More Sandwiches, Less Kale Foam
Democrats have been captured by the political equivalent of molecular gastronomy.
Dear Reader (including those of you who were excited to learn that Jewish space lasers are real),
Years ago, I watched a documentary called Sandwiches You Will Like. It was about the pursuit of cold fusion technology.
No wait. That’s not right. It was about sandwiches you would like to eat (in fact, I was sure the full title of the documentary was Sandwiches You Will Like To Eat until I googled it just now). It was a good title and a pretty good documentary. If you’re scrolling through the channel guide and you’re the kind of person who likes to watch TV shows about sandwiches, you’re unlikely to skip past it because the title tells you what the show is about. If they called it Regional Sources of Sustenance: 1910-1980 or Fred, you might keep scrolling until you saw that Roadhouse was on again.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Damn, I thought we were going to hear more about sandwiches. I could really go for a beef on weck …”
But as Grizzly Adams told his Navajo friend, bear with me.
Here’s Ezra Klein’s short summary 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.
And yet it was—and is—hugely controversial, admittedly among a very small subculture of political nerds and activists. Now, popularism isn’t an argument for just doing popular things. It’s a little more sophisticated than that. First of all, Democrats should just talk the way normal people talk. And normal people—including Hispanics and blacks—don’t talk like they are defending a Ph.D. dissertation on the intersectionality of Foucault. Also, Shor has chronicled how some subjects—crime, immigration, etc.—are bad issues for Democrats regardless of the policy prescriptions. Consequently, Democrats should avoid talking about them, if for no other reason than that an election that turns on the questions of immigration and crime is simply stacked in favor of Republicans, at least at the margins. Anyway, I wrote a bunch about this before.
Let’s get back to sandwiches. You know what kind of sandwiches most restaurants, food trucks, and delis like to sell? The kind people like to eat. I’m not going to show a lot of my work on this one. Still, it’s worth asking why? Why do people in the sandwich-selling business want to sell sandwiches people want to eat rather than sandwiches they think people should eat? Well, one reason is what economists call “the profit motive.” It turns out that consumers—in both the economic sense and the eating sense—are more likely to spend large amounts of their disposable income on food they enjoy eating. That’s not the only reason, though. Some people actually just take great satisfaction in making sandwiches that are popular because they’re good. I suspect that even in communist countries, sandwich makers would rather have a reputation for making great sandwiches than the alternative. Earned success is a thing.
Now, before you get mad—or madder—at me wasting your time by stating the blisteringly obvious, it’s worth noting that this is not a universal principle. Sometimes people care more about niche audiences than the general public.
Think of architecture. I think architecture is one of the great examples of elite capture of a profession. I think that most normal people like very pretty old buildings, of the sort you might see in Chicago, Paris, Barcelona, or London. Part of the reason we like them is because they’re old. But the more important point is that they’re pretty because they’re old. Architects made prettier buildings than they do today. And yet, broadly speaking, architects, particularly cutting edge elite ones, don’t make buildings for the public’s tastes. They care about what other elite architects, architecture critics, and devotees of modern architecture think. Sure, this is a broad generalization, but the only people who’ve ever argued with me about this tend to be the kinds of people you’d expect to argue with me about this.
Elite cuisine is another example. There are so many fads at the very expensive fringe of cooking that are geared toward other elites and not to the hoi polloi. Molecular gastronomy produces some good stuff and some silly stuff, but it is, generally speaking, an elite fad. Normal folks may want to try food with gold leaf or clever foams—especially if someone else is paying—but for the most part they’d prefer sandwiches they’d like to eat.
This isn’t some ironclad distinction. Even most fans of the fancy stuff don’t want to eat it every day. And some of the best restaurants in the world still have hamburgers on the menu, because sometimes we all just want a burger.
There’s one last group I need to discuss: intellectuals, very broadly defined. Most intellectuals do not care about the opinions of the great unwashed. They care about the opinions of other intellectuals. Philosophers are notorious for this. But it’s largely true for anyone who writes for academic journals and the like. There’s nothing wrong with this. Irving Kristol used to joke that if more than 6,000 people were subscribing to The Public Interest, they were doing something wrong.
Granted, you want that to be the case for, say, organic chemists or nuclear engineers. They write for other members of their profession and a handful of policymakers in that area. Some intellectuals are “popularizers” who translate complicated arguments for the broader public (though even the people who read that stuff—in The Atlantic, National Review, or, yes, The Dispatch—are not “normal people” of the sort that Shor is talking about. Face it, you’re part of an elite.) Friedrich Hayek thought all intellectuals were “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.”
So, what does all of this have to do with the Democrats? They’ve been captured by the political equivalent of the molecular gastronomy or modern architecture crowd.
Consider education. Most parents want their kids to learn normal stuff. And in defense of teachers, most of the time that’s what kids get. But the education industry—for want of a better term—is increasingly seen as captured by a group of people who want kids to learn the latest trendy, cool, edgy stuff. You can like that stuff or hate it, that’s not my point. My point is that educators, at the conceptual level—i.e. the people in charge of the education brand—have become disconnected from what normal parents and voters want.
Michael Lind, with whom I have 30 years of disagreements, makes this case at the systemic level over at Tablet. And while it’s chalk full of things I’d argue or quibble with, I think it’s directionally right. He writes:
Meanwhile, in one area of public policy or politics after another, Progressivism Inc. has shut down debate on the center left through its interlocking networks of program officers, nonprofit functionaries, and editors and writers, all of whom can move with more or less ease between these roles during their careers as bureaucratic functionaries whose salaries are ultimately paid by America’s richest families and individuals. The result is a spectacularly well-funded NGO-sphere whose intellectual depth and breadth are contracting all the time.
On issue after issue, the Mandarins of what he calls the “NGO-sphere” have imposed cookie-cutter conformity on both policymaking and debate about policymaking. Lind’s argument is downstream of those first made by Joseph Schumpeter and James Burnham, but it’s also a useful update for the present moment.
Whether it’s education, energy policy, immigration, or transgenderism, the progressive managerial class is performing for the praise and respect of other members of its class.
It’s a bit like the aristocracies of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that took all their cues from France and the French Enlightenment. In many German states, court intellectuals and rulers literally spoke French instead of their own language (or, more importantly, the language of their people). No wonder the first nationalists were obsessed with restoring German language and culture, “German for the Germans!” and all that.
Latinx and all that jazz might as well be a foreign language. That’s how Hispanics generally see it.
And that brings me back to Shor. His strategy may be flawed in some of the ways his critics contend. And it’s certainly way too late for it to do much good going into the 2022 midterms. But in the long run, popularism—or some version of it—is the only way for the Democratic Party and progressivism generally to save itself from wave after wave of entirely deserved backlashes.
The remarkable thing about the unpopularity of popularism among progressive elites is how it is best understood as self-protection, not just of their jobs and status, but of their worldviews. I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s podcast on the Russian Revolution. One of the points he presses to great effect is that the White Russians could have easily beat the Bolsheviks if they just let go of their traditional notions of aristocratic entitlement, czardom, feudalism, etc. But they couldn’t do it. The Bolsheviks were horrible, but they at least made promises that were popular among the workers and the peasants. The Whites just promised to restore the old status quo, so most Russians had no interest in rushing to their cause. In today’s scenario, the progressive intellectuals are the White Russians. They can’t let go of their worldview because it’s so tied up in their identity, their careers, and their ideology.
Average workers are struggling to afford to fill their gas tanks, and Biden’s reminding them that if they bought an electric car (average price $56,000, which is $10,000 more than the average gas-powered vehicle), they’d save $80 per month on gas. That is dumbass politics if your audience is normal voters. But it’s the kind of thing that garners praise from the progressive Mandarins.
Shor’s basic argument is that Democrats should care more about what voters—Democratic voters—actually want than what a fringe of progressive elites want them to want. In other words, give them sandwiches they will like to eat. But the chiefly class insists they should get emulsified quail with lobster-infused kale foam. “They’ll learn to like it!”
I worry what intellectual inanities and populist panderings we’re likely to see when Republicans sweep back into power. But for the sake of the country, and even for the long term sake of the Democratic Party, this calcified progressive industrial complex needs to be shattered.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: I’ve been away from home all week. But all reports are that the girls are doing fine and are very much looking forward to my return. Dogs are very much like Republicans in the 1920s, they always crave a return to normalcy.
And now, the weird stuff