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That Shor Sounds Good
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That Shor Sounds Good

A socialist data geek is pushing back against extreme wokeness.


Sometimes, socialists get a really bad wrap—especially the ones who are vegans and order way too many bean sprouts and fake chicken.

But sometimes, socialists get a bad rap. Now, let’s not dwell on the occasions when socialism and socialists deserve the grief they get. All I’m saying is that some socialists are pretty decent people (Eugene Debbs, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Harrington) and some do important work. It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t think their best work is in the realm of economics, but in the realm of politics and culture, I’ve learned a lot from various socialist writers. More broadly, they often shine a light on real problems, even if I disagree with their solutions.

For instance, among the best work refuting the myriad and manifest flaws and distortions of the 1619 Project, a series from the New York Times that posited that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery and that the actual founding of America should be considered when the first slaves arrived to the colonies, came from the folks at the Trotskyite World Socialist Web Site. Of course, a lot of their best stuff took the form of interviews with non-socialist historians, but that’s okay. Better the Trotskyists than nobody.

The socialists’ vivisection of the 1619 Project was motivated in large part by their conviction that class, not race, is the most important paradigm for understanding America and thinking about its problems. I think that’s wrong, but I definitely prefer that worldview to the hard identity politics driving much of the left today.

Anyway, this is a long winded—though not by this “news”letter’s standards—way of talking about David Shor, an avowed socialist and data geek. He’s having a moment these days. See this long profile of Shor by Ezra Klein and this very interesting piece in Politico.

While Shor is clearly a brilliant dude, he’s controversial in Democratic circles because he’s kind of playing the role of Tom Hanks in Big. No, I don’t mean he was seduced by Elizabeth Perkins—at least not to my knowledge. There’s a wonderful scene where Hanks is in a marketing meeting at a toy company. All the suits have charts and graphs proving that a new line of toys—giant buildings that turn into robots, Transformers style—will be a huge success. Hanks listens to it all, tries to play with the toy, and then says, “I don’t get it.”

Anyway, you’ve probably seen it. But it ends with the team scrapping the animatronic skyscrapers to begin exploring Hanks’ idea of bug-robots.

Now that I think about it, Shor isn’t really the Tom Hanks character; the voters are. Shor’s theory is that the people running the Democratic Party are disproportionately young, white, hyper-educated, and extremely liberal. Their understanding of politics, their policy priorities, and even their basic language is largely alien to voters, including the median Democratic voter. From the Politico piece:

To be clear, Shor does not put his theory forward as a monocausal explanation of Democrats’ missteps in 2020. But he does think that with just over a year until the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats have not fully reckoned with the political dangers of allowing their party to be powered predominantly by 20- to 30-year-old college graduates. In particular, he’s concerned that the post-election debate surrounding Democrats’ handling of the controversial “Defund the Police” slogan — a major flashpoint in the party’s postmortem analysis — has obscured other, more enduring areas of ideological divergence between young party staffers and key Democratic voters.

In reality, Shor says, young party staffers are far to the left of the median Democratic voters on relatively uncontroversial, bread-and-butter Democratic priorities like combatting income inequality or addressing climate change. In their 2015 paper, for instance, Enos and Hirsch found that 23 percent of Obama staffers cited income inequality as the single most important issue facing the country, whereas polls from that election cycle found that fewer than one percent of all voters listed “the gap between rich and poor” as the most important issue. Enos and Hirsch also found that campaign workers were more likely to cite health care and inequality as an important issue to voters — even though most voters did not list those as high-priority issues and said they were more concerned about things like war and inflation.

Shor, who worked at progressive data firm in 2016, even recounts how Hillary Clinton campaign ads that the staff thought were fantastic were actually more likely to get normal Americans to vote for Republicans. “On average, the more that the Civis staff liked an ad, the worse it did with the general public,” Politico reports.

I have so many thoughts about all of this I could write five “news”letters on the topic without breaking a sweat. But here’s a downpayment.

Fixing the dialectic.

First, Shor’s growing influence on the left fills me with a strange, unfamiliar sensation: optimism.

Given how often I’ve ranted about the full spectrum stupidity—political, philosophical, and historical—of slogans like “defund the police,” “Latinx,” and “birthing person,” it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m totally in Shor’s camp.

Now, I should say that I don’t share Shor’s desired ends. He wants Democrats to talk like normal people so that Democrats can win elections and bring America closer to the social democracy he favors. Of course, by following what he calls “popularism,” Democratic policies would be better, though still not entirely to my liking.

But I do hope the Democrats listen to him even if it means they do better in elections. Why? Well, for several reasons. First, because if they listened to him, the Democratic Party would move rightward. Second, I think the actual policies associated with “defund the police,” “birthing persons,” “Latinx,” etc. are profoundly bad for America. And third, because if the Democrats stopped talking about ridiculous things, it would deny many Republicans the psychological permission to behave like idiots or support demagogic buffoons.

The incentive for nutpicking—David French’s term for selecting the most ridiculous examples from the other side and claiming they are representative of the “enemy”—is always strong in politics. But it is axiomatically true that if Democrats never talked about abolishing the police, it would be harder for Republicans to claim Democrats want to abolish the police. Likewise, if Republicans never talked about, say, “white nationalism,” it would be harder for Democrats to claim that the GOP is a white nationalist party.

The saner a party is, the more likely it is that sane people will be attracted to it, and sane Americans—regardless of partisan affiliation—are the basis of any durable majority party. This would mean, hopefully, that over time the other party would choose to compete for those voters. Relying on the “turn out the base” strategy—employed by both Obama and Trump—can work when it comes to winning elections. But as Kevin Williamson suggests, it’s inadequate when it comes to maintaining power, never mind deserving power. 

The elite captivity.

We chewed on this Shor stuff for quite a while on the latest Dispatch Podcast. What occurred to me amid our cerebral mastication was that while we were talking about the takeover of the Democratic Party by young’uns, we could have been talking about Netflix, or countless other institutions where the Gen X and boomer managers are constantly caving to the demands of their woke staff (see Kevin Williamson vs. The Atlantic or Donald McNeil vs. the New York Times). Whatever you think of transgenderism, Dave Chapelle, and Netflix’s zig-zagging navigation of the controversy, the simple fact is that a very, very small cadre of mostly young ideologues are wielding outsized power. They do not have the majority of Americans—never mind Netflix users—behind them. It’s not unreasonable to think that a private business should care about what its customers want more than what a handful of activist employees want. Netflix employs 9,400 people; “dozens” walked out to protest the company’s streaming of Chappelle’s special.

Sure, I’d be saying something different if Netflix were airing white supremacist or Nazi propaganda. The woke ideologues probably think this is proof of my hypocrisy or inconsistency. But that’s the point: It’s not. This hyper-ideological woke elite has been raised to believe that every culture war disagreement is morally equivalent to the struggle for civil rights or the fight against Nazism. How many times have you seen those idiotic pro-Antifa memes trying to cast the soldiers storming Normandy beach as first generation “anti-fascists”?

The simple fact is that the transgender cause and the agenda associated with it is just … different. I’m happy to expand on that, but I want to keep moving. Suffice it to say there’s no analogue in the struggle for black equality to the demand that the word “mother” be erased from the English language.

Majoritarianism vs. “majoritarianism.”

Besides, the phenomenon I’m talking about is larger than just the trans issue. As I’ve written many times now, there was no popular support for abolishing the police, including among the black and Hispanic communities allegedly systematically victimized by the police. There’s no evidence that Hispanics want to use “Latinx.” Heck, as I note in my column today, rumors that there’s a massive popular demand to fight climate change are premised on the idea that doing so won’t cost most voters more than a few bucks a month. If your agenda is only popular if you promise other people will pay for it, your agenda isn’t remotely as popular as you think.

Last April, I pissed off a bunch of people for noting that there’s a deep contradiction between the way progressives talk about democracy and majoritarianism and their actual agenda. Progressive activists insist that the Electoral College has got to go to reflect the popular will, that the Senate is “undemocratic!” and the Supreme Court should be packed to reflect the majority.

But the whole point of the Shor stuff is that the dominant cadres within the Democratic Party are not philosophically majoritarian at all. Again, these hyper-educated wokesters are way to the left of the typical Democratic voter, never mind the typical American voter.

The woke ideology demands things that the average Americans thinks are ridiculous, bigoted, unpatriotic, or just too expensive. Go ahead and put the idea of replacing the term “mother” with “birthing person” up for a vote. See how that works out. Campaign on defunding the police and watch Democrats lose their strangleholds on big cities. Tell people that socialized medicine will be expensive—for them—and see if they still want it.

But the wokesters use the language of majoritarianism because they—plausibly—believe that if they can score large enough Democratic majorities, they can in turn use the Trojan Horse of the Democratic Party to cram through profoundly anti-majoritarian policies.

The right’s woke problem.

Lastly, I should note that there’s a similar dynamic on the right, but it’s much smaller and less powerful because the right doesn’t control the commanding heights of the culture. The strategy is remarkably similar, though. The new “nationalist” and “post-liberal” activists of the right have hitched their cause to a right-wing populism on the ludicrous assumption that they can ride it into power and then impose their own right-wing version of social justice on the county.

Sohrab Ahmari saw in the refusal of some Southwest Airlines employees to get vaccinated a “Gdansk moment” that could launch some kind of proletarian uprising. Big, if true, but let’s say he’s right. The quintessentially American “don’t tread on me” spirit is utterly incompatible with some boutique intellectual Catholic or nationalist “highest good” regime. If those activists are successful in turning the GOP into a similar Trojan Horse to gain power, they will learn a similar lesson.

I mean, unlike virtually every other country, Americans refused to accept the metric system when the government told them too. But we’re supposed to believe they’re ripe to embrace some gauzy regime guided by Aristotelian notions of the “highest good” or “common good.” Good luck with that.

As much as I disagree with the populist anti-vaccine fever on the right, it is rooted in a deeply American (and deeply liberal) worldview and tradition. The funny thing is that a serious political philosophy, never mind a pro-life one, would be at the forefront of advocating mandatory vaccinations (which, by the way, I largely oppose on various grounds) for, y’know, the greater good. Instead, we’re now being told that dying from COVID is arguably a “good thing” according to Christian doctrine because God alone decides when our time is up. I await the Christian case against seatbelts, parachutes, and penicillin.

I recently made the case for a third party to impose some rationality on the GOP. Lots of people of good will disagreed and made good points in response. That’s fine. But the point remains that rationality and real majoritarian democracy are allied forces right now. I’d rather the GOP pay heed to that fact, but the country would still be better off if the Democrats got there first. Which is why I’m rooting for David Shor.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.