Wanting to Convince People to Support You is Not "Popularism"
it's just politics, it's just movement building, it's just power
The book club returns in the new year! Your votes have selected No One Will Miss Her by Kat Rosenfield. I will have an introductory post on Wednesday, January 5th (in one week) and our first analysis and discussion post will be on Wednesday, January 12th. So you have two weeks to get the book and do the first reading assignment. I am waiting for my own copy to arrive but I will have a specific page range for you to read for the 12th in Saturday’s digest post. You can safely read any front material and the first chapter if you’d like to start. The book club has been a ton of fun and I’d love to see some new voices in there so please consider jumping in. Book club content is always subscriber-only. Now back to regular programming.
The “popularism” debate is, now, yesterday’s news, although I have a feeling it will crop back up around the 2022 midterms, particularly if the expected happens and the Democrats get walloped. Popularism is an awkward term that stresses the importance of, well, of politicians and political parties being popular with voters. (Crazy.) As Ezra Klein put it in a piece on these themes that centered on the pollster David Shor, “Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff.”
Shor has been at the center of the popularism debate for over a year now. David and I go back a long time and I’m glad that he’s become so influential, but it’s odd that he’s become so personally associated with the concept of stressing the popular part of a political agenda. But then, it’s also odd that this even needs a name, odd that “popularism” could be seen as some particular orientation towards politics at all. We live in a democracy, and thus all politics are popularist politics. And I resent the notion that somehow there’s a conflict between being an authentic leftist and trying to emphasize popular parts of an agenda. How else are you going to take fringe ideas and make the mainstream, if not through emphasizing the popular elements, the aspects of left doctrine that have broadest appeal? The left is about shared sacrifice for shared prosperity - everyone contributing so that everyone can be happy and safe. The road there can involve complicated and controversial steps. Including holding views that the public doesn't always like, true, but also including speaking carefully and breaking bread with people we don’t very much like.
I post the image at the top with a little trepidation. There is this perpetually annoying dynamic that goes on: I will respond to something stupid that’s in my political orbit, then commenters or people on Facebook or wherever will complain that I should not bother because that stupid thing is too obscure or unpopular or whatever. This is quite frustrating for me because
I believe in taking adult ideas seriously even if they do not carry a great deal of political force; I like fringe ideas, hypotheticals, counterfactuals, and other positions that don’t really have particular application to real-world politics
If you’re a Marxist like me then you pretty much have to believe in 1. as we are not a politically relevant force in 2021
The claim that “nobody believes X” is almost always untrue and depends heavily on the individual’s particular viewpoint, media consumption, and political fellow travelers
Niche ideas can have profound effects within specific discourse communities and are thus of interest to people in those discourse communities even if of little salience in the broader world.
And so I share the above image with you. Verso is a small press, no doubt. But it’s very likely the most influential publishing company in the socialist/Marxist world, and since I live in that world, it matters to me. What’s more, this isn’t just something Verso threw out there, but an idea that from my limited perspective is gathering steam among academic leftists. As someone who has spent too many hours of his life at antiwar conferences and organizing meetings I have often seen anti-family rhetoric crop up alongside discussion of what seems like perfectly achievable political aims, like withdrawing troops from some hellish conflict we started or creating social structures that can help people when circumstance robs them of their ability to provide for themselves. I understand that there are cogent critiques of the nuclear family or the traditional family or similar. But some people genuinely, explicitly say that they think the family is an inherently oppressive structure and argue that we should get rid of it. And I wish they wouldn’t! Yes, Marx and Engels took their stab at the family, including in The Manifesto, but everything about post-revolutionary life under communism is a little underdrawn, and if we’re going to go to the mattresses for anything the Papas Smurf argued for, I would prefer it not be the family. Because I like the family! And so does almost everybody else, of any gender, race, ideology, or circumstance. To be anti-family really does strike me as looking for the thing that will piss the most people off, for the least possible political gain. I would prefer it if the most influential socialist press would not casually engage in this kind of useless leftist posturing, when we have so many more important and realistic goals.
For the record, family abolition is a classic motte and bailey - proponents talk casually of ending any sense of intrinsic responsibility between blood relatives, then say that they’re only for getting rid of certain unfortunate consequences of the family when convenient. Here’s a class at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research all about family abolition. The description includes
the foremost popular reaction to the proposal “abolish the family” is one of gut-deep, pre-conscious shock and horror. Even after that initial aversion has passed, sometimes the objection remains: but I love my family, I don’t want to abolish them! In fact, there is little in the history of family abolitionism to imply a ban on living with the people one loves. Rather, the demand, when it has been raised, has been for universal welfare; communal luxury; queer self-determination; a classless society; and transgenerational freedom from emotional scarcity and blackmail
Most of that stuff is just bog-standard leftist ideology; no one need abolish the family to achieve any of it. But saying “abolish the family” sounds radical and thus positions you in a more advantageous light within radical social spaces. This is precisely the condition in which we expect to find the motte and bailey, where extremity is rewarded among an ingroup but rejected among the outgroup. Incidentally, one of the people cited in the class is Shulamith Firestone, who suffered from schizophrenia and likely starved to death in her apartment. Her body wasn’t found for a week. She was a giant of second-wave feminism but she died completely alone. I would suggest that this was a person who could have used more family.
Like everything in American life, the popularism debate is deeply entangled with race. And like everything entangled with race, it involves a lot of people claiming that the other side is saying something that side says they’re not saying. Specifically, the claim has been made that popularism and Shor specifically are racist, in that they supposedly advocate for ignoring the needs of Black voters for fear of alienating white ones. Shor denies that this is his point, and says instead that the question depends on the way that racial politics are waged. Eric Levitz of New York has a useful discussion on those themes here. As is the case with so many discussions that touch on Black voters, this debate is made harder in the progressive sphere because liberals in media and academia often insist on acting as if the median Black Democrat has politics identical to those of a radical BlackLivesMatter activist. In fact, the best evidence we have suggests that the median Black Democrat is meaningfully to the right of the median Democrat writ large - 25% of Black Democrats self-identify as conservative and 43% as moderate, according to Pew. Regardless, I think the basic observation has to be made that in the past couple of years we’ve had a ceaseless ratcheting up of extremity in the racial discourse used by the left-of-center, and very little in the way of material results.
And I think this speaks to Shor’s perspective: it’s easier to take power by avoiding inflammatory rhetoric about race, and then you can do things (not everything that you want, but real things) to reduce racial injustice. If your rhetoric offends too much of the 70% of the electorate that identifies as white, then you can’t do anything. Of course, if you take this logic far enough you’ll never do anything that doesn’t sit in the dead center of current popularity, which means you’ve forgotten that most of politics is about moving where the median American sits. I don’t pretend that there’s some clear or easy rubric to let us know when we should chase public opinion and when we should give it a shove. But I do know that having this debate isn’t something particular to post-Obama Democratic politics. It’s just what politics is.
I favor a radical agenda; I live in a country that is not (coherently) radical. I say coherently because I pretty much reject the idea that this is a center-right or center-left or center-center nation; opinion polls consistently reveal an incoherent citizenry that wants the government to fund every program you can imagine and also to shrink, that wants Medicare for all but is deeply resistant to banning private insurance, that wants to be strong on defense abroad and to close our bases and bring our troops home. So I don’t truck with the notion that there’s some obvious bright line where popular and possible ends and unpopular and impossible begins. I do, however, recognize that I won’t get a lot of my totalitarian lefty economic changes that I want anytime soon. So I have what I want and I have what I can plausibly get, same as you. What bothers me about the popularism debate is this implicit notion that if you admit that there are things you can’t immediately get and feel that your political movement should prioritize and moderate its rhetoric where appropriate, you are necessarily a DNC-style neoliberal, that this kind of thinking only comes packaged with center-left politics of the type you might have gotten from The New Republic back when it had a coherent political identity. That just isn’t the case.
Everybody, of every political stripe, is perpetually making deals with themselves about what they want and what they can get. The trouble for the left, both the socialist left and the woke left (which are increasingly the same thing), is that they feel so far from power that they don’t think they ever have to make those deals - they won’t get what they say they want either way, so why bother to compromise at all? Why moderate, why reframe, why bargain? But in fact we always have choices. There are always things we do that make our agenda a little more viable or a little less. As a cultural and social phenomenon, I get why so many would be averse to the kind of rhetoric that Shor and Yglesias and others engage in; if you’re a socialist you’ve spent your political lifetime being told to vote Democrat and shut the hell up. But I have felt and will continue to feel that there are all manner of options in-between “vote blue no matter who” and “let’s establish Juche in America within the next year.” Let’s keep our wildest dreams alive, but let’s recognize that yelling about justice does not in fact empower us to get it. Let’s be passionate and ethically uncompromising while we recognize that politics is the realm of compromise and mundanity. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, if you follow me.
And if you really insist on coming against the concept of the family, well, you’re going to have to answer to my family….
Why “identifies as white” instead of just “white”? To underline an important fact. Part of the problem with the Emerging Democratic Majority/browning of the United States prediction of Democratic dominance is that this idea stemmed in part from extrapolating the number of mixed-race Americans in the future based on trends in intermarriage. The trouble with this approach is that there are a lot of people who we think of as mixed-race based on their ancestry but who identify as white - and vote like white people do, by and large, rather than like self-identified mixed-race people do.