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The limits of popularism

Briahna Joy Gray on how Democrats can solve their messaging problem.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks before signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the South Lawn at the White House on November 15.
Kenny Holston/Getty Images

How can Democrats win more votes in rural America?

I don’t know if that’s the most important question for progressive politics right now, but it’s the one I think about the most. Democrats have had their share of victories lately — after all, they currently control the White House and Congress — but the reality is that it’s not enough, due to the idiosyncrasies of our electoral system.

To pass a meaningful agenda, Democrats need to win more rural voters — “rural voters” is often code for white people, but it also includes Black and brown voters who don’t live in cities.

There’s a raging debate on the left about how to do this. Depending on who you ask, the problem is either too much “wokeness” on the progressive side or too much milquetoast moderation from the centrists. A great deal of this argument — not all of it, but most of it — is about how to navigate the politics of race and class. And that is part of an ever broader conversation about identity and culture and the media landscape.

My views on all this are hard to pin down, and the more I think about it, the more questions I have. But one thing seems clear: The left needs to build a more sustainable working-class coalition, and rural Americans have to be a part of it. The best way to do this is, well, not so clear.

People attend the county fair in Rolla, Missouri, on August 6, 2021.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

So I reached out to Briahna Joy Gray, host of the podcast Bad Faith, for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. As a Black woman and former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, Gray brings a unique perspective to these debates, and I’ve wanted to engage with her for a long time. She has a lot to say about race and class and why the problem with Democrats isn’t merely about strategy or messaging — it’s about policy.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

The big debate on the left right now is over what people are calling “popularism.” The basic idea is pretty simple: Democrats should figure out which views are popular, and which aren’t, and then frame their message accordingly. There’s some obvious wisdom to that, but also some limitations. Why do you think Democrats are losing non-college educated whites, and even increasingly losing ground among Black and Latino voters? Is it a policy problem? Is it a messaging problem? Is it something else?

Briahna Joy Gray

Well, I’d say that it is definitely a policy problem, but not just that they weren’t running on popular policies, which is true. They’ll either run on them and betray those promises, the way Biden has done with a $15 minimum wage, canceling student debt, marijuana decriminalization, etc. Or, they won’t run on them to begin with. So that’s, let’s say, Joe Biden, ignoring the fact that 88 percent of Democrats support Medicare-for-all.

But my feeling about it is having policies that are very, very popular is useful rhetorically. If I can say that 88 percent of Democrats and 50 percent, approximately, of Republicans support Medicare-for-all, I can use that as a rhetorical cudgel to ask why the Democratic Party can only get 118 members of the House to sign on to the Medicare-for-all legislation. I can use it to draw a contrast between the will of the people and what our elected officials are willing to do, and then use that to open up a conversation about what’s motivating elected officials, other than their constituents.

What I don’t think is right is to exclusively support policies that you should be supporting ethically, as a matter of principle, just because they’re not popular. And we all are familiar, I think, with the examples of how unpopular the civil rights movement was, and Martin Luther King was as a human being, when that activism was ongoing. And some people look at, say, slogans like “defund the police,” principles like police abolition, that was polling up to 40 percent last spring and summer, after the murder of George Floyd really horrified the country and galvanized all those protests.

What happened then was an entire summer of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party making the argument that to support defunding, to support these protests, was to jeopardize Joe Biden’s chances of defeating Donald Trump. And ... when presented with that zero-sum equation, people started to back away from the slogan and their support from protests in the media and in the public sphere, and the polling started to shift.

Now, you could also imagine a world with a different kind of candidate, who rode the coattails of the popular movement, and the fact that even Republicans were very sympathetic, after the on-camera murder of George Floyd, toward meaningful police reform. There was some openness, there were some cracks there among the libertarian right on this issue, to push the polls the other way.

But polls are only weaponized by corporate parties to explain why they shouldn’t do something. And when polls are inconvenient, they’re ignored. There is absolutely no conversation in this country about the ability to use persuasion, and what I would argue is the true work of politics, to push polls for principles that you believe in, in a positive direction.

Sean Illing

You’re a comms person, so I really want to hear your take on “message discipline.” I have to say I’m very skeptical of the possibilities of this and I’d love to be convinced that I’m wrong. My view is that what Democrats say is far less important than what the voters they’re trying to reach can hear. We have a polarized media environment, and because of that there’s a wall between what Dems are saying and what voters are hearing, and that wall is an insulated right-wing media machine that exists to reinforce conservative propaganda and define the Democrats in the minds of voters.

I’m not saying the Dems should say dumb or unpopular stuff, but I’m also not sure it matters as much we’d like to believe. Where am I going wrong here?

Briahna Joy Gray

I think that Donald Trump putting those checks in people’s pockets mattered, I think that Joe Biden promising to put more checks in people’s pockets, and then delivering less than was promised, mattered, left a bad taste in people’s mouths. Look, we’re on Covid, we’re still shut down. I’m a professional podcaster, I don’t get out much. But one of the ways that I can try to judge what people who are different from me, in different contexts, are thinking and feeling about politics is to look at the comment sections in nonpolitical spaces. So I’ll go to something like The Shade Room, pop culture websites, who occasionally post clips about political news, and see what the people underneath are saying.

People are still talking about how they were promised $2,000 and didn’t get it. People are still talking about it. The Biden administration is clearly trying to present an image that the crisis has been handled, and the recovery is well on its way. And not to diminish what has been achieved on that score, but it does them a disservice to gaslight enormous amounts of Americans who are in a more precarious situation than they’ve ever been in their lives, and for whom a $2,000 check, a $1,600 check, got eaten up immediately.

I feel like a lot of people in those comment sections are still talking about, “Well, I thought my student debt was getting canceled.” Forty-four million Americans have student loan debt. Seniors are the fastest growing population with student loan debt, and Social Security checks are being garnished at quite a clip to pay that student loan debt. If those 44 million Americans had their student loan debt canceled, which Joe Biden could do by executive order, I promise you, voters would feel that, and it would cut through a lot of noise of the Fox News machine.

I think that when you actually deliver for voters, they absolutely feel it, and it matters. And my last point of proof for that would be FDR, who delivered in such a way, that they had to change the rules. He had to die to get out of office, and they had to change the rules, so nobody could do that again, because he got reelected so many times. Right?

Sean Illing

This is why I keep coming back to the media landscape. It’s a totally different world now. I think less about changing minds and more about dictating salience, because I actually think most people don’t really have fixed or coherent views, and they’re pretty pliable. It’s all about what issues are salient at any given time, and why. If a conservative candidate, or the Republican Party, is determined to make critical race theory or something like that a salient issue by constantly talking about it, and talking about it to an audience that is pretty insulated, what the hell is a Democratic candidate supposed to do about that?

Briahna Joy Gray

You cannot be reactionary, you cannot respond, you cannot spend all of your time explaining why CRT is right and good. I simply will not discuss CRT. Look, the answer is not to say nothing is happening in schools, the answer is not to say that it’s a figment of your imagination or try to argue what the definition of CRT is. I might do that on my show, I’m not a politician. I would not advise any politician to get into the weeds and say, “But okay, what’s being taught is not really CRT.”

A lot of the anxiety was actually about school closures, which Republicans were able to capitalize on, this anxiety that parents had, that their kids were not going to get the full benefit of the education they need, because Covid closures have kept them out of the classroom. You have to redirect. And to your point about salience, counterattacking with an issue of greater natural salience than whether or not some acronym that nobody had ever heard of before a year ago should be at the top of the list.

So if I were Terry McAuliffe running for governor in Virginia, and someone asked me a question about CRT; “Aren’t you concerned about CRT being taught in school?” I would say, “I am concerned, like many Virginia parents, that our kids are not getting the quality of education they have come to expect, because Covid closures cut them out of the classroom, and distance learning is really hard. And I want to make sure, as governor of Virginia, that I bring parents and teachers together to make sure we have these kids prepared, maximally, for the rest of their lives.”

A kindergarten student sits during his special education class in February 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“That doesn’t just mean the workplace, that means to be good citizens of this country, that means learning about all of our history, good and bad, and I know that Virginia parents want the same. Now, let’s talk about ways we can deliver on what your economic and social priorities are here in this state.”

Sean Illing

I hear all of that. And let me just say very clearly that I think Terry McAuliffe was a bad candidate. But if you told him, “Hey, look, the CRT stuff is hurting your campaign, just shut the hell up about it,” or pivot in the way that you suggested, which I think is the smartest thing you could possibly do, I’m not sure it makes much difference in the end. How much do you think that will help or matter if the right-wing media machine is working in concert to systematically make CRT, or “defund the police,” or whatever “the thing” is at that moment, the central issue? Do you really think that’s something that can be circumnavigated by staying on message?

Briahna Joy Gray

I do. And that is not to say that it’s easy, but here is one thing that I’ve observed. And there’s some people on the left, the Bernie left, the left left ... We’ve been having this conversation about why it is that our media ecosystem is operating so differently than the right-wing or conservative media ecosystem. And part of it is that the left media ecosystem is divided. There is very little coordination, there is a very different kind of messaging that’s going on in the corporate MSNBC media cycle or the marginalized, online left media space that I am in, and that I’ve been cordoned off in, because the mainstream media, fundamentally, won’t have someone like me on.

I am aware of the fact that I have screengrabs of some poor booker somewhere who suggested me for a popular MSNBC host’s show, who was blacklisted from working for that show again, just because they brought up my name. There’s like an internal war here, and it’s because there’s a real, fundamental disagreement about what’s motivating voters, and what kind of messages you should use to redirect.

So liberals and moderate Dems are very confident that just saying everybody’s racist all the time is going to motivate people, and that is the punch to land. They did it with Trump in 2016, and lost; they did it in Trump in 2020, and Covid saved Biden; and they did it with Terry McAuliffe. And the Lincoln Project. Former Republicans, literally, staged that tiki torch thing. And I don’t know how many times they had to ... they even tried to make up instances of racism, because that’s the only play that they have.

Because what do they have in lieu of identity fear-mongering? Nothing, because they won’t simply support the basic policies that everybody wants.

Now, I could be wrong. It could be that Joe Biden passes a $15 minimum wage, gives everybody another round, or two, or three, or recurring, of $2,000 checks, cancels 44 million Americans’ student loan debt, and people still decide to go and vote for whoever the Republican nominee is.

If that happens, sue me. I think you’ll still like the fact that your debt has been forgiven, and that your life is demonstrably better, but I’ll reevaluate if and when Democrats deliver on core promises that are enormously popular and still lose. But we literally have not seen that happen. The last time we had a minimum wage raise was 2009, the year of our Lord 2009. It has been the last longest period [without a] minimum wage raise since my guy, FDR, founded the thing nearly a century ago.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.