The Democrats’ Privileged College-Kid Problem

Shor concedes that some version of this class of highly-educated neophytes has been a permanent feature of Democratic Party politics since at least the 1960s, but he argues that the downstream political effects of this demographic imbalance have gotten worse as the rise in education polarization — i.e. the tendency of highly educated voters to lean Democratic and less-educated voters to lean Republican—has exacerbated the ideological divide between Democratic staffers and the median voter.

“It’s always been true that this group was higher socioeconomic status and younger and all these other things, but the extent to which those biases mattered has changed a lot in the past ten years,” said Shor.

The way to compensate for these biases, Shor says, is twofold. The first is for Democratic candidates and their staff members to engage in more rigorous messaging discipline — in short, to “talk about popular things that people care about using simple language,” as Shor has defined his preferred brand of messaging restraint before. This approach would not preclude Democrats from talking about progressive-coded policy ideas that enjoy broad popular support, such as adopting a wealth tax on high earning individuals or mandating that workers receive representation on corporate boards.

In the longer term, however, the party will have to elevate the policy and messaging preferences of its moderate Black, Hispanic and working-class supporters over the preferences of young, highly-educated and liberal staffers.

“We are really lucky that we have a bunch of relatively moderate, economically progressive people in the Democratic Party who have close to median views on social issues and religiosity and all this other stuff, and the only thing is, most of them aren’t white,” Shor said. “Someone derisively told me that what I was saying is that we should be booking Maxine Waters instead of random [Black Lives Matter] activists, and I think that’s right. I think we should probably care what [Congressional Black Caucus] members think about things.”

Of course, Shor’s theory might be entirely off the mark — and many on the left think it is.

“It’s both mixed up and wrong,” said Steve Phillips, founder of the political strategy group Democracy in Color and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Ironically enough, critics like Phillips agree with Shor’s premise that the demographic composition of the Democratic Party’s staff does not reflect the demographic make-up of its key voters, but they maintain that the primary problem is that these staffers are too white, not that the staff is too young or too liberal. From this modified premise, they draw the exact opposite conclusion about the party’s message: that Democrats need to double down on a bolder vision of progressive change rather than retreat toward the center.

“It is true that the leadership as well as too much of the staff of the Democratic Party — and in particular in the progressive ecosystem — is largely white … [and] the problem with having the political leadership of the progressive part of the Democratic Party be disproportionately white is that you don’t have people who have cultural competence [in communities of color], you don’t have people who are fighters, and so the approach is to compromise, soften, avoid and tiptoe at a time when we’re in a pitched battle,” said Phillips.

In many respects, the disagreement between Shor and Phillips follows the same fault lines that emerged among Democratic officeholders in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election. In Phillips’ analysis, for instance, the party underperformed in 2020 because Democrats failed to turn out their progressive base, not because progressives’ support for activist social positions alienated swing voters. Shor, a longtime partisan in the persuasion-versus-turnout debate, says the theory that the outcome of the 2020 election was the result of differences in voter turnout rather than changes in vote-switching is “the closest thing to flat Earther-ism in politics.”

“That’s just, like, an empirical question,” he says, citing data that suggest that vote switching has historically played a much more significant role than changes in turnout in determining the outcome of elections.

But the question of whether Democrats should embrace the bold, progressive vision championed by young party activists is decidedly not an empirical question — even though Shor’s and Phillip’s positions hinge on their interpretation of a handful of data points about the demographic composition and ideological leanings of the electorate.

The first point of disagreement relates to whether non-voters in general — and young, non-voting people of color in particular — support a bold message of progressive change or a moderate message grounded in populist policy positions. Shor and Phillips point to different data sets to substantiate their arguments. Shor, for instance, cites original polling that suggests that only one in four non-voters identifies as liberal, while three out of four identifies as either moderate or conservative. Shor’s findings are corroborated by the results of a 2020 study from the Knight Foundation, which found that only 20 percent of non-voters identify as staunchly liberal, while closer to 60 percent fall in the middle of the ideological spectrum. “It turns out that, you know, that non-voters actually do not have particularly strong ideological leanings, because if they did, they would vote,” Shor said.

Meanwhile, Phillips, who is Black, argues that Shor fundamentally misunderstands the ideological preferences of moderates and conservative people of color. To back up his claim, he points to a recent Gallup poll that found high levels of support among Black and Hispanic people for progressive-coded proposals to scale back funding for police departments. “If you’ve spent time in a Black barbershop or a hair salon, you can understand some of the complexity and potential contradictions around different Black folks’ view,” said Phillips.

The second set of disagreements has to do with whether increased turnout among younger multiracial voters could materially change the outcome of national elections. Shor says that Democrats’ expectation that long-term demographic shifts would give the party a semi-permanent majority has fallen flat, and the rural bias of the Senate and the Electoral College will soon make it practically impossible for Democrats to win a governing majority without winning back at least some rural swing voters in key purple states.

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