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Beutler & Yglesias on Strategy

Summary:
I am going to comment on two smart guys who believe that they disagree about the optimal political strategy for Democrats. Brian Beutler wrote an interesting essay criticizing what he calls “issue polling essentialism”. It includes the text The topic occurred to me after I recorded last week’s Rubicon with my friend Matt Yglesias, where we took different sides on the question of how determinative issue polling should be in setting progressive priorities. We are no longer friends. (Just kidding. Unless…? Better listen to the episode!) I trust they are still friends, but Yglesias is a bit peeved. He wrote this Thread beginning “I think this piece does not describe the position it is critiquing accurately.” In fact, after mentioning

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I am going to comment on two smart guys who believe that they disagree about the optimal political strategy for Democrats.

Brian Beutler wrote an interesting essay criticizing what he calls “issue polling essentialism”. It includes the text

The topic occurred to me after I recorded last week’s Rubicon with my friend Matt Yglesias, where we took different sides on the question of how determinative issue polling should be in setting progressive priorities. We are no longer friends. (Just kidding. Unless…? Better listen to the episode!)

I trust they are still friends, but Yglesias is a bit peeved. He wrote this Thread beginning “I think this piece does not describe the position it is critiquing accurately.”

In fact, after mentioning Yglesias, Beutler goes on to critique a poll obsessed straw man. I trust they are still friends, but that was sloppy.

I have comments on both.

I agree with Yglesias’s non obvious tweet “2) Issue activists associated with the Democratic Party (and more to the point, those who fund their activities) should care more about raising the salience of topics that are likely to help Democrats win, and less about raising the salience of the specific issue they work on.”

The implicit claim is that, whatever they care most about, they won’t get if Republicans are elected, so issue activists should help Democratic party candidates by sticking to the party line *then* press them on the specific issue they work on (with implicit threat to make trouble ?). I agree. This is psychologically difficult — people talk about things they care most about and it involves other than complete frankness and being a hack. There is a conflict of material interests as advocacy groups which echo the party line don’t get attention and donations. That’s why the appeal is directed at “those who fund them”. The tweet is cynical (Yglesias introduced the phrase “the hack gap”). Also, I find it very convincing.

I have criticisms of Beutler after the jump.

Beutler knocks down the poll obsessed consultant who advises politicians to bend with the wind and demonstrate hypocrisy. He correctly notes that people like people who believe in something, who have values, and who act on them. All of this is definitely true. Flip flopping is politically costly. Honesty is often the best policy.

On the other hand he spends a lot of time with the straw man (or 1980s theoretical political scientist) who bases everything on the median voter theorem. I guess there may have been people who argued that getting between the median voter and one’s opponent guaranteed victory, but refuting them is beating a dead horse(race commentary).

Beutler does not discuss sincere hippy punching. It is not clear to me if it is good strategy (it angers activists who would otherwise be valuable volunteers). He considers only advocating unpopular policies which he considers good policy and assumes that the candidates consider to be good policy. I’d say dumping on the slogan “defund the police” is good politics and fine policy (if one goes on to say one supports more money for unarmed health professionals to deal with mentally ill people having trouble without shooting them). The slogan was badly chosen and people who didn’t mean “reduce police budgets to zero” should have dropped it.

I think he makes very good points about Manchin and Synema. They are dividing Democrats insisting on unpopular positions. I think it is more about ego or sincere belief than political strategy. More generally blude dogs and conservadems do not appear to me to have even the normal level of willingness to look at polls. The fact that almost all the blue dogs are no longer in Congress tends to support this view.

Then he wrote

Sherrod Brown represents a much redder state than Sinema at this point, but he’s a vocal, pugilistic progressive, and outperforms mushier Dems in his state. I’m not sure how long his appeal will be viable enough to overcome the rapid reddening of Ohio, but it’s worked out so far because he has a great brand, not because he’s figured out some algorithmically correct set of policies.

I trust Brown’s sincerity and do not think he used a cynical algorithm to choose his policy positions. However, I am going to give a hostage to fortune and assert that each and every one of his stated policy positions corresponds to the output of a popularity maximizing algorithm. In particular, he is an egalitarian populist (redundent really the original populists were leftists and “right wing populism” means either “racism” or being right wing loud and rude). So are most US adults.

In particular, one signatutre Sherrod Brown issue is suspicion of free trade. Here there is a clear longstanding division of elite and public opinion with the elite supporting free trade (as I do) and the public being much more open to protectionism. Brown wants to help US workers. There are a lot of US workers. They are not totally immune to xenophobia. I think that the issue where Brown broke with Clinton and Obama is exactly the main issue where they took unpopular opinions. Again, I am sure he is sincere. But the poll driven algorithm would have suggested exactly his stated position.

OK having given a hostage to fortune, I will check his web page. I will report if I find something bold and unpopular. I am going to guess it will be bold and popular (bold as in controversial inside the beltway but not outside of it)).

Robert Waldmann
Robert J. Waldmann is a Professor of Economics at Univeristy of Rome “Tor Vergata” and received his PhD in Economics from Harvard University. Robert runs his personal blog and is an active contributor to Angrybear.

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