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Popularity, Contested

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
Popularity, Contested
Nina Turner (Gage Skidmore)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I wasn’t following the Nina Turner race too closely, so I don’t have all that much more to say about that specific outcome than I already shared this week. Natalie Shure and Luke Savage have post-mortems worth reading at In These Times and Jacobin respectively. But I’ve found myself over the last few days wrestling less with why Turner lost and how left candidates might win more broadly than with the question of why the left ought to run candidates for federal office to begin with. Simply put, if Nina Turner or ten Nina Turners were elected to the House, what would change about our political situation?

I don’t quite think the answer is nothing. The members of the Squad have helped elevate progressive and socialist ideas in mainstream discourse and have been shrewder policy analysts and political operators on the Hill than their detractors in the Democratic establishment and the press anticipated. And this week, Cori Bush was deservedly credited for playing a major role in the Biden administration’s decision to partially extend the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which she demanded over three days and three nights sleeping outside the Capitol. But as much as they might have a leg-up over others given their public prominence, legislators obviously aren’t the only political actors capable of protest, analyzing the issues, or advocating for policy change. Activists and organizers, journalists, and others outside the political system can do all three. The unique and uniquely valuable thing that legislators do is legislate.

And at the federal level, progressive legislation faces extraordinary constraints, including the priorities and preferences of the establishment figures who control the party and, even more significantly in my view, the very design of the federal political system. Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and the rest ⁠— that agenda is going nowhere without a larger and more progressive Democratic Senate majority, a more progressive administration in the White House, and probably a packed Supreme Court to boot. Adding more progressives to the House is only half the first step and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re not going to make it to the others anytime soon.

Everyone knows this on some level. So what’s to be done? As best as I can tell, most people left of center thinking through the question fall into four major camps at the moment.

  • Coalitionists: Some of those grouped here are further left than others and there are tonal differences in their critiques of Democrats and the administration. But broadly speaking, these are advocates for the concept of the Democratic coalition. Generally, they think we’ve had great success working within the party to push Biden and Democratic leaders left through primaries and advocacy and that we should keep at it with the hope that progressives will wind up taking over the party with time. (The Squad, Bernie Sanders, major progressive groups including Indivisible and Sunrise)
  • Popularists: The "Do Popular Things" crowd. Run on and implement popular ideas, move right on culture or at least cultural aesthetics, and make peace with the Democratic Party as it currently exists, and progressives will see incremental, but real and meaningful policy changes come to pass. (David Shor, Matthew Yglesias, and some journalists, basically)
  • Socialists: Sanders and members of the Squad describe themselves as socialists of course, but most on the DSA Left are more critical and skeptical of the Democratic Party as a responsive and malleable institution and many harbor doubts about electoral politics broadly speaking as well. While most support actively contesting even federal elections, the focus here is on organizing over the long-term to build a socialist movement led by the working class. (The DSA and other explicitly socialist organizers and activists)
  • Cranks: #FraudSquad, #ForceTheVote, #GeneralStrike, Like and Subscribe. (Miscellaneous)

I think the DSA has things about right. It’s clear that the mobilization of progressive voters and activists over the last half decade and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic have pulled Democrats left. That shift has already been reflected in the Biden administration’s appointments and major policy initiatives. But for the reasons already mentioned, we’re rapidly approaching the limit of what can be won through our federal system without creating a reliable mass constituency for left politics and federal political reforms. And the efforts to dial back even what we’ve won are already under way.

The hemming and hawing and blame shifting about the eviction moratorium before the extension was itself a leading indicator of this. And at The American Prospect this week, David Dayen wrote a reminder that the eviction crisis has really been driven by renters’ inability to access the relief Congress has already provided. Of the over $46 billion in rental assistance approved in the coronavirus relief packages, just over $3 billion had been disbursed by the end of this June. And means-testing seems to account for much of the delay:

[T]here are all sorts of parameters for eligible households. One or more individuals in the household must have qualified for unemployment or experienced a “reduction in household income” or some other financial hardship they can attest to in writing; a risk of homelessness as a result of past due payments must be determined; the household income must be 80 percent of the area median or below (and those under 50 percent should be “prioritized”), with that income determined either for the calendar year of 2020 or the monthly income at the time of the application, which would have to be re-determined every three months; and they must not be receiving other rental assistance.
The problems here are easy to see. State and local governments do not have rental assistance programs just waiting to be funded. These had to be built, from scratch, with a complicated set of eligibility requirements to administer.

It’s well-established that means testing can significantly limit take up and access to all kinds of programs. It’s been criticized on political grounds too, but folks in the Popularist camp have recently piped up to argue that means tested programs are not only more politically durable than progressives think, but actually more popular than universal programs. And while some have made an effort to dispute this, I think accepting the claim for the sake of argument helps underscore one of the nontrivial challenges for the Popularist perspective, which is that some Popular Things are bad ⁠— not only materially damaging to the real people we engage in politics to help, but potentially more politically costly in the long-run than policymakers expect pre-implementation. Conversely, some Unpopular Things are quite good. It would be a great thing for the Democratic Party and the country, for instance, to admit the District of Columbia and all extant American territories as states. In fact, David Shor and other Popularists have advocated this themselves and wondered aloud why Democrats and democratic reform advocates have chosen to focus instead on voting rights measures likely to be less impactful. The answer is simple: creating multiple new states, and granting statehood to DC in particular, is more contentious and substantially less popular than the major voting rights provisions of the For the People Act, which is functionally a Popularist piece of legislation. “Do Popular Things” is a neat slogan, but it doesn’t really offer a coherent framework for adjudicating these and other first-order challenges.

An alternative: We ought to say and do Popular Things that are good rather than Popular Things that are bad. Additionally, we should do what we can to make good things that are unpopular popular and to make bad things that are popular unpopular.

I don’t think another slew of federal campaigns is really the answer. The capacities and institutions the left needs to build are primarily non-electoral; our largest problems are not really messaging problems. But left candidates who do run at any level ⁠—  federal, state, or local ⁠— should probably consider including the following planks in their platforms

Existing polling suggests these ideas are either already popular or potentially so, and I’ve been writing about the political and policy potential inherent in democratic ownership as a concept for some time now. Astute readers might recognize the notion that capital should be democratically owned and managed by workers as one of the first principles of democratic socialism. And there are some parts of the country where openly socialist candidates ⁠— perhaps even candidates from an independent socialist party ⁠— might win election campaigns while saying so. But elsewhere, I think it would be prudent to argue, as I will in my book, that democratic ownership ought to be considered one of the first principles of democracy itself as properly understood. Democracy, after all, is pretty popular.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Send all questions and comments to Good night.