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In Polls We Trust? | Focus

Democrats are scrambling to develop a strategy for winning in a bad political environment. Polls can help, but they won’t be nearly enough.

In philosophy, there’s a dilemma known as the “is-ought problem.” It goes something like this—you can’t make a moral judgement based only on the facts of a case. For example, we can’t say that “the sky is blue, and so it should stay that way.” Moral conclusions about what ought to be can’t be shaped only by what is, especially as our beliefs about what ought to be often inform our perception of what is.

Of course, nobody actually thinks like that. We make moral judgements all the time, and justify them on the basis of the facts as we perceive them, particularly in our mostly secular society in which empirical or scientific knowledge is highly valued.

All of this, surprisingly, brings me to the elections in Virginia and New Jersey held on Tuesday, November 2nd. In Virginia’s gubernatorial race, former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe was defeated by the Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. In New Jersey, incumbent Democratic governor Phil Murphy won re-election by a significantly smaller margin than was expected over his Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli. Other elections took place in both states (along with local races in other states), but Democrats performed poorly across the board.

That probably sounds a bit divorced from philosophical babble about is and ought, but it isn’t. In the aftermath of the elections, there has been an explosion of commentary, among both political parties, about which strategies work and which ones don’t in our extraordinarily polarized era. Everyone who cares about politics and has the platform to speak their mind is taking their shot to explain the is of what happened, and why it just so happens to confirm their own assumptions of what ought to happen.

Because I’m a Democrat, and because I’m more steeped in the discourse that takes place between the various factions of the Democratic Party, I’m going to focus my analysis there. But first, a quick note on the Republicans. There is debate aplenty in the conservative movement right now about what “conservatism” really means. But when it comes to the question of “how” to win elections, the debate is both simple and largely pointless, because it all rests on a singular individual: Donald Trump. The question for Republicans, debated back and forth in the pages of publications like The National Review and The Washington Examiner, is if the party has a better chance of winning power with Mr. Trump at its head, or without him. Perhaps an inoffensive figure like Mr. Youngkin, who seems to have won back GOP defectors in Virginia’s suburbs while expanding on Mr. Trump’s lead in rural areas, is the ticket to the future. Or perhaps he isn’t—Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Youngkin and may have signaled to certain constituencies that they could trust him.

In either case, however, the debate is moot in the short term. Mr. Trump is still overwhelmingly favored by rank and file Republican voters, many of whom believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent. To that end, conservative elites can strategize about how to win elections all they want, but it’s ultimately up to Mr. Trump himself, not them. Moreover, conservatives probably have less need to strategize. The combination of demographics and the institutional design of the United States’ electoral system leaves the GOP heavily favored to win elections in the near future. Taking together the ambiguity of a post-Trump politics, sentiment among the rank-and-file that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and conservative elites' awareness of the favorable political landscape, strategy seems less important.

For Democrats, however, getting strategy right seems critical, even existential, and different factions of the party have their favored strategies for winning. David Shor is the guru of a new movement among centrist Democrats, known as “popularism.” Shor’s contention is that Democrats need to follow opinion polls. Do what appears to be popular, and nothing else. According to Shor, this is the way to overcome waning support among white working class voters and structural disadvantages in the United States Senate. That would mean moving away from big ticket, universal proposals like “Medicare For All” in favor of more limited, means-tested policies.

In addition, Shor suggests—along with Matthew Yglesias, who runs the Slow Boring newsletter and is a proponent of popularism himself—that Democrats need to tack right on cultural issues by rejecting “Defund the Police” and the movement to add teachings influenced by Critical Race Theory to primary and secondary school curricula.

Shor and Yglesias point to the diverse coalition of voters built by Barack Obama, who they claim won elections by avoiding the topic of race and expressing culturally conservative values. But as The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu points out, Mr. Obama’s two terms in office saw the state and local foundations of the Democratic Party collapse entirely. Although Mr. Obama may have cautiously avoided diving into the racial question, he was nonetheless perceived as an outsider to the white working class.

Nwanevu’s article in The New Republic also shows the limits of looking to Mr. Obama’s presidency as an exemplar of “popularism” with respect to policy. The fact of the matter is that even as American pundits and consultants have come to rely extensively on public opinion data to give the country its is and then in turn its ought, the American public is highly capricious. Simply asking a representative sample of Americans whether they support a policy isn’t as illuminating as someone like David Shor thinks it is.

The article in The New Republic doesn’t use this particular example, but the Obama administration’s flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), serves to demonstrate popularism’s shortcomings. The ACA, with a combination of modest welfare increases and market-friendly components, was clearly designed not to be particularly divisive among the American public, or with the private insurance companies that might otherwise oppose it. Indeed, the original policy came from a proposal by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and was modeled on a similar program implemented in Massachusetts by then-Governor Mitt Romney.

Rather than be a smashing hit, however, the ACA became the target of a dedicated media assault by the Republican Party. Democrats lost the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms, in no small part because of backlash against the ACA. But in the years following its implementation, the Affordable Care Act actually gained in popularity, to the point that Donald Trump’s attempt to repeal and replace it failed. Parts of the Affordable Care Act have been chipped away over the years, but today it’s actually more popular than it’s ever been, at least according to opinion polls.

The problem, then, with popularism is that it’s just not a silver bullet to glean the most popular policy from a public opinion survey and embrace it. Surveys tell you, at the very best, what people think today, with absolutely no guidance about how they may feel tomorrow. And it’s also true that David Shor, despite the genuine value of some of his insights, is a consultant who is presumably paid to conduct his polls by candidates and organizations with deep pockets (he doesn’t reveal who his clients are). Matthew Yglesias, who has a valuable perspective on American politics, is himself a centrist. That doesn’t mean that their recommendations are useless or condemnable, but it does present the real possibility that their respective diagnoses of what is are actually their view of what ought to be, by another name.

Lest the reader think I’m opening a broadside against the center-left on behalf of the left, I’m not. Progressives suffer from this exact same problem, their own vein of popularism that, demonstrating the flaws of the approach, just so happens to recommend an entirely different political strategy. Progressives have insisted that if the Democratic Party had simply nominated Bernie Sanders as its candidate for the White House in 2016, that he would have won the presidency. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez publicly argued that Democrats wouldn’t have lost seats in the House of Representatives if they had embraced Medicare For All. And just days ago, the socialist magazine Jacobin published a survey it conducted with the polling outfit YouGov that suggests that very same thing: that working class voters—shockingly—prefer Medicare For All to moderate or conservative alternatives.

Maybe all of this is true. Maybe there’s a latent progressive majority waiting in the wings for the right candidate, who could awaken independents and non-voters to the progressive cause if they speak the right way and campaign on the right issues. But I doubt it. As Jacobin’s own survey suggests, non-voters are less, not more, likely to vote for progressive candidates. Working class independents and Republicans are still more likely to vote for moderate or conservative candidates.

What seems dangerous to me is that political commentators, both well to the left and towards the center of the Democratic Party, are finding that voters support policies that, in one way or another, fit their prior beliefs about what’s good. That doesn’t mean that the commentariat is manipulating public opinion data; there are places where the reality of unpopularity sets in. Matthew Yglesias, for example, has written about the need to quietly fit unpopular but necessary things into the party’s agenda, and the Jacobin survey finds that white working class voters are not likely to support a candidate that centers systemic racial injustice.

But pundits are claiming that the American people tend to fall in line with their own general political outlooks and advocating that candidates contort themselves to fit into what opinion polls say they should do. That just isn’t a silver bullet strategy for winning elections. Chasing some elusive “public opinion,” the presentations of which may themselves be the product of what certain party factions want it to be, is unlikely to meaningfully alter the political landscape in Democrats’ favor.  It’s not clear how much Americans actually care about policy (one commentator posits that they are primarily concerned with “vibes”). To the extent that they do, it’s hardly clear which policies they truly support or if they’d even support them long enough to reward the politicians who implemented them in the next election.

This is all to say that there’s some need for a rebalancing of is and ought in American politics. Of course it’s true that in a representative democracy, candidates compete for votes and thus need to have some sense of what voters want. And there’s no doubt that they need to strategize around such concerns. But there are limits to this approach. As I noted above, modern pundits, activists, and politicians tend to be extraordinarily reliant on what they see as empirical data to inform how they interpret the world and act within it. But public opinion surveys don’t agree on what voters want, and their tendency to confirm what the groups citing or commissioning them believe (or are selling) suggests that they do not constitute iron facts from which reliable strategies can be deduced. We in the commentariat don’t know what to do, much as we’d like to, but we might actually be doing the public a service if we debated our ideas on their own terms rather than obscuring them in debates about what can win and what can’t.

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