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What happens if the progressive vanguard talks mostly to itself?

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Megan McArdle

If you have spent any time around conservative politics, you will have heard the inevitable grousing about liberal media bias and how much harder this makes it for Republicans to win elections. Journalists, of course, question whether this is true — though this position grows steadily less defensible, particularly when considering coverage of social issues, in which acclaim of the left-wing position is near-universal among the “mainstream.”

Lately, though, I’ve begun doubting whether Republicans and those who agree with them are right — wondering whether media defenders shouldn’t just say: Hell yes, Republicans, the media has a left-wing bias, but don’t worry, that hurts Democrats more than you.

My most recent occasion for these musings was a column that Ezra Klein of the New York Times wrote about David Shor, a progressive election analyst. Shor thinks the left has a major problem with its youthful and well-educated activist base, which staffs left-leaning newsrooms and runs campaigns. They focus, naturally, on issues that excite them, and Shor told Klein “the things that are most exciting to activists and journalists are politically toxic.”

Climate change, for example, is something that very liberal White people “care way more about” than anyone else, according to Shor, so when you focus on it, “you sound like a weird, very liberal white person.” Even immigration and affirmative action have proved surprisingly unpopular with the very voters of color they were supposed to woo.

Shor has his detractors, of course. Their objections might be summed up by progressive strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio’s response to Klein: “The job of a good message isn’t to say what’s popular but to make popular what needs to be said.” Democrats of her persuasion might prefer the framing advocated by law professor Ian Haney Lopez: “The idea is to shift the basic political conflict in the United States from one between racial groups (the right’s preferred frame) to one between the 0.1% and the rest of us, with racism as their principal weapon.”

To me, Shor’s vision — sort your ideas by popularity, then “Start at the top, and work your way down to find something that excites people” — sounds less inspiring but more likely to help Democrats get and hold power. It doesn’t require Democrats to persuade voters that, say, an Asian American assistant professor has exactly the same interests as a rural, White call-center worker or a Hispanic plumber and that only a conspiracy of the very rich prevents them from realizing it. Democrats merely have to learn what voters already want.

But while Shor’s more prosaic strategy might be an easier sell to voters, it is apt to be a harder sell to the young idealists who staff campaigns and newsrooms. And the newsrooms might be a bigger problem than the political class.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out on Twitter, “A closed circle of young, college educated staffers is likely to end up further off-center the more they talk to themselves.” The mainstream media, and staffers’ internal fights spilling onto Twitter, are an important part of how the progressive vanguard talks to itself — and as the media skews ever-leftward, it helps sustain a rarefied bubble where divisive slogans such as “defund the police” can be questioned only with great delicacy, while significantly more popular propositions like “use the military to help police quell riots” cannot be defended at all.

This inevitably affects campaign coverage, and in ways that arguably make it harder for Democrats to pivot away from divisive identity politics. Shor can insist all he wants that Hillary Clinton’s campaign ought to have focused on her higher-polling economic message, but as his critics note, the media paid far more attention to Trump’s problems with immigrants, women and racial minorities, leaving Clinton limited scope to set a different agenda.

The media can probably afford to live in that bubble, even if it means that the public identifies commentators and other journalists as extensions of left-wing political campaigns, rather than neutral arbiters. (Many Republicans already see the media that way, and independents may be starting to.) Outlets depend less and less on advertisers that shun controversy and more on a select group of highly educated, politically engaged subscribers who generally prefer Democrats to Republicans, and may well prefer the linguistic politics of the educated class — “Latinx” instead of “Hispanic,” or “birthing people” instead of “women” — and policies such as defunding the police over putting more cops on the street.

Democrats cannot afford to cater only to that hyper-educated class — not in a country where only a third of the population has a bachelor’s degree. But if Shor is right, moving to where the voters are will require the highly engaged staffers and donors to sacrifice their own interests and commitments to political expedience. Naturally, they will look for reasons they don’t have to. The danger is that a media that shares their commitments will provide those reasons, right up to the point where the left has talked itself into an electoral disaster too big for anyone to deny.

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