On May 28, David Shor, a political data analyst, sent a controversial tweet. Soon after George Floyd’s death, alongside peaceful mass protests there was a substantial amount of looting and vandalism in Minneapolis and a few other cities. Shor, citing research by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, suggested that these incidents could prompt a political backlash that would help President Donald Trump’s bid for reelection. At the same time, he noted that, historically, nonviolent protests had been effective at driving political change “mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage.”
Post-MLK-assasination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon. Non-violent protests *increase* Dem vote, mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage. https://t.co/S8VZSuaz3G. pic.twitter.com/VRUwnRFuVW
— (((David Shor))) (@davidshor) May 28, 2020
The tweet was characterized as “concern trolling” by the podcast host Benjamin Dixon, while Ari Trujillo Wesler, the impresario behind a popular organizing app, denounced it as “anti-Blackness.”
So we’re really concern trolling to for the purposes of increasing democratic turnout.
Tell you what, go to Minneapolis and fill the protestors in about your findings. Be sure to video it for our viewing pleasure.
— Benjamin Dixon (@BenjaminPDixon) May 28, 2020
Yo. Minimizing black grief and rage to “bad campaign tactic for the Democrats” is bullshit most days, but this week is absolutely cruel.
This take is tone deaf, removes responsibility for depressed turnout from the 68 Party and reeks of anti-blackness.
— Ari “Vote by Mail” Trujillo Wesler (@TheReFTW) May 28, 2020
The following day Shor apologized for the tweet; shortly thereafter, he was dismissed from his job. Shor signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from further discussing the situation. In the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk reported that Shor appeared to have been fired because of the tweet, which Civis denies, though the company will not elaborate.
“We won’t publicly discuss internal personnel matters out of respect for our employees and alumni,” Amanda Moss, Civis’s communications director, tells me.
While details surrounding the firing remain somewhat murky, there are some things we do know. Civis staffers I’ve spoken to agree that, in the words of one of them, CEO Dan Wagner “only talked about the tweet and client complaints around the tweet” when announcing the decision. Another says “they communicated that it was because of the tweet and that they viewed it as going against Civis values given the political environment around protests at the time.”
But of larger importance is the criticism itself, which is wrong on the merits, and at least somewhat influential inside contemporary progressive politics.
The idea is roughly that it’s categorically wrong for a person — or at least a white person — to criticize on tactical or other grounds anything being done in the name of racial justice. And while it’s not exactly a crisis of free speech, since people are always free to go do something else with their lives other than work in progressive politics, it’s nonetheless going to be a big problem for progressive politics if it becomes impossible to have frank conversations around the tactics and substance of race-related issues. Many on the left have conceded that Shor got what seems to be a raw deal. But there’s reluctance to see the true significance of this drama, which is not his particular employment situation but the fact that many people of some influence sincerely believe the tweet was out of line.
Criticism of Shor is widespread and influential
The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner called Shor’s treatment “pretty disgraceful” but questioned whether it exemplified any larger trend. My colleague Zack Beauchamp in Vox said this is a case of something that is “non-controversial even among left-wing intellectuals.”
But in fact, many Democratic Party professionals believe the backlash to his tweets was deserved. Indeed, though Shor has found a new job in progressive politics, one of the conditions of his employment is that he can’t reveal who’s hired him — lest his new employers face the same criticism Civis did. And all accounts of the internal situation at Civis confirm that clients and partners did in fact complain about him and his tweet to the company.
Shor’s tweet became a topic of discussion on the Progressphiles email list, a widely used networking list for progressive data operatives, and he was soon kicked out of the group. The group’s moderators described Shor’s tweet as “racist” and the criticism he got on Twitter for it as a “much deserved call in.” They also alleged that by arguing with his critics on Twitter, he had “encouraged harassment that led to death threats.” (The list moderators are Madeleine Leader, director of data initiatives at the Center for Popular Democracy and formerly of the DNC; Cristina Sinclair, a senior vice president at Clarity Campaigns; Rachel Hall, the deputy director of data initiatives at Planned Parenthood Action Fund; Herschel Pecker, a project coordinator at UNITE HERE; and Stefanie Hendrick, the director of Data Strategy and targeting at BerlinRosen.)
I obtained a copy of this message, along with the subsequent debate. Some participants took Shor’s side in the argument, but most did not. Jessica Morales Rocketto, currently civic engagement director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, argued that the problem with his tweet wasn’t that Wasow or his research is bad, but that “it is important to examine the point Shor was making in a larger sense.” In context, she said, his tweet “could be interpreted as intended to denigrate the work of the Movement for Black Lives and pin any election losses on Black lives.”
Of course, to be taken off an email list is no great tragedy, but the criticisms of the tweet are wrong on the merits.
David Shor did nothing wrong
The important issue here is the underlying presumption that the tweet was racist. Shor is a data scientist who works primarily on polling and public opinion. He tries to help Democrats understand how to win elections. That primarily means identifying issues it’s helpful for liberals to talk about and how it’s helpful to talk about them. He’s also interested in broad adjacent questions, and anyone who knows him is familiar with his frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge of relevant academic literature.
Wasow’s paper is in that spirit, seemingly looking to understand how Black Americans, despite being a politically disempowered numerical majority, were able to influence the political process. He speculates that the famous mass protests of the 1960s may have played a role. And he asks how that role can be quantified.
Like many scholars who’ve tried to research protests, he uses rainfall as an instrument because weather impacts protesting in a way that’s formally irrelevant to the political situation. He finds that nonviolent activism was effective in shifting election results, particularly nonviolent activism that’s met with violent police repression. And he shows that this is likely because nonviolent protests successfully get the protesters’ perspective on the media agenda, and that violent repression in particular generates sympathetic press coverage.
He also finds that when protesters initiate property destruction and violence, the opposite happens and the news agenda and mass opinion shift to “social control” priorities that helped Nixon win in 1968.
Mass demonstrations work, in other words, but looting and disorder are counterproductive. This was Shor’s sin: repeating Wasow’s findings that marching is good but looting and vandalism are counterproductive.
A former staffer for Bernie Sanders responded to Shor’s tweet on Progressphiles to say “we need to recognize the role data plays in this conversation.” And in particular, “using it to dictate how BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] should feel and protest is harmful.”
Shor did not say that protesting is harmful; he said that rioting is harmful. And he didn’t say that data should dictate how people feel. And while one data scientist’s tweet of one political science paper should not be the last word on social movement tactics, the reasonable response to Shor would be to counter with some other form of evidence. Instead, the dialogue followed a pattern in progressive circles that often involves making evidence-free assertions about how members of various groups feel.
In late May when the blowup happened, YouGov polling shows that the demonstrations were widely seen — by Black Americans as well as whites — as significantly inflected by violence.
Two days later, a Reuters poll found that “majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said they supported peaceful protests but believed property damage undermined the demonstrators’ cause. Less than one quarter of Americans said violence was an appropriate response.”
Under the circumstances, Shor was raising the exact right issue — sustained peaceful demonstrations could help the cause enormously, especially if met (as they in fact were) by an abusive state response, but sustained acts of violence and property destruction could hurt it. Recognizing this, many protesters actively stepped in to try and halt vandalism. Black political leaders ranging from Keisha Lance Bottoms and John Lewis to Ilhan Omar denounced looting and vandalism. But political movements can’t live on elected officials’ intuition alone. That’s why they have polling and data analysis operations, and it’s why they need people to be able to speak up and discuss trade-offs.
Effective movements need tough conversations
This is a general issue about norms of discourse rather than a specific issue about one person’s tweets. Progressive politics in the United States is conducted by a coalition of disparate issue groups that need to work together to make progress. Managing that coalition is difficult. And if participants in the coalition are under pressure to never criticize anything that’s done in the name of a good cause, they will be unable to see or cope with trade-offs in a necessary way.
For example, while I was reporting on Joe Biden’s somewhat surprising weakness with Hispanic voters, one Latino Democrat speculated to me that Black Lives Matter rhetoric might be turning off working-class Hispanics. But he was so leery of being seen in any quarter as saying or doing anything critical of BLM that he wouldn’t say anything about it on or off the record. “I’m not touching that,” was another’s response to my query about the possible tension.
To be sure, there are other views on Biden and Hispanics. Stephanie Valencia of Equis Research told me she didn’t see a problem with BLM rhetoric and Latino voters. She said she saw it as “an opportunity rather than a challenge; the opportunity to unite the movements.”
But Valencia’s more diplomatic framing still contains the implication that there is an issue to discuss of how this slogan plays with Hispanics. The work of framing social justice rhetoric in a way that is optimized for winning elections requires real work and data and experimentation and a willingness to adjust tactics to seize rather than squander the opportunity to mobilize a broad coalition.
A recent Pew survey, for example, showed that Latino Democrats are much more skeptical of cutting police funding than are their Black or white peers — part of a consistent pattern of more police-friendly opinion.
Activists and advocates obviously can’t let polling snapshots dictate everything they say and do. But informing your political work with information about public opinion is common sense. And for that to happen, people need to be able to do what Shor did — raise questions about trade-offs, backlashes, and potential pitfalls even when emotions are running high. Trump’s relative success with Latinos right now looks like it may not matter since he’s losing the election badly overall. But he’s doing so in a way that mostly confirms Wasow’s main findings and the value of discussing them.
Progressives need to maintain the ability to be smart
The punchline to all this is that concerns of people like Shor about whether a possible protest backlash could boost Trump, so far, seem to be wrong. That makes it easy to dismiss the whole thing as a tempest in a teapot or a weird one-off with no broader implications. But the fact is there was a widespread and somewhat influential push to argue that even discussing the possibility of a backlash was racist and wrong.
One big reason the backlash has not arrived, though, is the actual protest organizers rejected the anti-anti-riot instant consensus in online progressive circles and tried to build disciplined and effective movements. They were joined in this by the vast majority of Black elected officials around the country. Then, in line with Wasow’s predictions, Trump’s lawlessness in the brutality against protesters in Lafayette Square near the White House created a public opinion backlash against him.
Democrats have also benefited during this time from the fact that their presumptive nominee, Biden, long stood out from the field in opposing the unpopular ideas of the police abolition movement. And he’s given cover in this by senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus like James Clyburn who quickly put the kibosh on police defunding as a House Democratic priority.
All of which is to say that the situation in the real world is not nearly as dire as those who spend too much time marinating in the Twitter hothouse think. The Democratic Party is mostly run by sensible people, while the Republican Party is mostly run by Donald Trump.
But the issue is not nearly so minor as the deflationists make it out to be. People with unsound views are able to get operatives fired and render them unhirable. They’re able to shut down discussions on listservs meant for tactical discussions. And most of all, they create an environment where lots of people feel they need to watch their words very carefully.
There is a genuine ongoing dialogue about whether claims made on behalf of racial justice should be subject to critical scrutiny. The Shor story’s ambiguous ending — continued employment under cover of secrecy — suggests that the answer is a resounding “only time will tell.”
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