's fans surrender the most important advantage the party has. Yes, the Democrats need swing voters in swing states. But the question of how to win those voters mutates relentlessly into a question about legitimacy. If these people—generally understood to be conservative whites—do not approve of the Democrats, then the Democrats do not have the approval of the public. Even though, factually, public support is exactly what the Democrats do have.

And this is where the thing Shor is wrong about defeats the thing he is right about. The actual David Shor, to his great credit, is adamant that the Democrats need to fight against the structural rules that keep them at a disadvantage. But his audience, harping on the need to appeal to swing voters, has bowed out of that entire part of the fight. The things Democrats would need to do to rebalance American politics—adding Washington D.C. as a state, abolishing the filibuster, term-limiting or expanding the Supreme Court—are the things the current leadership has refused to do (as the political press nods in agreement), on the grounds that they would be too aggressive, too disruptive, or too divisive.

Meanwhile the minority party is openly plotting to steal the next election from them—not just by exploiting the imbalances in the rules, but by violating the basic rules if necessary. Their propaganda channels  are egging them on. The gap between the parts of Shor's message people want to hear and the other parts of his message might be big enough for electoral democracy to fall into and die.


IN RESPONSE TO Indignity Vol. 1 No. 23: “At the sound of the beep,” Justin writes:

I had this exact rant in my own head last week under even more ridiculous circumstances: a microwave beeping every 30 seconds, forever, after finishing something in the MICROWAVE. at that point nothing is even being cooked anymore. there's no process to be further remarked upon and no hazard contained in the inactive microwave. so why all the beeping???????

Clare B writes:

Appreciate your thoughts on kitchen timers. I've bought two new kitchen timers since the start of the pandemic. After I dropped my cute owl (?) kitchen timer, which I got at Pearl River probably 15 years ago, one too many times so that the top was rather loose and I didn't trust its alignment to the minutes anymore, I replaced it with a cute penguin kitchen timer which, when it arrived, didn't really seem any more reliable than my old owl. So I did some research and bought "the best" kitchen timer according to the people over at Serious Eats. I like the precision of the new timer, but it—like your Frigidaire—keeps beeping until you turn it off (regularly, not in 18 second intervals). It does allow you to have 3 timers going at once, a feature I've never used, though I did use two at once one time. But the other thing it does is allow you to set really long timers (unlike my old school ones that cut off at an hour). This summer I slow roasted some tomatoes for what was supposed to be 4 hours, but I had my office door shut and missed the timer while it beeped continuously for 45 minutes. Fortunately, the oven was only set at 200 degrees and the tomatoes were fine.

Jeffrey writes:

Set a 5-minute timer for 4:50. That gives you plenty of time to relearn the timer’s function buttons.

Mike W comments:

+30 year old GE microwave here stops at 3 beeps. Had no concept of the privilege, must resolve to do better in life.

Richard comments:

Professional chef here: I am not familiar with microwave timers that are used for non-microwave purposes, but I will say that after a certain amount of time in a (professional) kitchen your body will be trained to address the timer first and the food after, unless the item being timed is sensitive to the second (most things aren't). You will also internalize some of the more common timings; I for example feel a tightness at my temples when pasta is nearly ready, like the ache of an injured knee the morning of an afternoon rain. I accept that the freakish conditioning of my profession can't and shouldn't be expected universally, but more importantly professional kitchens don't use timers with a 'snooze' function; they beep continuously rather than beeping briefly, going silent, and reviving themselves once you've adjusted to the silence. Sounds annoying.

Justin returns to write:

To clarify: beeping every 30 seconds, forever, until i open the door.

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