WASHINGTON DC – There is an approach to politics known as “popularism”: it dictates that doing and talking about things that are popular with voters wins elections. This theory can be understood as the driving ideological force behind the first two years of Joe Biden‘s presidency – and not only for the president, but also for House and Senate Democrats. The Democrats have the White House, the House and the Senate, and so they are running in the midterm elections tomorrow (8 November) on the record of what they have done with power.
That record includes some genuine accomplishments. Democrats have indeed tried to do things that are popular with voters. There was the announcement of student loan relief. There was the move to pardon people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law, and to review how marijuana is classified. They passed a major piece of infrastructure legislation that invests in the country’s roads and rail, with (some) bipartisan support; most Americans approved of the law.
These are genuine achievements. These are popular. And Democrats, per the popularist way of thinking, have shied away from grappling with more controversial issues: the majority, for example, do not talk about “defunding the police”, which would move funds away from police departments; they insist that Democrats, too, are tough on crime. Not wanting to seem weak on immigration, Joe Biden has kept some of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, such as Title 42, which allows deportation for public health purposes; his administration is even considering sending Haitian migrants to Guantanamo.
Despite these popular achievements, Democrats are still fighting close election races across the country. Partly, that’s because the party in power almost always has an uphill battle in the midterms. Partly, that’s because many people are hurting economically. Partly, that’s because of gerrymandering and the redrawing of district boundaries.
But partly, they’re struggling because of the extreme and sometimes ludicrous way that Republicans represent Democratic political positions.
Take crime. In 2020, moderate House Democrats yelled at their progressive colleagues for talking about moving funding away from police departments; this, they said, cost them votes and was unpopular. So many Democrats have tried, in the two years since, to stress how tough they are on crime. And yet Republicans have been able to cast cities in Democrat America as crime-ridden wastelands. When the Florida governor Ron DeSantis campaigned for Lee Zeldin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, he talked about how tired New Yorkers are of crime, despite the fact that the incidence of shootings per 1,000 residents is six times as high in Tallahassee, Florida as it is in New York City. (Violent crime did not, per the latest data available, increase in 2021, though murder did rise during the pandemic; this is also, it should be noted, an issue across the country, not only in Democratic-controlled states and cities.)
Or take immigration. Biden kept Trump-era immigration policies in place, but he has nevertheless been accused by Republicans of having open borders. Stephen Miller, a White House adviser for Trump and the architect of the former president’s draconian immigration policies, has ads running across the country accusing Democrats of anti-white racism.
New York City, lambasted as crime-ridden, is safer than many small towns. The Democrats have not opened the borders. Anti-white racism is not sweeping the nation. But it doesn’t matter. These are the terms of the debate. When New York’s Democrat governor Kathy Hochul was asked on television about crime in her state, she did not remind viewers of New York’s relative safety, but instead said that New York would never become San Francisco, repeating a Republican caricature of the latter. Democrats are talking about popular things, but using the language of Republicans.
It’s good to do popular things. It’s good to talk about them. But what’s considered popular is not only shaped by Democrats. If they manage to hang on to the House and Senate on 8 November, perhaps they should ask themselves, moving forward, on whose terms they’re having political debates about what counts as popular in the first place.