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David Shor And Whiteshifting America

A revealing interview with a sharp Democratic strategist about race and politics
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Y’all remember my publishing something here about the hatefest on Progressphiles, an e-mail list for Democratic Party professionals? They booted out David Shor, a whiz kid on political statistical analysis who had worked for Barack Obama. His sin? He tweeted a study that he said claimed that violent protests helped Republicans, while non-violent ones helped Democrats. The mob savaged him for that, accusing him of racism, sexism, you name it. They drove him off the list, and helped get him fired. Shor, incidentally, is an actual Marxist, and something of a genius at his job, I was told! But none of that mattered.

Well, New York magazine has published a long interview with Shor in which he refuses to talk about that controversy, but instead offers analysis of the election and the electorate. It’s really interesting stuff. I’m grateful, as a conservative, that the Democratic Party establishment is so hysterically p.c. that they would push out a man as intelligent as Shor. He’s still doing political work, but his name is toxic, for the stupidest reasons. Conservatives have to hope that the party keeps sabotaging itself by sidelining its gifted personnel like Shor. Here’s some of what he says to New York (the questions are in boldface):

A tasteful Marxist (or whatever the opposite of a “vulgar” one is) might counter that class biases were implicated in that mechanical error — that cosmopolitan, upper-middle-class pollsters and operatives’ eagerness to see their worldview affirmed led them to ignore the possibility that their surveys suffered from a systematic sampling error.

That’s exactly right. Campaigns do want to win. But the people who work in campaigns tend to be highly ideologically motivated and thus, super-prone to convincing themselves to do things that are strategically dumb. Nothing that I tell people — or that my team [at Civis] told people — is actually that smart. You know, we’d do all this math, and some of it’s pretty cool, but at a high level, what we’re saying is: “You should put your money in cheap media markets in close states close to the election, and you should talk about popular issues, and not talk about unpopular issues.” And we’d use machine learning to operationalize that at scale.

The right strategies for politics aren’t actually unclear. But a lot of people on the Clinton campaign tricked themselves into the idea that they didn’t have to placate the social views of racist white people.

What is the definition of racist in this context?

Ah, right. People yell at me on Twitter about this. So working-class white people have an enormous amount of political power and they’re trending towards the Republican Party. It would be really ideologically convenient if the reason they’re doing that was because Democrats embraced neoliberalism. But it’s pretty clear that that isn’t true.

I think that winning back these voters is important. So if I was running for office, I would definitely say that the reason these voters turned against us is because Democrats failed to embrace economic populism. I think that’s sound political messaging. But in terms of what actually drove it, the numbers are pretty clear. It’s like theoretically possible to imagine a voter who voted for Democrats their whole life and then voted for Trump out of frustration with Obamacare or trade or whatever. And I’m sure that tons of those voters exist, but they’re not representative.

When you take the results of the 2012 and 2016 elections, and model changes in Democratic vote share, you see the biggest individual-level predictor for vote switching was education; college-educated people swung toward Democrats and non-college-educated people swung toward Republicans. But, if you ask a battery of “racial resentment” questions — stuff like, “Do you think that there are a lot of white people who are having trouble finding a job because nonwhite people are getting them instead?” or, “Do you think that white people don’t have enough influence in how this country is run?” — and then control for the propensity to answer those questions in a racially resentful way, education ceases to be the relevant variable: Non-college-educated white people with low levels of racial resentment trended towards us in 2016, and college-educated white people with high levels of racial resentments turned against us.

You can say, “Oh, you know, the way that political scientists measure racial resentment is a class marker because college-educated people know that they’re not supposed to say politically incorrect things.” But when you look at Trump’s support in the Republican primary, it correlated pretty highly with, uh … racially charged … Google search words. So you had this politician who campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti–political correctness platform. And then he won the votes of a large group of swing voters, and vote switching was highly correlated with various individual level measures of racial resentment — and, on a geographic level, was correlated with racist search terms. At some point, you have to be like, oh, actually, these people were motivated by racism. It’s just an important fact of the world.

I think people take the wrong conclusions from it. The fight I saw on Twitter after the 2016 election was one group of people saying the Obama-to-Trump voters are racist and irredeemable, and that’s why we need to focus on the suburbs. And then you had leftists saying, “Actually these working-class white people were betrayed by decades of neoliberalism and we just need to embrace socialism and win them back, we can’t trust people in the suburbs.” And I think the real synthesis of these views is that Obama-to-Trump voters are motivated by racism. But they’re really electorally important, and so we have to figure out some way to get them to vote for us.

How should Democrats do that?

So there’s a big constellation of issues. The single biggest way that highly educated people who follow politics closely are different from everyone else is that we have much more ideological coherence in our views.

If you decided to create a survey scorecard, where on every single issue — choice, guns, unions, health care, etc. — you gave people one point for choosing the more liberal of two policy options, and then had 1,000 Americans fill it out, you would find that Democratic elected officials are to the left of 90 to 95 percent of people.

And the reason is that while voters may have more left-wing views than Joe Biden on a few issues, they don’t have the same consistency across their views. There are like tons of pro-life people who want higher taxes, etc. There’s a paper by the political scientist David Broockman that made this point really famous — that “moderate” voters don’t have moderate views, just ideologically inconsistent ones. Some people responded to media coverage of that paper by saying, “Oh, people are just answering these surveys randomly, issues don’t matter.” But that’s not actually what the paper showed. In a separate section, they tested the relevance of issues by presenting voters with hypothetical candidate matchups — here’s a politician running on this position, and another politician running on the opposite — and they found that issue congruence was actually very important for predicting who people voted for.

So this suggests there’s a big mass of voters who agree with us on some issues, and disagree with us on others. And whenever we talk about a given issue, that increases the extent to which voters will cast their ballots on the basis of that issue.

Mitt Romney and Donald Trump agreed on basically every issue, as did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And yet, a bunch of people changed their votes. And the reason that happened was because the salience of various issues changed. Both sides talked a lot more about immigration, and because of that, correlation between preferences on immigration and which candidate people voted for went up. In 2012, both sides talked about health care. In 2016, they didn’t. And so the correlation between views on health care and which candidate people voted for went down.

So this means that every time you open your mouth, you have this complex optimization problem where what you say gains you some voters and loses you other voters. But this is actually cool because campaigns have a lot of control over what issues they talk about.

Non-college-educated whites, on average, have very conservative views on immigration, and generally conservative racial attitudes. But they have center-left views on economics; they support universal health care and minimum-wage increases. So I think Democrats need to talk about the issues they are with us on, and try really hard not to talk about the issues where we disagree. Which, in practice, means not talking about immigration.

Read it all. And I do mean “read it all” — you can’t get the entire picture of what Shor is saying without doing so. All of it is quotable, but I want to focus on this passage above. It’s also important to keep in mind something Shor says later in the interview: that young white people are very, very liberal — a fact that’s going to be increasingly important as time goes on.

Now, about what Shor says in the quoted passage: I’m thinking this through, and my initial reaction is to react strongly against his idea of “racist”. Generally speaking, the left has a habit of characterizing any opinion held by a white person that contradicts progressive dogma about race as “racist,” in the sense of being motivated by racial animus. They don’t do this with persons of color, whose views of politics as a vector for racial self-interest is taken as normal. It’s only whites whose conception of themselves as a coherent racial group with its own legitimate interests as a group is characterized as immoral. I don’t know what those “Google search terms” cited by Shor are, but it is possible that what he calls “racist” are rather “racial.”

Do you see the difference? If a black man searches with a candidate’s name and terms connected to race, would we call that “racist”? Depends on the terms, but I would not assume that the googling represented racism, as distinct from an interest in political issues related to race. Shor is obviously a very smart man, but I wonder to what extent he has drunk the critical theory Kool-Aid, which holds that whites are chronically racist, and that any inquiry having to do with racial consciousness or assertion of racial self-interest by a white person is therefore racist.

Here’s what I mean. Earlier today, I posted about a diversity training course that the US Government ran its employees through. It is extremely alarming, as a white person, to read the materials from that course and to recognize that the federal government is training its employees to view the world through a racist, anti-white lens. Two of the most popular books in the country now are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be Antiracist. Both of these books construe “whiteness” as evil, and advocate working systematically to disempower white people. In DiAngelo’s case, her book defames white people who object to any of this as emotionally “fragile”. This is an old Soviet trick: construe dissent as pathological, in need of psychiatric handling. But this is where the Democratic Party is, and where the American ruling class is.

Here is something Shor told New York:

There’s this sense in left-wing politics that rich people have disproportionate political influence and power. Well, we’ve never had an industrialized society where the richest and most powerful people were as liberal as they are now in the U.S. You know, controlling for education, very rich people still lean Republican. But we’re at a point now where, if you look at Stanford Law School, the ratio of students in the college Democrats to students in the college Republicans is something like 20-to-1. Harvard students have always been Democratic-leaning, but only like three or four percent of them voted for Donald Trump. So there is now this host of incredibly powerful institutions — whether it’s corporate boardrooms or professional organizations — which are now substantially more liberal than they’ve ever been.

It’s true! And part of being “substantially more liberal” is adopting and advancing illiberal views on race. It is simply true that the Democratic Party and American elites (e.g., leaders of corporations, universities, media, and other institutions) are now lined up around a construal of race and society that disadvantages, and at times demonizes, white people as a group. Every day there’s more news about it. A white progressive Seattle city council member has suggested firing city police officers based on race. There have been strong objections, and it wouldn’t be legal, but the fact that this even conceivable in progressive discourse today tells you something about where the left is, and the Democratic Party is.

They deny it, of course, and anyone who points this stuff out, they accuse of “white nationalism.” It doesn’t matter if you believe, as I do, in policies that are as race-neutral as possible, and that neither reward nor punish individuals on the basis of race. It’s all “white nationalism” to the left.

Last year, political scientist Eric Kaufmann released a book called Whiteshift, in which he calls for the recognition of the validity of white identity politics. He explained it to Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker in this interview. Excerpts:

You write, “If politics in the West is ever to return to normal rather than becoming even more polarized, white interests will need to be discussed. I realize this is very controversial for left-modernists. Yet not only is white group self-interest legitimate, but I maintain that in an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” Can you say a little bit more about what specifically you’re arguing for?

Yes. Part of this comes from a view that what’s ultimately behind the rise of right-wing populism are these ethnic-majority grievances, particularly around their decline, and that ultimately this is about nostalgia and attachment to a way of life or to a particular traditional ethnic composition of a nation. Wanting for that not to erode too quickly is the motivation. I think the survey data show that it’s much more about that than about material things, for example, or even fears. It’s about attachment to one’s own group rather than hatred of other groups. This is an important distinction. The survey data from the American National Elections Study show that whites who feel very warmly toward whites are not any more cold toward, say, African-Americans, than whites who aren’t very warm toward whites.

When you say that “white interests” will need to be discussed in politics, I presume you acknowledge that the interests of white people are generally taken into account as much as any group, if not more than other groups. Do you mean explicitly discussed?

There should be an equal treatment of groups in the cultural sphere. There’s no question whites are advantaged economically, politically. I’m not going to dispute that. But in the cultural sphere, on immigration, the group whose numbers have declined, or who experienced a more rapid sense of change and loss due to migration, are the white majority. If, for example, they’re saying, “We would like to have a slower rate of change to enable assimilation to take place,” I think that’s actually a legitimate cultural interest. It doesn’t mean that it should drive policy. I think a moderate group self-interest is fine.

This is seen as toxic, as expressed by a majority group, but when minorities express these interests, that’s seen as quite normal. I think that when it comes to white liberals, there tends to be a double standard, as there is with white conservatives, by the way, when it comes to groups expressing their self-interest.

Are you saying that it is in the “self-interest” of white people to have lower immigration rates, or are you saying that if white people perceive that it’s in their interest, they should be able to express that without being shamed for being racist? Or both?

I’m saying that for the conservative members of the white majority who are attached to their group and its historic presence, I think that sense of loss and wanting to slow down that sense of loss is an understandable motivation. The problem is when you bar that from the discussion. It then gets sublimated and expressed in what I think actually are more negative ways, when it comes to racism. I think it’s not very different from African-Americans in Harlem not wanting Harlem to lose its African-American character. It’s a similar cultural loss-protection argument, which is actually not that different from wanting to preserve historic buildings or ways of life. The problem is that then they go toward fear of criminals and terrorism, and immigrants putting pressure on services, and all the things which there’s very little evidence for, and I think are more negative because they actually stigmatize an out-group, which is closer to the definition of racism than simply being attached to one’s own group. Not that that doesn’t carry some risks as well, but I think that it’s more problematic to suppress it for the majority and not for minorities. I think that’s creating a quite negative situation.

Kaufmann argues that the denial of the legitimacy of white political interests will inevitably drive white voters to support actual race baiters:

Yeah, exactly, they may vote for people who are noxious or say nasty things about minorities, like Donald Trump. Yeah, that could be a negative effect. Whereas if a mainstream, civilized individual took on these concerns, and said, “You can’t have everything you want; no one can have everything they want; you will get part of what you want”—I think that would be a better way of going about it. People would feel, “O.K., I am not such a bad person; I have been listened to.”

But to essentially not have this group be allowed to express interests while other groups are, in a situation where this group is shrinking, I don’t think this is a sustainable situation. There are identity politics on all sides, but I would like to see it be a moderate form where each group goes for less than what it really wants and accepts a compromise. Whereas I sometimes find that on the radical left they are encouraging minority groups to go for a maximal group interest.

Read it all. 

Going back to David Shor’s comments, if I’m reading him correctly, he’s saying that yes, of course the Democrats have these policies that disadvantage white people as a group, but these policies are not racist. White working class people are racist, but their votes are gettable if Democrats distract them from what they (the Democrats) really believe, and will do on race-related matters, and emphasize what they will do on economic matters.

This is useful for conservatives to know for a couple of reasons. First, obviously, it is a wake-up call to white voters to understand that the Democratic Party really is committed to policies that will disadvantage them on the basis of race, though the Democratic Party cannot be honest with itself about this. And it’s a wake-up call for Republicans to once and for all fully embrace economic policies that favor the majority.

One more thing: I believe future historians will look back on this time in disbelief that a major political party, and all the elites of this multiracial, pluralistic, heavily armed nation, chose to embrace a belief system and policy program that exacerbated racial consciousness and hostility. But that’s where we are.

UPDATE: This came in from an actual political scientist:

Thanks for linking to that article. It was very thought-provoking. I thought his points about how campaigns can choose to highlight or make salient the issues that will “activate” the biggest voting coalition for them to be very interesting. And your conclusions were spot on.
Briefly, Shor’s use of “racist” in the article is not like the “antiracism” movement where racism is everything. He means some degree of psychological discomfort about the ascendance of non-white people or losing the country to people who don’t look like you. Now, you and I might think that there is something to the idea that the United States actually has a heritage and a culture that are worth defending, but never mind that for now. For his measure of racial animus, he is almost certainly referring to the body of work referenced in the attached article. It is basically a measure of how many (per capita) and how the word “n*gger” is searched for, controlling for a number of other words including “n*gga” which is used often in rap music etc. You can argue about how accurate/valuable this is (although research has shown that, for example, it is harder for a black candidate to get elected in places with more racist Google searches, controlling for demographics), but it isn’t based on antiracist claptrap.
I appreciate the clarification!


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