Home » In Rioting, TikTok, and IVF, ‘Popularism’ Bewitches Both Parties

In Rioting, TikTok, and IVF, ‘Popularism’ Bewitches Both Parties

by John Jefferson
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Is it better for a politician to be popular or principled? That’s an age-old dilemma, tested, for instance, in 1774 Britain. In that year, Edmund Burke declaimed to the electors of Bristol, “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests.” Instead, MPs should meet, deliberate, and ascertain the “the general good.” In that spirit, Burke pledged that he would be a “faithful friend,” but not a “flatterer.” 

Having won office, Burke found himself caught betwixt high fidelity and low flattery. The crucial issue for his constituents was restricting the trading rights of rival ports in Ireland; on that clutch topic, Bristol’s shipping interests, for sure, wanted a flatterer. Burke, man of principle (and son of Ireland) that he was, would have none of it. In 1778, he declared, “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record…that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents.” In 1780, Bristol’s desires proved irresistible; Burke was defeated for re-election. 

In our time, the saga of David Shor, the Democratic data dude, has provided another illustration of the tug between popularity and principle. On May 28, 2020, just three days after the death of George Floyd, the 20-something Shor took note of rising unrest around the nation, tweeting a note of warning to fellow progressives: “Post-MLK-assassination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon.” Shor’s message to his mates was well-intentioned, if blunt: Rioting, no matter how righteous in their view, would play badly with the electorate of 2020, just as it had in the “law and order” election of 52 years earlier. By this reckoning, maybe the principle of rioting was okay; the problem was that it was unpopular with swing voters. 

Still, this was not what raging progs wanted to hear. Shor was fired from his job at a Democratic political firm. Yet he landed on his feet, especially as the November election results vindicated his findings—the GOP gained 16 House seats, mostly in places afflicted by unrest. In fact, amidst the continuing controversy, pro and con, Shor introduced the concept of “popularism,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: pick popular issues and focus on them. One could say, flatter the voters. 

In electoral politics, this is a tricky point. Yes, politicians instinctively wish to do all they can to get elected, but their actual latitude is constrained by their parties. A quarter-century ago, academics Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Shapiro of Columbia University dealt with this in Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness. Their book’s shrewd thesis: Contrary to the popular impression of politicians as say-anything panderers—and no matter what their own private feelings on an issue might be—pols are typically locked into policy positions, dictated by their party and its orthodoxy. 

For instance, mindful of the intense activists that bulk up the base, most Republican politicos have no choice but to be pro-life and pro-gun. And most Democrats feel forced to take the opposite stances. The result, of course, is polarization, as candidates on both sides of the divide gravitate to their polarities. Thus they miss the opportunity, if that’s their inclination, to occupy the political sweet spot in the middle. Like it or not, they end up being principled. 

Now in 2024, Democrats are still having trouble with law-and-order issues; their base won’t permit tough measures on either crime or the border. This is hurting them—notably on immigration, which Gallup finds to be the hottest topic in the land. A recent NBC News poll found that by a 30-point margin, Americans support the Republicans’ hawkish position. No doubt many election-minded Democrats would love to play to the center-right majority on the immigration issue—and some have, and have succeeded—but instead, many Dems find themselves pinioned by their own left. 

Yet Republicans, too, have it rough. A flashpoint is the possible impeachment of President Joe Biden, as the GOP majority in the House has been contemplating. Actual impeachment would be deeply satisfying to the Trumpy base, and yet it would just as certainly play badly in much of the country—including the 18 Congressional seats held by Republicans in districts Biden carried in 2020. As POLITICO’s Playbook newsletter observed on March 13, the House GOP, boasting the narrowest of majorities, is “dealing with a brutal math problem. Republicans in swing districts continue to balk at taking an impeachment vote.” 

Smart Republicans recall the 1998 effort to impeach Bill Clinton, which proved unpopular and blew up the party in that year’s midterm elections. In a typical midterm, the average gain for the opposition party is two dozen House seats and a handful of Senate seats. Yet amid the national boomerang against impeachment, Republicans ended up losing seats—the first time that had happened to the “out” party in a midterm since 1934. 

Mindful of this history, today’s House Republican leadership is looking for a popularist finesse. The same edition of Playbook explains: “Don’t expect Republicans to just come out and announce an end to their impeachment inquiry altogether. Doing so, they realize, would be tantamount to exonerating Biden in an election year—hardly a smart political play, and one that would infuriate the GOP base.” So what to do? Possibilities for a face-saving “off-ramp” include making a criminal referral to the Justice Department (destined, of course, to be immediately circular-filed) or offering some sort of anti-corruption legislation (perhaps to be given some sort of signal-sending acronym, such as “HUNTER”). Will that be satisfying to the faithful while not antagonizing the middle? We’ll see. 

In the meantime, another issue has come barreling down on both the popularist and the principled: TikTok, the Chinese-made social media app. On March 13, amidst spiraling concerns over data-tracking, social dividing, and even outright spying, the House voted 352 to 65 to force a divestiture of the app from its China-based parent. As the lopsided numbers suggest, both parties are on board: Republicans voted against China by a spread of 197 to 15, and Democrats, 155 to 50. 

Here some, such as Kentucky’s Rep. Tom Massie, a Republican, were principled. As a hardcore libertarian, Massie was unbending: He doesn’t believe the state should be pushing a company around—even a Chinese company. As for others, they were, well, more flexible. The Biden-Harris re-election campaign joined TikTok on February 12; less than a month later, on March 8, Biden himself said he would sign the divestiture bill if it reached his desk.  

But is this bill popular? Would a popularist approve? That’s less clear. TikTok has built up a reported U.S. user base of 107 million. Younger politicians, especially on the left, see the app as key to their coalition, which explains why Democrats were relatively more supportive of the TikTok quo. For its part, the company says divestiture is unacceptable and is fighting it hard. So now the House bill goes to the Senate, where prospects are uncertain, perhaps even bearish.  

In this game of popularism, it’s possible, of course, that even the most calculating have miscalculated. In the meantime, a strange-bedfellows “horseshoe” coalition, connecting some on the left and some on the right, has come out in support of TikTok: AOC and MTG, the Washington Post’s digital rabble-rouser, Taylor Lorenz, and Donald Trump.  

While Trump’s change of heart on the TikTok topic—as president in 2020, he sought divestiture by executive order—has received much scrutiny, it should be noted that for all his personal vehemence, he is something of a popularist. For instance, Trump has attacked the maximalist Republican position on abortion, saying vaguely of this hottest of hot-button subjects, “We’ll get something done where everyone is going to be very satisfied.”  

Moreover, Trump last month denounced the Alabama Supreme Court decision against IVF. Yet in the meantime, other Republicans, representing moderate districts, are struggling with the same issue; a gleeful headline in the Washington Post crowed the party’s predicament: “Republicans want to stay away from the IVF imbroglio. Abortion foes won’t let them.” 

For their part, when they can, Democrats are practicing popularism. A different POLITICO story listed the Congressional party’s preferred priorities for the reder of the year: “The House-passed tax deal; a rail safety bill responding to the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio; cannabis banking legislation, a new farm bill, a package of community health center funding and action to lower drug prices; and a new FAA bill.” We can immediately note what’s missing. Namely, the big issues that Biden mentioned in his March 7 State of the Union address: Ukraine, Gaza, tax increases, and climate change. Those Biden priorities are still priorities, of course; it’s just that House and Senate Democrats wish to talk about other, smaller, issues they think are more vote-getting. 

Yes, it’s a paradox: The country is as polarized as ever, and yet on policy issues, as opposed to political styles, the gap between the parties is narrowing as November nears. Whether they use the word or not, popularism is the game both parties play—when they can. 



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