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Democrats are Falling for the 'Fox News Fallacy' Again
Democrats figured out they can run away from 'defund the police.' What other unpopular ideas are they still embracing for no reason?
Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, has been on a tear over the last year, writing about why that majority he predicted Democrats would enjoy this century hasn’t emerged after all. Roughly, it’s because the Democratic Party made choices that alienated many Hispanic and Asian voters, and working-class voters of all races, offsetting the advantages it gained through demographic changes as we became an increasingly diverse and educated country.1
One of Democrats’ errors is buying into “The Fox News Fallacy.” As he described on his Substack last August:
This is the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. The problem is that an issue is not necessarily completely invalid just because Fox News mentions it. That depends on the issue. If there is something to the issue and persuadable voters have real concerns, you will not allay those concerns by embracing the Fox News Fallacy. In fact, you'll probably intensify them by giving such voters the impression that Democrats simply don't care about their concerns and will do nothing to address them.
Of course, just because some aspect of a problem is real does not mean everything pundits say about it on Fox News will be fair or proportionate. Far from it.
But beneath the Fox News Fallacy is a style of tactical thinking among liberals that doesn’t make a lot of sense: If you admit the problem is real in any aspect and try to distance yourself from its unpopular aspects, or express that you are also trying to do something about it, or establish a position close to the median voter, then what you’re actually doing is “feeding” into Fox’s “narrative” and making people more likely to think everything said on Fox (or, more often lately, by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) must be true. Unfortunately, there is a flip side: If your strategy is just to deny that there’s any problem, you end up owning whatever problem it is that voters believe exists, because you have effectively declared you won’t do anything about it.
Teixeira cited rising violent crime, unauthorized immigration, and the controversy over critical race theory in education as three examples of issues where Democrats got tripped up by the Fox News Fallacy and ended up signaling to voters that they weren’t taking their real and valid concerns seriously.2 I would add that inflation was a major problem area here for a while, though most Democratic commentators seem to have been beaten into submission by reality on that topic.
An obvious question is, why do Democrats engage in the Fox News Fallacy? One possibility is they buy into the nonsense tactical idea described above. But I think it’s better understood as a strategy to avoid unpleasant intra-coalition fights. There are a lot of ideas that liberals feel they can’t defend (because they’re wrong and/or unpopular) and also can’t criticize (because someone in the coalition, perhaps from a “marginalized group,” feels strongly about the matter) and the Fox News Fallacy provides a way to deflect and claim that dissonance doesn’t exist. It’s not a good tactic for persuading voters, but it’s a perfectly good tactic for avoiding getting yelled at.
Really it’s a more general form of the “coalition brain” problem Matt Yglesias describes as having doomed Build Back Better: Democrats solved for a way to avoid criticizing anyone within the coalition, and they got everything they wanted except legislation that could pass. And on these social issues, Democrats are finding a way to avoid ever telling anyone “on-side” that they have a bad or overreaching idea, and it achieves every goal except being popular and winning elections.
Except on policing, where I think it’s worth noting how Democrats managed to shed Coalition Brain and demonstrate a self-preservation instinct.
Liberal interest groups with nothing to do with policing, such as the abortion-rights group NARAL, have coalition-brained their way into tweeting about how we needed to defund the police, which means anytime NARAL endorses a Democratic candidate, Republicans get to say that candidate is backed by a “defund-the-police” group. But at least Democratic politicians themselves have stampeded away this language, telling anyone who will listen that they are opposed. Standing in opposition to the demands of self-styled racial justice protesters once looked hazardous — simply warning about the negative political effects of protests that turn violent was enough to get David Shor fired — but now you can beat up on “defund” all you want with no apparent political consequence. Joe Biden is president, Eric Adams is mayor of New York, and the left-wing activists were paper tigers.
So, where else can we do this? What other unpopular ideas can Democrats drop like hot rocks with no consequence beyond some activists complaining on Twitter?
One would seem to be the idea that we need to liberalize the asylum process at the southern border.3 Indeed, more and more Democrats seem to be noticing that lifting the Title 42 order that discourages asylum-seekers from coming to the border is not in fact necessary for coalitional reasons, and they’ve been calling for the Biden administration to delay lifting it. Biden might even listen.
Unfortunately, the issues related to schools are going to be thornier to go through this process on.
Broadly, there are a lot of ideas about “equity” in education that are popular at education schools but way out of step with the public — this is why you see administrators and some Democratic officials trying to abolish popular gifted and talented programs, water down advanced math, teach that linear thinking is “white supremacy culture,” and the like. (Even in San Francisco, undermining selective magnet school admissions was unpopular enough to drive an overwhelming recall of school board members.) You have schools introducing highly ideological ideas about race and racism into curriculum, often outside of history and social studies classes — seeking a “social justice lens” when teaching math, for example — and then there are elementary schools teaching that the relationship between sex and gender is essentially arbitrary.
Often, the proponents of these educational ideas will tell you what they are proposing or doing is not even political — what they’re doing is just about equity and justice, which is not political. Who could be against justice? Of course, just because you think an idea is correct, that does not make it “not political.” In any case, it is not politically tenable to let these ideologues drive how public schools will work — public schools necessarily reflect the broadest ideals and values in society, because they must serve the public broadly. Any effort to use public schools as a vanguard of change is doomed. And many of these ideas are also wrong on their merits, very much including the more avant-garde ones about sex and gender.
The right alternative to this situation is not Florida’s “parental rights in education” law. But if that’s the only alternative, it’s the one that will get enacted in more and more states.
Instead, Democrats need to articulate their own popular vision — one that emphasizes the importance of effective and rigorous English and math instruction, and that celebrates acceptance and diversity, but that does not entail “privilege walks,” instruction on Judith Butler-style ideas about gender, or the importation of political ideas into every subject area. They need a vision that treats schools as at the center of a community, with teachers who are well compensated, who are allowed to be who they are; and who are expected to give daily instruction in person and maintain an appropriate degree of professional distance from their students (e.g., telling students you respect and value them is good; having a photo of your spouse on your desk is fine; telling students “I’m your parents now” is not okay).
That is, Democrats need to show they are striking a sensible balance that serves the desires of the broad public, while bracketing highly controversial topics where you will never achieve consensus on how children, especially young children, should be taught.
Of course, if you try to do this, and you are affiliated in one way or another with Democrats or with liberalism, you’ll see why people were so desperate to avoid these discussions. People may call you racist or transphobic; they may even say you want children to die. This weekend, someone on Twitter asked me whether “dead kids” are my goal because I said I don’t think math textbooks should include random “social-emotional learning” prompts asking children questions like, “How can you understand your feelings?”
As Wesley Yang puts it, these accusations constitute maudlin emotional blackmail — part of a constant and exhausting stream of demands linked to spurious claims about trauma and safety. But it’s also important to remember this strategy of maximum histrionics only has power over you if you allow it to — Democrats powered straight through it in the process of rejecting extreme, activist ideas about crime and policing, and they can repeat that process.
The last thing I would note is that Republicans do not have their finger on the pulse of the median voter. There is a major opportunity here.
Calling all your opponents and critics “pedophiles” and “groomers” makes you sound unhinged and weird, not like you have a sensible view of how some schools have become too political. Voters are not clamoring for the right to sue school districts over personal comments made by individual teachers. I think there are fairly good odds that Ron DeSantis’s jihad against Disney could blow up in his face — Disney can’t leave Florida, but it could cancel some capital investment plans, as it did (not long ago) at Disneyland when tax policy in Anaheim didn’t go its way; or, blowing up the Reedy Creek Improvement District could saddle homeowners with higher property tax bills, and then DeSantis would look like the one who is harming voters economically for the frivolous pursuit of a culture war.
My broad intuition remains that voters dislike whoever looks like the aggressor in the culture war, and Republicans in the DeSantis mode are doing a lot of things that look aggressive. But that’s all the more reason for Democrats to find the center, make clear that they are the ones trying to turn the temperature down, and keep controversial cultural ideas out of schools instead of trying to bring them in.
The median voter is, by definition, not extreme. He or she will tend to value both justice and order; both diversity and normalcy. Seeking to align with that position is not a sign of weakness. It is a sensible approach that honors public opinion, that shows Democrats are serious about winning elections, and that avoids making voters feel like they need to run into Republicans’ arms in order to have their normie values honored and concerns addressed.
That’s all for today. I’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow.
A more subtle point is that these shifts interacted unfavorably with the Electoral College, causing Democrats to alienate voters in places where they really needed them (like Ohio and Pennsylvania) and attract them in places where they didn’t do much good (like California and Texas).
In the case of CRT, Democrats have tended to get into technical arguments about whether new curricular ideas influenced by progressive ideas about race and racism are technically CRT, which misses the point. Parents see an obvious change happening in front of their eyes — a change that people might have positive, negative, or mixed feelings about — and they see that Democrats’ response to it is to gaslight them, to say nothing is happening. Who is that supposed to convince?
Frank Sharry, who runs the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, seems to be quoted everywhere about the moral necessity of lifting the Title 42 order that restricts asylum applications. Exactly which voters does Sharry speak for? Where is the evidence of substantial grassroots demand for this policy? It’s a great example of “the groups” doing an impression of public mobilization rather than reflecting it.