The formula for political success is simple. Do popular things and don't do, and ideally dissociate yourself from, unpopular things. The Democrats have been doing well at the first but they are still having trouble with the second.
Why is this? One reason is fear. Democratic politicians fear the wrath of activist groups if they dissociate themselves too directly from causes dear to the hearts of activist groups even if these causes are widely unpopular with actual voters. The reasoning is presumably that these activist groups represent important constituencies whose views have to be attended to lest they turn against the Democrats or become demoralized and fail to turn out.
But there is a simple solution to this problem that would give the Democrats a lot more freedom to adopt optimal political positions. Ignore the activist groups--or at least most of them. The fact of the matter is that these groups are typically quite unrepresentative of the constituencies they purport to represent. Therefore the threat that these groups will denounce politicians who fail to accord their unpopular policy ideas due respect is empty and can safely be discarded.
Matt Yglesias points out a good example of this in the context of the New York mayoral race, where Andrew Yang is doing quite well despite being the target of a number of activist groups.
"Yang versus the activists....reveals — and not for the first time — that progressive identity-oriented activist organizations often have very little connection to the groups they purport to represent. You can listen to these groups if you want to. But if your purpose in listening to them is to understand how certain communities are thinking about specific issues, you’re barking up the wrong tree....
Of course, groups that are not representative could nonetheless be influential in delivering the votes of the constituencies that they claim to represent.
But something we keep seeing is that this is not the case. For a good case study here, I strongly recommend Astead Herndon’s February 2020 article “Elizabeth Warren Has Won Black Activists. She’s Losing the Black Vote.”
There’s no politician in America who’s more closely aligned with what Skocpol calls “the non-profit industrial complex” than Warren. This cluster of progressive groups is not exactly “the establishment” (in the sense of lobbyists, revolving door types, etc.), but like Warren herself, they were sufficiently embedded enough in establishment politics that they didn’t want to back a longshot rogue operation like Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Then the Warren 2020 campaign was supposed to be the moment of triumph for this bridging sector of Democratic politics — displacing the establishment with a counter-establishment of academics, think-tankers, and activists.
And it worked very well at winning Warren the loyalty of (mostly white) college-educated liberals. But it also worked well at securing Warren a kind of rainbow coalition of college-educated liberal activists of many ethnicities. It’s just that Warren-endorsing groups like Black Womxn For turn out to neither reflect the views of Black women nor be influential in shaping the views of Black women. Most African American voters turned out to be moderate, electability-minded Biden supporters, and those who were not turned out to be mostly younger, anti-establishment Bernie supporters.
Julián Castro, after a successful career in San Antonio politics and the Obama cabinet as a fairly mainstream Democrat, decided for some reason to run a very Warren-esque presidential campaign, and for his trouble ended up flopping massively with Hispanic voters. This is a younger group than African Americans, so it was a Sanders demographic in the primary, but then (famously) a decent slice of conservative-minded Latinos defected to Trump in 2020.
Andrew Yang, similarly, has become the frontrunner in the New York City mayoral election, not despite criticism from activist groups, but precisely because he has adopted normal popular opinions like “groups suffering from rising crime need more police protection.”.....
[W]hat’s striking about Yang is how effortlessly the combination of “he’s well-known” and “he avoids toxically unpopular left-wing ideas” has let him leapfrog past people like Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley who’ve spent years (if not decades) trying to climb the greasy pole of progressive niche politics.
And the thing about this is we are talking about a primary election in New York City, not a statewide race in Pennsylvania or North Carolina or Florida. If this style of politics doesn’t have purchase there, where does it have purchase?
The answer, I think, is it serves as a cudgel that works internally in fairly elite progressive spaces.
One reason is that white progressives now operate in the context of a set of deference norms that lead them to seek out questionably representative activist groups as powerful bludgeons. Instead of one white progressive agreeing to disagree with another white progressive, the winning move is to find some activist entity that agrees with you and use that to say that the other person has an obligation to shut up. Here’s what Indivisible’s national leaders told their local members last fall about why they had to stick with the slogan “defund the police” rather than adopting some more palatable message:
"Why say “defund” instead of [insert option here]? We hear you. During such a contentious time in our history, it might seem like we should be prioritizing strategic language at every turn. The thing is, allyship is about listening to the people who are most profoundly affected and taking their position seriously. Defunding the police comes from Black and brown grassroots organizations, like Movement for Black Lives’s (M4BL), who are rightfully at the forefront of this fight for justice. The #DefundHate Coalition, spearheaded by immigration rights organizations at United We Dream and Detention Watch Network, relates their own mission to cutting funding for ICE and CBP to defunding the police in solidarity with Black lives. As a white-led organization, it is not Indivisible’s place to make suggestions about how Black and brown activists are expressing their demands. We want to participate in the conversation, but it’s not our place to reframe it to be more palatable to the masses to people of color’s lived experiences."...
[T]here is an important similarity between Yang and Trump, namely that Trump ran in 2016 by blowing off elite conservative attachment to free trade and “entitlement reform” to deliver a brand of politics that was better at catering to the base and also won over some swing voters. The key insight they share is that even in today’s polarized world, normal people are more polarized on affect toward the other party than they are on specific policy issues. So there’s an easy opportunity for “outsider” figures who are well-known to sort of waltz in, brush off the activists, and appeal to normal people.
What’s interesting to me is that so far, you don’t see very many career politicians copying that approach. At a certain level of politics that makes sense. To get from local office to statewide office, being well-liked by elite co-partisans is very, very helpful. But I think Castro would have done much better in 2016 if he’d run as “like Joe Biden, a former member of the Obama administration, but young and energetic and Hispanic.” And I think it’s odd that Kamala Harris doesn’t try harder to do some populist stuff around immigrant patriotism or a little light mockery of the most laughable Bay Area progressives. Once you reach a certain level in the game, the activists don’t have any more power over you, and in fact fighting with them can be a good way to elevate your profile and emphasize your popular ideas."
Promote popular ideas, dissociate yourself from unpopular ones. Once you remember most activist groups are paper tigers, this all becomes much easier to do.