The Mallory McMorrow Fallacy
Or Should We Call It The Popeye Fallacy?
Mallory McMorrow is having a moment. The Michigan legislator made a short speech assailing a fellow legislator who had accused her in a fundraising email of “grooming and sexualizing” kindergartners, which was subsequently viewed millions of times on McMorrow’s Twitter feed. Her message, delivered with some well-chosen personal touches, boiled down to: stand up to hate.
The speech was rapturously received in Democratic circles, particularly among activists and Democratic-leaning pundits. One went so far as to compare McMorrow to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. And many asserted that here, finally, was a blueprint for an effective Democratic midterm strategy.
Democrats should contain their enthusiasm. When you think about it, what McMorrow is recommending is basically what Democrats have already been doing—calling out their opponents for being hateful, bigoted and/or racist—but doing it more loudly and unequivocally. The idea here seems to be that a message’s effectiveness is directly proportional to the vigor with which it is asserted.
This is a fallacy. If a message has underlying weaknesses and fails to connect to significant and real voter concerns, it will not become more effective by simply increasing the volume. The weaknesses will still be there and voters’ concerns will not magically go away.
Terry McAuliffe discovered this in his Virginia gubernatorial campaign where he steadily increased the volume on his characterization of Glenn Youngkin’s rhetoric and policies as racist and got nowhere. Voters’ concerns about what was going on in education and the schools were not adequately addressed by the enhanced decibel level.
Similarly, the Florida Parental Rights in Education bill, which is an important part of the background for McMorrow’s speech, has not lacked for high volume denunciations and linked accusations of hatred and bigotry. Yet Florida governor Ron DeSantis is more popular than ever. Polls have shown that some parts of the law are well-received by voters in general. The fact is that there are real issues in Florida and nationwide about whether gender fluidity is an appropriate topic for school children, particularly young children, and about parental involvement in education, especially what can and cannot be kept secret from parents—issues that may be poorly addressed by the Florida bill, but are issues nonetheless.
Voter concerns related to these issues will not disappear because Democrats ratchet up the rhetoric about hatred. Mallory McMorrow may have delivered an effective riposte to a scurrilous attack on her by a political opponent but that does not mean that the Democrats, like Popeye, can simply down their spinach, come out fighting and vanquish their opponents.
But you can see why this approach appeals to Democrats, who are loathe to admit there are any real problems in the areas on which they are attacked by their conservative opponents, from schools, race and gender to crime and immigration. I have termed this the Fox News Fallacy—if conservatives criticize you for something, there must be nothing to it. In fact, I would say the Fox News Fallacy and the Mallory McMorrow Fallacy are closely connected. If you believe, under the sway of the Fox News Fallacy, that all conservative criticisms are completely made-up, then it follows that the Democratic message in these areas shouldn’t bother with any defense but simply denounce the lies Republicans tell to fan the flames of hatred. And the sterner and more uncompromising the better—hence the Mallory McMorrow Fallacy.
This has not worked and is highly unlikely to work for the midterms and beyond. The Democrats cannot escape the necessity of moving to the center on sociocultural issues which does not consist of simply opposing hatred, but rather of making it clear that Democrats have a common sense approach to these issues that is different from the approach pushed by their woke activist wing. Until that is done, the Democrats will continue to be highly vulnerable on all these issues.
The abortion issue, which has just come to the fore with the leaked Supreme Court draft decision, provides an instructive contrast here. On this issue, Democrats already occupy the center ground. While public opinion is complicated and results can be sensitive to question wording, polls generally indicate that Americans are opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade (as the Supreme Court appears ready to do) and supportive of allowing abortion in at least some circumstances. Therefore, the full-throated Republican support of the (likely) Court decision and linked GOP moves to ban abortion in many states puts the Democrats in an advantageous position.
There are limits to this of course. Views and existing laws on abortion vary by state and therefore the likely effectiveness of pressing this issue. More broadly, the current political environment for the Democrats is terrible and the ability of this issue to dramatically change that is probably limited. It will be hard to distract voters from their concern about inflation and their generally sour views on the economy. Ditto on crime and immigration, where voter views are even more sour and Democrats lack a message and approach that is responsive to voter concerns.
In addition, Democrats need to avoid overplaying their hand on this one. Voter views on abortion, as noted above, are quite complicated. Voters generally support some restrictions on abortion access and are decidedly unenthusiastic about abortions after the first trimester. Democrats should be cognizant of this and stick to a simple message of preserving basic abortion access and opposing blanket, no-exception bans.
Above all, they should resist the temptation to tie this issue to a bevy of other issues and insist they are all of a piece, simply expressions of hatred, bigotry, misogyny, racism, etc. That would simply replicate and expand the Mallory McMorrow Fallacy. It would be better to build on holding the center ground on abortion by moving to the center on other contentious issues, demonstrating to voters that Democrats stand for a moderate, common sense approach across the board.
Indeed, this is a great opportunity to start to address the long-term challenges I outlined in my recent piece on “How to Fix the Democratic Brand”. I guess I’m not holding my breath but…keep hope alive!