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A Political Party Is Not a Social Movement. Nor Is It a Media Company. Nor Is It an Academic Institution.
A Political Party Is a Vehicle for Maximizing Votes and Getting Things Done
Recent polling data attest to the declining popularity of the BLM movement. According to the new USA Today/Ipsos poll, public trust in BLM “to promote justice and equal treatment for people of all races” has declined 10 points to 50 percent since last June (42 percent among whites). Over the same time period, trust in local police and law enforcement has spiked 13 points to 69 percent (77 percent among whites). Current levels of trust in BLM are much higher and trust in local police much lower among blacks, but relative to last June, decline in BLM trust and increase in local police trust have actually been greater among blacks than whites.
In the same poll, views on defunding the police are massively negative. Just 18 percent of Americans support the idea, a figure that rises to just 28 percent among blacks and 34 percent among Democrats.
At the same time, the massive and massively popular American Rescue Act has now been passed by Congress and is set to be signed into law by President Biden this Friday. So what should the Democrats do about this disjuncture? Nothing, absolutely nothing. A political party is a vehicle for maximizing votes and getting things done like the American Rescue Plan. It is not a social movement and is under no obligation to shore up a movement that is having public opinion problems. This is especially so when the weight of the evidence suggests that Democrats were hurt, not helped, by the close identification of the party with the BLM movement as it morphed from a movement against police brutality to one associated with radicalism like defunding the police and an unending parade of performative corporate gestures. As David Shor noted:
In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined…. 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.
What does have general strong support is police reform. This is true across lines of race and class. There is too much bad policing in this country. Some of it is racist. Some of it isn’t. But there’s a consensus that there should be far less of it. This is a clear takeaway from the movement around George Floyd’s death that a political party can and should run with.
But wait! Doesn’t the Democratic “base” demand/need radical action above and beyond police reform, without which that base won’t show up to vote and therefore cost the Democrats needed support? Not really. The confusion here is between the actual broad, mass base of the Democratic party and the activists and organizations who purport to speak for it. The reality is that these activists and organizations control/represent very few actual votes. This is true both generally and even within the confines of Democratic party politics, as Joe Biden’s cruise to the Democratic nomination showed. He ignored the strenuous demands of these activists/organizations and connected very well with the Democratic mass base anyway.
Of course, these activists/organizations continue to claim they do speak for the masses of their preferred constituency and they may even believe it. But that does not make it so. The nature of this delusion is well-sketched by Freddie DeBoer in a recent post on his substack (DeBoer is the rare far leftist who can look clear-eyed at the weaknesses of his fellow activists). Deboer describes this delusion as the “synecdoche problem”:
The synecdoche problem is just this: when people consistently advocate for a particular group, they come to believe that they know what’s best for that group, can speak for that group, or just literally are that group. The constant advocacy creates a sense of identification that deludes the advocate. They become incapable of seeing that their point of view is not universally shared, or even broadly shared, by the people who make up that group. This is relevant to an important point that [David] Shor makes, which is that our perception of the concerns and positions of voters of color is often far out of line with their self-reported preferences.
For example, if you’re a liberal in the broad political sphere (media, think tanks, nonprofits, the Democratic party itself or its various offshoots), your views on social issues like race are likely extreme. You are much more likely to believe that America is a white supremacist nation; that all white people are racist; that the United States was founded explicitly to facilitate slavery; that policing and prisons are inherently racist; you might even be skeptical of interracial relationships. All of those stances might be the right ones. But they are extreme in the sense that they are not shared by the vast majority of the electorate, including among people of color. To read American racial discourse today is to believe that every Black American has the politics of a Vassar cultural studies grad. But as Shor points out, most Black people, and most people of color in general, are far more moderate than we are led to believe. And in fact, whether you are college educated or not has become a more reliable indicator of how extreme your political views are than race. That’s true in part because colleges have grown steadily more partisan and steadily more (culturally and socially) extremist, and the people who professionally talk about race in this country are overwhelmingly college educated.
As Shor points out, in polling most Black people tend to be skeptical of more radical responses to police violence like defunding the police. But people who identify themselves as advocates for Black America have inherent reasons to avoid that facet of the conversation. Extremity is often an easier sell than more moderate stances, in part because the people you are selling yourself to as a race (or gender etc.) expert are not the people you’re talking about. The institutions and people that fund much of liberal advocacy can themselves often be more extreme on social issues. Indeed, within the community of people who claim to speak on Black America’s behalf - professors, writers, think tankers, diversity consultants, etc - most of the incentives point towards more extreme stances. You will be tempted to think that I am speaking only about Black public intellectuals, but of course America’s most-read racism expert is a very wealthy white woman with a lucrative business taking white people’s money to tell white people they’re racist so that white companies can limit their liability if they should ever be sued by a non-white employee.
DeBoer’s point about incentives is important. It ties into why the Democrats as a political party should pay no attention to the current obsessions of media companies like The New York Times or fads sweeping academia. These obsessions/fads may make perfect sense for these institutions as business strategies, given their customer bases. The New York Times has famously prospered by turning the “newspaper of record” into something close to a journal of advocacy. Fine, that is their right. But a political party is not a social movement, media company or academic institution; it is a vehicle for maximizing votes, winning elections and getting things done.
That is why there is nothing to worry about when many Democratic politicians seem reluctant to take particularly radical positions on many social issues near and dear to the hearts of activists and New York Times readers. It’s the reverse: what we should be worrying about is giving Democratic politicians the freedom to take less or anti-radical positions on some issues. We should actively want politicians in tough races in purple areas to be able to say stuff along these lines (from a list suggested by Matt Yglesias):
· Say you think it’s dumb that they are putting warning labels on old TV shows like The Muppets. Just let people watch stuff.
· Say you don’t think it’s fair to call people racist when they worry about crime or illegal immigration — these are things lots of folks worry about, and the government owes them solutions.
· Especially if you are Vice President Kamala Harris, a former elected official from San Francisco, say that canceling Abraham Lincoln while keeping the city’s schools closed is the kind of dumb shit that makes people think Democrats can’t govern, and you’re mad about it.
· Say you absolutely want to invest in the next generation of energy technology, but you think fossil fuels have been, on net, a boom for humanity, and you sometimes think environmentalists wish we were living in caves or something.
· Say you think that patriotism is good and important, especially in a diverse society, and you don’t like it when people dwell obsessively on the negative.
These are great suggestions and make perfect sense once we remember that Democrats are a political party designed to do things like pass the American Rescue Act, not a social movement, media company or academic institution. If you keep this distinction in mind, it will help clarify a great deal about our current political situation and public discourse.