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Why popularism is good — to a point

Weird ideas don’t win elections, but that doesn’t mean people should shut up about them.

People cheer as former President Barack Obama waves during a campaign rally in support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

My former colleague, Vox co-founder and current Substacker Matt Yglesias, is a subscriber to a simple theory of politics: People trying to win elections should talk about the political positions they hold that are popular, and not the unpopular ones. Vox co-founder Ezra Klein has explored at length the case for this approach as well.

If you’re interested in how election outcomes happen, it’s very much worth getting a handle on this take — popularly dubbed “popularism” and why it’s more counterintuitive than it sounds.

For example, lots of people — including me and Matt, who authored the pro-population growth book One Billion Americans — think that pursuing massive increases in immigration makes for good economic policy, good humanitarian policy, and is morally much more defensible than the current system where most people are cut off from opportunity because of the accident of where they were born.

But morally defensible doesn’t necessarily mean popular. According to Gallup polling, only 33 percent of Americans want immigration to increase. That’s a historic high but still far below a majority, so the “popularism” approach says to mostly shut up about it.

Another example: During the 2020 presidential campaign, pro-abortion groups pushed Joe Biden to voice his support for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion in most cases. Polls suggest Americans are split or lean against federal funding of abortion. There was always very little chance repeal would happen, and indeed, despite Biden’s pledge, it appears the Hyde Amendment will live on because of the evenly divided Senate.

So, the popularist argument goes, advocates who pushed Biden on this issue not only have failed to expand access to abortion, but also moved the needle (even if only slightly) against his election by forcing him to take a high-profile position on a divisive topic, thus raising the chance that a truly anti-abortion candidate would win instead. I think access to abortion is important, so I agree with the advocates on the values question here, but I find this complaint convincing. Why pick a fight you can’t win?

David Shor, the political consultant most associated with popularism, can point to his work for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns as proof that this approach works. Obama was a very talented politician, and he relentlessly emphasized areas where his opinions were popular, and took now-conservative positions on issues such as gay marriage. Relatedly, he won two presidential elections by large margins — while the post-Obama Democratic party has struggled.

There are counterarguments, such as the belief that by catering to their base — even around policies unlikely to become law politicians can increase enthusiasm and boost turnout at the ballot box. But the counter-counterargument seems more compelling: that actually enthusiasm tends to track closely with overall popularity, and that electoral success is good for movement-building, period.

Others have argued against popularism on the grounds that because Republicans are pushing extremist laws, it’s important to counter them on every front lest the country slide into extremism. But I’m convinced that the more important you think it is to beat Republicans, the more important it is to actually beat Republicans, which means you should try to take politically popular stances so that you are likelier to win elections.

However, I do think there is a limit to how far you can go with popularism alone. And — while conceding to Yglesias and Shor that, at the current margin, people involved in election advocacy should take popularism way more seriously — I can’t help but feel instinctively worried about conversations that may not be happening that need to happen because they’re unpopular.

Making room for the unpopular

One of my philosophical heroes is the British thinker Jeremy Bentham, often called the inventor of utilitarianism.

Born in 1748, he was a champion of some causes that were very unpopular in his time. He was an abolitionist, supported equal rights for women, opposed capital punishment as well as corporal punishment (including of children), worked at length on prison reform, supported the right to divorce, and otherwise got a ton of stuff right that almost no one in the mid-1700s was getting right. (He also got some stuff wrong; his big prison reform idea, for an enormous panopticon with the inmates under constant observation, seems pretty bad.)

To that long list of ahead-of-his-time opinions, historians eventually acknowledged one more: Bentham also opposed the criminalization of homosexuality. But he chose not to publish his essays on that topic, and it took more than two centuries before they were widely read and discussed. Many of his other views may have been unpopular for their time, but not compared to this; he reportedly feared that publishing the essays would trigger an uproar that would overshadow all his other work.

I’m not sure that Bentham made the wrong choice. For a thinker in the 18th century, the trade-offs he was weighing were genuinely difficult. But I am glad he didn’t do the opposite and just pick the most appealing of his stances and write only about those. If he’d only written about his prison reform proposals, which attracted considerable interest even at the time, his valuable thinking on utilitarianism, divorce, abolition, and children’s rights might never have eventually made it into the public discourse.

So my thinking on popularism is that if you’re not a politician running for office, you should try to mostly say what you actually think is true, even if it is (for its time) weird and unpopular. If you’re a journalist or a citizen arguing on the internet or a researcher designing policies, you should write about what you actually believe.

That doesn’t mean you couldn’t also make pragmatically inspired calls about which battles to pick. Even as you voice views you believe are unpopular, you should think twice about pressuring the politicians you want to win to loudly support those same unpopular stances.

I’m not departing from the views of the biggest popularist proponents here. Yglesias, for his part, has recently written about how it’s a huge problem that think tanks and advocacy groups “fall in line” rather than criticizing — and thus improving and stress-testing — each others’ proposals.

But I do think that, while we live in a society wildly freer than Bentham’s, people can encounter a lot of pressure to shut up about their weirdest views. Many weird or unpopular ideas are also bad ideas, but openly debating them still seems better to me than holding them as an unspoken premise. And I just want to make sure that popularism — which is a sound principle for winning elections but not automatically for a healthy intellectual climate — doesn’t chip away at that value.

Voters are smarter than you think

Voters do have a fairly finely tuned radar for disingenuousness, and I think one way to screw up when attempting popularism is to come across as, well, lying to the public while trying to distract them from your actual priorities.

I do think that a sense that the media, politicians, and experts are being disingenuous — advocating policies they didn’t really believe in or care about, or toeing the line for the sake of apparent unity while privately having doubts — has done a ton of damage to social trust and various institutions in the US today.

So I think people who are trying to make the world a better place through research and communication shouldn’t themselves stop saying extremely weird stuff when they sincerely think that stuff is true and important. They shouldn’t publicly agree with anything they privately disagree with, even if they’re trying to preserve their credibility.

They should engage with things that matter to the general public, if only because that’s how to prove they’re worth listening to, but they should spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s actually going on and tell people that.

That’s my logic for why I personally haven’t shut up about my stances on open borders or artificial intelligence or factory farming, even though they’re all deeply unpopular, and a candidate who talked about them as much as I do would lose elections.

It’s important for weird conversations to happen in the open, even if it’s also important for politicians in a democracy to run on the issues the voters care about. Presenting a united front by papering over real disagreements simply isn’t worth the damage it does to public trust, or to our ability to solve problems in the real world, where sky-high approval ratings don’t substitute for an understanding of what’s actually going on. (And sky-high approval ratings won’t last if you screw up in the real world.)

It’s obviously very important to win elections, and doing the popularist thing is definitely a strong way to do this. But when it comes to advancing ideas — and being more flexible for a future that may change in ways we can’t anticipate — it helps to be open to the unusual, even the unliked.