The most straightforward explanations in electoral politics are the likeliest. That’s bad news for the far-left.
As all who read The Liberal Patriot know, Ruy Teixeira doesn’t mince words.
The demographer and political scientist co-authored the 2002 bestseller The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that the rapidly evolving demographic makeup of the United States stood to benefit the Democratic Party. This research was often misinterpreted as a fait accompli for the left — and continues to be willfully misinterpreted by the far-left as a mandate to ignore both historical swing voters and the ideologically mixed views of Black and Hispanic voters.
Teixeira, who was recently profiled in the New York Times, co-launched The Liberal Patriot in December 2020. Week after week, Texeira has been forcefully correcting the record with hard-hitting demographic and electoral analysis.
The Twitter-less Teixeira has observed that Democrats are now paying a steep electoral price for the far-left’s embrace of widely unpopular (but highly hashtaggable) slogans.
The extent of the Democrats' leftward lurch is most pronounced in the growing chasm between the views of the predominantly white, wealthy, and highly educated elites who staff the Democratic Party (and most major cultural institutions) and pretty much every other demographic group in the country.
All of these fall under the umbrella of the Democrats’ Common Sense Problem: the jargony far-left dogma that dominates much of the party’s core infrastructure has too many voters thinking we’ve abandoned common sense entirely. Far-left battle cries like “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE” might make sense to those who are steeped in the intellectual discourse of abolition, but at best they confuse ordinary voters — and more often simply alienate them.
The far-left could look at Teixeira’s stone-cold-sober demographic data and accept the self-evident fact that too many voters are alienated by their nonsensical (and, for many, counterintuitive) rhetoric and policy stances.
Or they could keep their heads in the sand and employ far-fetched magical thinking to explain away concerns about the narrowness of their appeal.
A good example of this kind of magical thinking can be found in the far-left’s unshakable belief in what Teixeira has labeled “the turnout myth.” In his words:
“No myth is stronger in left-progressive circles than the magical, wonder-working powers of turnout. It's become this sort of pixie dust that you sprinkle over your strenuously progressive positions to brush aside any questions of negative electoral effects from such positions. This quote from Saikat Chakrabarti, AOC’s chief of staff, encapsulates the theory of the case so many progressives hold dear.
‘[W]e’ve got a completely different theory of change, which is: You do the biggest, most badass thing you possibly can — and that’s going to excite people, and then they’re going to go vote. Because the reality is, our problem isn’t that more people are voting Republican than Democrat — our problem is most people who would vote Democrat aren’t voting.’”
Time and time again, the turnout myth has been disproven by a range of independent experts. But the far-left continues to willfully ignore the most plausible explanation for Democrats’ electoral woes.
“Occam's Razor” holds that the most straightforward explanation for a given phenomenon is the likeliest. “Ruy’s Razor” holds that the same law applies to electoral politics.
Democrats should heed Ruy’s Razor. More on that below, but first a few things our team was reading and talking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Speaking of Ruy Texiera: Here’s another important piece of his in The Liberal Patriot on whether the 2022 Election will be a teachable moment for the Democrats:
“Democrats may be better off accepting they will take their lumps in 2022 but use the election as a teachable moment.
That teachable moment should be, above all, about re-acquainting the party with the actually-existing demographics and politics of the country they live in. Given patterns of educational and geographical polarization, they are now at a crippling disadvantage in what remains an overwhelmingly working class and non-urban country. There are simply too many districts and states in the country where that polarization redounds to their disadvantage and makes them uncompetitive. That is not a problem that can be solved by ‘mobilizing the base’. It calls instead for expanding your coalition by persuading more working class and non-urban voters you share their values and priorities. It is either do that or brace yourself for a really bad 2024. And you know what that means.”
2. Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic on how social media has made the past ten years of American life uniquely stupid:
“When the newly viralized social-media platforms gave everyone a dart gun, it was younger progressive activists who did the most shooting, and they aimed a disproportionate number of their darts at these older liberal leaders. Confused and fearful, the leaders rarely challenged the activists or their nonliberal narrative in which life at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie, and the people on top got there by oppressing the people on the bottom. This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian––focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities. It is unconcerned with individual rights.”
3. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in POLITICO Playbook with some important advice for his fellow progressives:
“I think if there’s one thing other than an aspirational vision that I would wish for people who share my same perspective on the policies, it is just to have a little bit less judgment, a little bit more humility. … You may not have the whole truth. You may not have the whole perspective. Don’t be so self-assured of your own moral superiority.”
Following Ruy’s Razor
When it comes to making causal explanations of electoral politics, our team prefers to dive into the data. But where there is no rigorous data? We should proceed with common sense — and the simplest explanation.
The Welcome Party launched after a discussion on political scientist Alexander Agadjanian’s research featured in the NYT on how the 2020 Democratic primary debates were turning off independent voters.
As Agadjanian explained in The Upshot in late 2019, “one defining feature of the Democratic primary so far has been the party’s leftward turn.” Interested in bringing data to bear on the classical assumption that moderates generally fare better than extremists in elections, he set up a simple experiment:
“A random half of participants read a news snippet illustrating the leftward shift, while the other half read about unrelated topics, such as the schedule of election dates. The news item was a few sentences that included policies discussed by the candidates: decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings; expanding undocumented immigrants’ access to government services; replacing private health insurance with a government-run system; and establishing free public college for all children from working-class families. The content was drawn directly from real news coverage.
Both sets of respondents then indicated how they planned to vote in 2020 (whether for President Trump or the eventual Democratic nominee), how strongly they were considering voting Democratic, and how motivated they felt to turn out and vote for or against the Democratic nominee.”
The data? Independents who read about Democrats’ leftward shift were 6% less likely to say they would vote for a Democrat in 2020.
The common sense explanation? Those independents did so because they were repelled by Democrats’ leftward shift. It makes logical sense.
Agadjanian acknowledged this as well:
“Because of the random assignment — with some reading about the policy positions and others reading innocuous, unrelated information — the difference in responses between the groups can be attributed to the effect of reading about the leftward shift.”
Correlation certainly doesn’t always imply causation, but common sense can serve us well in cases like this.
This is “Ruy’s Razor” — the “Occam’s Razor” of electoral politics. We can hold (as the far-left does) that voters are either progressives in disguise. Or we use our rationality and common sense to deduce what actually moves them and why.
Similarly, there has been an ongoing debate over the extent to which “Defund the Police” hurt Democratic candidates in 2020. Some political scientists point to the lack of strong causal evidence — which they should as scientists. But practitioners do not have to give credence to the idea that the “Defund” narrative was little more than hysteria conjured up by the right-wing propaganda machine (Teixeira has written about the left’s unhealthy reliance on what he calls the “Fox News Fallacy”).
The reality is that the Online Left treated “Defund” as a sensible middle ground between the status quo and police abolition (the New York Times was publishing columns like “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” while major Democratic advocacy and organizing groups like Planned Parenthood and Indivisible were putting out statements in support of “Defund”) — and that imagined compromise didn’t sit well with too many swing voters.
Taking Ruy’s Razor to the debate over “Defund,” it’s evident that Republicans figured this out: they ran attack ads on “Defund” in a majority of pivotal races in 2020 and then won more than they were projected to. The simplest explanation is the GOP did polling and focus groups with swing voters and found that the “Defund” attacks worked. There may be a theory about how Republican media consultants had better ads but chose not to run them — or that they do not use any of the widely available tools to measure the engagement the ads received — but these fly in the face of the most straightforward explanation.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that far-left rhetoric and slogans are alienating to many voters who might otherwise vote for Democrats. All in our tent focused on winning and saving our democracy from the authoritarian GOP should be using our common sense to build a party that welcomes as many voters as possible.
This means taking heed of Ruy’s Razor and making a genuine, good faith effort to meet voters where they are — not where we’d like them to be.
Steve Bullock was re-elected governor of Montana in 2016 — the same year Donald Trump won the state by more than 20 points. In a New York Times op-ed published late last year, he made a passionate plea to his fellow Democrats: get out of the city more and engage with those from beyond our insular blue bubbles.
We couldn’t agree more. It’s lovely in Montana — and Ohio and Colorado and Missouri — this time of year!