Opinion | How Democrats Can Save Themselves

You will note that this banal-seeming wisdom is not an ideological litmus test: Where left-wing ideas are popular, Shor Thought would have Democrats talk about them more. But where they are unpopular, especially with the kind of voters who hold the key to contested Senate races, Democrats need a way to defuse them or hold them at a distance.

Thus a “popularist” candidate might be a thoroughgoing centrist in some cases, and in others a candidate running the way Bernie Sanders did in 2016, stressing the most popular ideas in the social-democratic tool kit. But in both cases such candidates would do everything in their power not to be associated with ideas like, say, police abolition or the suspension of immigration enforcement. Instead they would imitate the way Obama himself, in his first term, tried to finesse issues like immigration and same-sex marriage, sometimes using objectively conservative rhetoric and never getting way out ahead of public opinion.

Which is easier said than done. For one thing, the Democratic Party’s activists have a different scale of power in the world of 2021 than the world of 2011, and the hypothetical “popularist” politician can’t make their influence and expectations just go away. For another, as my colleague Nate Cohn points out, Obama in 2011 was trying to keep white working-class voters in the Democratic fold, while the popularist politician in 2022 or 2024 would be trying to win them back from the G.O.P. — a much harder thing to achieve just by soft-pedaling vexatious issues.

At the very least a Democratic strategy along these lines would probably need to go further along two dimensions. First, it would need to overtly attack the new progressivism — not on every front but on certain points where the language and ideas of the progressive clerisy are particularly alienated from ordinary life.

For instance, popularist Democrats would not merely avoid a term like “Latinx,” which is ubiquitous in official progressive discourse and alien to most U.S. Hispanics; they would need to attack and even mock its use. (Obviously this is somewhat easier for the ideal popularist candidate: an unwoke minority politician in the style of Eric Adams.)

Likewise, a popularist candidate — ideally a female candidate — on the stump in a swing state might say something like: I want this to be a party for normal people, and normal people say mother, not “birthing person.”

Instead of reducing the salience of progressive jargon, the goal would be to raise its salience in order to be seen to reject it — much as Donald Trump in 2016 brazenly rejected unpopular G.O.P. positions on entitlements that other Republican rivals were trying to merely soft-pedal.

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