What's Tony Thinking

From Atlanta to Popularism


We’re in Atlanta visiting our daughter Laura and her partner, Noah. A lot more deciduous — read “leafy green” — trees here than we’re used to. Spreading a beautiful canopy of soft greens. Architecturally, Atlanta at least where we are — “Midtown” — is a nice mix of old and new. Lots of big, beautiful churches, which I count, as among other things, public art — adding interest and beauty.

We went to Atlanta’s High (art) Museum yesterday. The museum building does a lot of great things with light. And they have a terrific collection of folk art. (At right, Linda in the “Robinson Atrium” at the High.)

The current special exhibit is called “Love: What Is Left Unspoken.” You might imagine an exhibit on “love” would feature images of beauty and tenderness, but I didn’t see it. The explanatory introduction to the exhibit spoke of love in terms of sexual pleasure and self-interest, seemingly dedicated to defying ordinary understandings of the subject. One part of the exhibit featured a string of more than a dozen self-portraits by one artist. We were told this was about “self-love.” She didn’t appear to love herself all that much.

The love exhibit made me think about a current debate within the Democratic Party about what had been called “popularism.” A Democrat pollster, David Schor, has suggested that the party spend some time trying to figure out what is popular with the electorate and focus on that. This has proven to be a very controversial idea.

Here’s Ezra Klein’s quick definition of “popularism.”

All this comes down to a simple prescription: Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff. ‘Traditional diversity and inclusion is super important, but polling is one of the only tools we have to step outside of ourselves and see what the median voter actually thinks,’ Shor said. This theory is often short-handed as ‘popularism.’ It doesn’t sound as if it would be particularly controversial.

I get that popularism could be considered a kind of sell-out, even pandering. But it doesn’t have to be that. The key words for me in the paragraph above are those of Schor about getting “outside of ourselves and see[ing] what the median voter actually thinks.”

So, for example, “defund the police” is apparently not that popular with a wide-swath of ordinary people, including blacks and latinos, although it has big support among progressive Democrats. Or going all in on “gender affirming” approaches for children (supporting, pretty much without question, gender transition medical treatments) is another move that Democrats have embraced despite a lot of uncertainty among ordinary people as well as growing reservations in the medical community. Even the big federal program promising transformation, “Build Back Better,” while having elements that appealed to a lot of particular groups, proved an overreach for a population with a diminished trust quotient.

The old cautionary saw for those in leadership positions applies: “Don’t get so far out in front of the people that they think you are the enemy and shoot you.”

I left the “Love” exhibit feeling “Huh?” Schor argues that too many of the Democratic Party’s positions leave people saying much the same. Instead of scratching felt needs, the Party seems to be perceived as telling people what they ought to want if only they knew better. “We know better than you” is generally not a great approach.

There’s something of this problem in so-called “progressive Christianity.” A lot of emphasis on what you ought to want/ think, but possibly missing the actual things that bring people to church. I hear regularly from people who leave a worship service in a progressive church with a “Huh?” “What was that?” similar to mine on leaving the Love exhibit.

I recall the classic distinction of the political scientist James McGregor Burns between “transactional” and “transformational” leadership. Transactional is “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” an exchange. Take care of a traffic flow problem and get votes. “Transformational” means raising people’s sights, values, aspirations. Personally, I’ve always thought it was a both/ and. Moreover, you don’t get much opportunity to do “transformational” if you don’t pay attention to the “transactional.”

So I have advised new pastors to pay attention to what a congregation, its leaders and members, tell you they need. Listen. Take these expressions seriously. Respond to those stated needs and priorities. You may see other deeper issues and challenges. But by taking the expressed needs seriously a new leader builds the trust that is essential to anything transformational. I’m afraid the Democrats, after 2020, skipped the building trust phase.

Right now, giving advice to Democrats has become a burgeoning cottage industry. But it strikes me that if Schor’s advice is perceived as controversial, things don’t look good for them and for those of us counting on them to stem the MAGA advance.






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