Everyone Hates the Educated Left
It's what we all have in common
I’ve been wanting to write a take on David Shor’s “popularism” theory, but my thoughts have been muddled. Luckily, my thinking was recently snapped into focus by — of all things — a short Halloween video sponsored by Twix. Here it is:
Imagine the person who was given a chance to make a short video sponsored by a candy bar and thought: “Time to strike a blow for transgender rights.” They probably ran the idea past some friends, and their friends nodded and said “Cool, powerful, yeah. Um…and this is the candy thing, right?” When production wrapped, the filmmaker probably thought they had made a modern Citizen Kane, then sat by the phone and waited for GLAAD to name them Person Of This Or Any Other Century.
They might have been slightly surprised when the video became a runaway hit in conservative media. I wasn’t; I’ve been around long enough to recognize a liberal self-own when I see one. The fact that conservative media had a predictably-hyperbolic freak-out doesn’t phase me; that is, after all, what conservative media is built to do. And, in the grand scheme of things, a self-important Twix ad doesn’t matter. Except that…it kind of does matter. It matters in ways that are relevant to the conversation Democrats are having about how we present ourselves and what our priorities should be.
David Shor’s argument, in a very small nutshell (like a pistachio), is that Democrats should focus on popular things. Nobody really disagrees with this; there’s no “let’s throw Buzz Aldrin down a flight of stairs” contingent within the Democratic Party. The disagreement comes over what, exactly, it means to “focus on popular things”.
To Shor, the first step towards finding Optimal Messaging Jesus is recognizing that the young, wealthy, educated twerps who work on Democratic campaigns are highly atypical. They have different priorities than the average voter and respond to different messages. Therefore, they should make campaign decisions based on data, not instinct, because asking a 24 year-old Antioch grad from Boston to get inside the head of a 55 year-old landscaping worker from Wisconsin is like asking a gerbil to imagine being Anne Boleyn.
Some have read Shor’s argument as “move to the center”. That’s not really it; Shor gives the thumbs-up to left-ish policies like taxing the wealthy and letting the government negotiate prescription drug prices (and FWIW, Shor identifies as a socialist). An even less accurate reading of Shor’s argument is that Democrats should abandon the preferences of voters of color — here’s Elie Mystal writing in The Nation:
“…a chorus of powerful Democrats has risen up inside the Beltway to tell Democrats that abandoning Black people—the very people who put them in power in the first place—and making performative efforts to win the support of racists, is the only way to stay in power.”
That’s an astounding mischaracterization of Shor’s argument. Mystal is actually responding to something close to the opposite of Shor’s argument. It’s as if he described Seabiscuit as “a movie about a talking pig who learns the true meaning of Christmas.” How the fuck did you get that from Seabiscuit?
The key point here is that educated-left weirdness is an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. Shor makes it clear that the policies he deems “popular” more accurately reflect the preferences of nonwhite Democrats than white Democrats. On one key point of contention — the “defund the police” talking point — a new poll shows us, again, what polls have been showing for at least a year: More Black people want more police funding than less. On a more macro level, a 2017 study on American political identities found that the “progressive activist” group — the furthest left of the seven groups they identified — was also the second-whitest. It was 80 percent white. It was exactly as white as the Backstreet Boys.
Let’s dig into that study a bit more, because when you combine it with Shor’s analysis, I think things start to come into focus. The study is the “Hidden Tribes” study from the UK-based group More In Common, which surveyed 8,000 Americans and used a statistical technique to sort them into groups. Here are the groups they found:
The main thing to note is that 2/3 of the country falls into the so-called “exhausted majority.” These people are, essentially, the votes that can be won and have to be won if you want to win an election (assuming you believe that more votes can be won from persuading undecided voters than super-mobilizing your base, which you should, because it’s true). Again, there’s no simple “tack to the center” prescription to be drawn here; the exhausted majority have diverse views, so “left/right” is a less useful guide than “popular/unpopular”.
“Progressive activists” seem to basically be the group Shor is talking about. They’re younger, whiter, and more educated than the population, and are described (in part) as “secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.” Contrast that with descriptions of exhausted majority groups: “shy away from extremism of any sort” (moderates), “value tolerance and compromise” (traditional liberals), “try to avoid political conversations” (passive liberals), “patriotic” (politically disengaged). You can see why progressive activists rub these people the wrong way. Also: The survey found that 80 percent of people agree with the statement “political correctness has gone too far.” 80 percent! Allow me to show that, visually:
The value, as I see it, to laying this analysis on top of Shor’s is that you get a clearer picture of who progressive activists are and how they interact with the voters Democrats need to win. The “very liberal white people” that Shor says have too much influence over the Democratic Party come into focus. And by the way: I’m one of the annoying dickholes whose voice is too loud. I took the Hidden Tribes survey and came out “progressive activist”, even though I thought for sure I’d be a “traditional liberal”. I had kind of hoped I’d moved beyond the moralizing asshat portion of my life, but I guess being a preachy jerk is like being diabetic: You’re never really cured, you just manage it.
Shor thinks that people like me have far too much influence of the Democratic Party, and I agree. Where he and I differ is on how much we think party operatives can chart a new course. Shor is a bigger believer than I am in the ability of campaigns to drive the conversation; I’m closer to the Matt Yglesias argument that fundamentals (that is: the political climate, generally) dwarf campaign decisions. I don’t see these ideas as contradictory — it’s more like Shor thinks campaigns matter “some” and Yglesias is saying they matter “only a smidge”. At any rate: I’m Team Smidge. And when I combine that belief with other realities about how few swing voters there are, and the difficulty of getting economic messages across, and the high salience of cultural issues, my conclusion is: The best way to win an election is to have a good brand when election season starts.
Of course, right wing media have been on a mission to destroy the Democratic brand since the ‘90s. Fox News and talk radio run the same play over and over: They find the dumbest left-winger in America and make sure that moron gets maximum air time. Two seconds after that Twix ad went up, I’m sure someone at Fox News HQ stood up and yelled “bump the story on how Lego is promoting Critical Race Theory — we’ve got today’s headline!”
This creates a huge structural disadvantage for Democrats. Obviously, the left has our own garbage-y, partisan media sources — and also Twitter — but it’s nothing like the maximally-efficient bullshit factory that exists on the right. Every insane bit of language policing or campus horseshit or school board idiocy that happens on the left will get maximum circulation. And we can’t assume that these stories will stay quarantined in the Right Wing Crazy Land; there’s obviously seepage into the real world. I’ll mention once again that the “political correctness is out of control” belief is shared by damn-near everyone.
This means that, to a large extent, the Democratic brand isn’t something that’s crafted by campaigns; it’s crafted by everybody all the time. That’s bad news for campaign consultants, whom I’m basically saying are the sales team for a product they don’t get to craft. And it’s even worse news for candidates, who find themselves connected to any flare-up of left-wing idiocy anywhere. If Terry McAuliffe is reading this column, he’s probably thinking “so, some film school dropout makes a less-than-stellar Twix ad, and now that’s my fucking problem?” And I think my answer is…yes? Unfortunately? It’s ridiculous, but — in a convoluted way — I think that’s reality.
I’m not naïve enough to think that liberals could possibly ever be on such good behavior that we’d starve the right wing media machine of content. There will always be some misguided teacher or weird-ass college administrator somewhere to keep the outrage train rolling. But I don’t think it follows that it doesn’t matter what anybody does. It would make a difference if there was a broad-based liberal movement to put pets on puberty blockers until they declare a gender identity. People would notice if Twitter tried to cancel Jimmy Stewart for using the word “broads” once in 1951. We can’t control the amount of stuff that right wing media will throw against the wall, but we can influence how much of it will stick.
So, highly-educated liberals would do well to be honest with ourselves: We can be annoying as hell sometimes. The Twix ad rankles because it’s someone trying to jam their personal opinion where cookie and nougat should be. Many of us are obsessed with identity issues and express that obsession in weird and condescending ways, and that turns off Americans of all races. Too often, our politics are like a jaunty hat: A desperate attempt at an identity that makes people not want to be around us.
Virtue signaling on the left is absolutely out of control. We shouldn’t imagine that we’re getting away with this or that it doesn’t matter; people notice it and they hate it. They notice when a character is jammed into a movie just to score diversity points. Corporate social justice statements are manipulative and empty. Activism from celebrities and athletes is sometimes just image-enhancement. The Oscars and Emmys are unwatchable parades of self-importance. Perhaps the biggest thing Hollywood could do to fight climate change would be to shut the fuck up about it.
The language thing is absolute poison. Words and phrases like “latinx”, “whiteness”, “lgbtqia2s+”, or even — God help us — “uterus-haver” make the speaker sound ridiculous and make the listener feel dumb. The speaker is also obliquely calling the listener a bigot and signaling their membership in a group that nobody wants to join. It’s pretentious and high-handed, and — again — everyone notices. There are ways of being welcoming and inclusive without sounding like an Orwellian robot that fell into a puddle.
I feel fairly certainly that David Shor knows all this. And, if I understand him, he thinks it’s a problem that Democratic operatives need to fix. I wouldn’t say it’s not a problem Democratic operatives need to fix, but I’d say it’s more a problem for everyone on the left to fix. Basically: We need to make it more appealing to be associated with our tribe. None of us have much control over this, but we all have a little. The truth is, very few voters choose a candidate based on a cost-benefit analysis drawn from policy decisions; it comes more from a gut feeling of who’s “like them”. People on the educated left aren’t like many people — we’re different, which that Twix ad taught me is okay. And it is okay. But being obnoxious is not.