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What Michigan’s Yemeni community can teach Democrats.
What the debate over “popularism” is missing.
About a month after my 2018 Michigan gubernatorial campaign ended, I sat among Yemeni-American community leaders in the enclave of South Dearborn. With large, multigenerational families, the Yemeni-American community has largely stuck together, rapidly emerging as one of the most powerful voting blocks in the city. With few exceptions, most work in manufacturing or own and operate small businesses.
“Why do you think we supported you?” asked a local shopkeeper. I had carried the precinct by 92%.
“We didn’t support you because you were Arab or Muslim. We supported you because you cared about fighting for the people — Arab people, Black people, white people, whatever. You wanted people to have healthcare. You wanted our kids to be able to breathe at their school.” Salina Intermediate School, the main voting place in the precinct, sits in the shadows of a steel factory; its smokestacks fill the children’s lungs every day in one of the most polluted places in Michigan.
I spent a lot of time campaigning for both Sen. Bernie Sanders and then-Vice President Joe Biden in that neighborhood during the 2020 election cycle. Support for Sanders was jubilant. Although support for Biden was more muffled, the community overwhelmingly voted against Trump — despite some notable and vocal Trump support.
For the last few weeks, a debate over “popularlism” has taken talking heads and columnists by storm. This new term stems from an opinion written by New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, in which he interviews former Obama pollster David Shor about the Democratic party. Shor makes a singular argument to Democrats: the party’s dominance by coastal, highly educated white elites is driving non-college-educated people to the GOP and exacerbating the structural disadvantage Democrats face in the Senate.
His prescription is that Democrats should talk more about policies that are popular (i.e. poll well) — things like Medicare negotiating prescription drug prices — rather than unpopular things, like police budgets or immigration. But the rub here is obvious: the “unpopular” things that Shor would have us stay quiet about disproportionally affect communities of color.
Ezra Klein summarizes number of criticisms to this “popularism,” including the limited data upon which Shor bases his argument, the fact that Democrats don’t uniquely set the debate, and that policy popularity isn’t the same thing as “viralness,” or the capacity of an unpopular thing to drive a movement, a nuance the former GOP president understood well. There have been some really thoughtful responses, from Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, UC Berkeley professor and messaging guru Ian Haney López, and my Crooked Media colleague Dan Pfeiffer.
I want to approach this debate from a different, unlikely angle. America’s Yemeni community may be tiny, and their experience doesn’t generalize. Yet the Democratic coalition is made up of many such communities. Their experience offers a unique lens through which to understand the debate over popularism.
“Both/and” instead of “either/or”
Whenever politicians, particularly national Democratic politicians, speak to the Yemeni community (or the Arab American community more broadly) they usually pander to issues that they think would be of unique interest to the community — immigration, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, anti-Muslim discrimination. After all, conventional wisdom is that these are the constituents who care about these issues.
What’s fascinating is that they rarely talk about the issues that are not unique to this community, like healthcare, housing, union rights, or climate change. It’s as if because a Yemeni autoworker may be worried about whether or not his family back home will have an American-made missile dropped on them, or if they can escape the war to America, that the same autoworker isn’t simultaneously worried about what the pandemic may mean for his job, about whether or not he can afford his rent or his mortgage, or whether or not his family will get to see a doctor if he loses his job or passes away.
To Shor’s point, we should be talking about popular things because what makes them “popular” is that they are relevant in the lives of nearly everyone. But where Shor falls apart is that it doesn’t mean not talking about the less popular things which are of particular relevance to so many of the communities underneath the “big tent.”
Talk about or get talked about.
One of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to make good on his pledge of a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering this country.” If you’re a white autoworker in Trenton, Mich., even if you like your Yemeni coworker, you have the privilege of noting that as some bad decision some politician is making. If you’re that Yemeni coworker, it’s existential.
Trump didn’t try to ban Muslims from this country because he polled it and found it broadly popular. He did it because it could create controversy, and controversy drives attention. Attention builds movements. And according to Shor, Democrats should have the message discipline to ignore that.
That’s convenient, considering David Shor has only ever lived in the world as a young white dude. That much was obvious when his response to the protests in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd was “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.”
To win back non-college-educated white voters, Shor would have Democrats ignore existential threats to everyone else in the coalition. This is both wrong and misguided. It implicitly assumes that Democrats control the debate, and that Republicans wouldn’t talk about these issues if Democrats didn’t. The four years of Trump’s presidency should have proven that wrong already. Republicans will race-bait every chance they get.
Democrats have no choice but to talk about these issues — both as a matter of values and a matter of political viability. But they need to reframe aggressively. In his masterful book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff argues that political messaging isn’t as much about the substance of a debate as it is about the frame. Consider the term “pro-choice” for someone who is supportive of the right to an abortion. Rather than frame the debate as being about abortion, it implicitly frames it around the abstract idea of having agency, a “choice.” Similarly, the other side frames it around “life.” This kind of framing recognizes the need to tie an issue back to core ideals.
Too often, Democrats have chosen to argue within the frame foisted upon them by Republicans, rather than reframe the debate. Banning Muslims isn’t even about Muslims, it’s about defending religious liberty. Reforming immigration isn’t about “open” or “closed” borders, it’s about embracing our America that’s always been bigger than one identity.
As messaging guru Anat Shenker-Osorio, principal of the Race-Class Narrative Project and host of the podcast “Words to Win By,” told Klein, “The job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular but to make popular what needs to be said.”
Message abstract issues in local terms.
That Yemeni autoworker may or may not care about climate change. Good for him if he does. Climate change, after all, is a bear of a public policy challenge. Controlling its antecedents requires major short-term sacrifices, though its consequences occur some time in the long term and cannot be specified. Who will it affect? How will it affect them? When? These are all questions we cannot with certainty answer — accept to say “everyone, profoundly, in the future.”
But you know what he definitely cares about? That his first grader is sucking the exhaust pipes of a major corporate factory every time she goes outside on the playground of her local school. You know what else he cares about? That the oil being burned in that factory has led to so much conflict in the part of the world from which he came.
Democrats have been lazy with messaging. They boil every major issue down to its least common denominator, failing to back translate it into its local sequelae with the people with whom they speak. Rather than talk about “climate change,” talk about the direct consequences of our fossil fuel economy in the here and now for us and the people we love.
Action trumps inaction.
When I sat down with Trump-supporting Muslims — yes, there are more than you would believe — every single one of them pointed to Trump “taking action,” or at least attempted action. In fact, Trump’s presidency by objective accounts was one of the least effective in modern history, particularly where the worst pandemic in modern history is concerned. Although the actions he did take were lazily constructed and hasty, Trump at least looked like someone trying to get something done. Think about the border wall or the Muslim ban.
One even pointed to the Muslim ban as evidence! Sure, he may not agree with it, but at least Trump was doing what he said he would. Democrats, in general, are intellectually honest enough to know that the consequences of actions bear out in the long term — so to make it stick, you have to do it right. The problem, though, is that politics doesn’t get covered in the long term; they get covered in the “news,” literally what’s “new.” When people have little faith in the political process to achieve anything, someone taking what looks like drastic action, even if hasty and poorly thought out, looks like someone taking action.
Contrast Trump’s Muslim ban with the hemming and hawing over the bipartisan infrastructure and budget reconciliation packages. First, as I’ve discussed, their branding is awful, so no one knows what the actions actually are. Worse, the whole story is about how they’re not getting done. I’m confident that these packages will pass in some form, and they will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people. But they won’t be as memorable. And that matters in politics.
It’s not politics as usual, any more.
All of this assumes we’ve got time to figure it out. We don’t. That’s because while I don’t believe that Donald Trump — the presumptive Republican nominee — can win another presidential election, I do believe he can steal one. Between its efforts to install local election officials sympathetic to the Big Lie to its efforts to take away voting rights in states that could be critical to the next election, the GOP is setting up for that outcome. Which means that the single most important thing Democrats can do to preserve a playing field where these broader messaging questions play out — preserve our democracy — is to pass voting rights legislation that protects it. And to Yemeni voters in Dearborn who fled dictatorship or civil war, there’s no bigger responsibility.