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Nwanevu writes: "Like many of the other concepts that shape electoral punditry and political discourse - charisma, qualification, momentum, authenticity - electability is a shibboleth of a political mysticism that 'tickles the brain' only because it cannot fully engage it - a drab, gray astrology, maintained by over-caffeinated men."

Sanders and Warren. (photo: BuzzFeed/Getty Images)
Sanders and Warren. (photo: BuzzFeed/Getty Images)

"Electability" Is a Poisonous Political Shibboleth

By Osita Nwanevu, The New Republic

19 January 20

If this recursive way of thinking about politics captures our imagination, it will imperil America's future.

e are several days now into a spat betweenBernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—the Democratic primary’s two progressiveswho, as has been widely reported, have observed a pact of nonaggressionagainst each other for the majority of the primary campaign. That arrangement collapsedamid two controversies. The first was brought about by the leak of a Sanderscampaign canvasser script that had volunteers challenging Warren’s viabilityin the general election based on the composition of her coalition in theprimary—a kind of argument, it should be said, that has been made againstSanders throughout the race. The second, more serious controversy was broughtabout by Warren’s allegation that Sanders had privately confessed to her hisbelief that a woman cannot win the presidency.

Both of these controversies, in their own way,touch upon the question of electability, which polls have told us is front ofmind for Democratic voters. As far as Warren’s gender is concerned, even thosewho argue that Sanders deserves criticism if he made the remark concede thatmany ordinary Democrats are themselves wary about nominating a woman. “It can be hard to shake the tickle in the back of yourbrain,” The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle wrote Wednesday, “that Mr. Trump’sretrograde brand of politics—his naked appeals to sexism, racism and otherforms of old-school bigotry—can be weaponized all too easily against a womanopponent, who, fairly or not, already faces generic, gender-based hurdles.”

It is clearly true thatperceptions of female candidates can be tinted by sexism and that women facemore obstacles to success in politics than men. But our last presidentialelection was instructive. It’s often pointed out, appropriately, that HillaryClinton won three million more votes than Trump in 2016. It should also benoted that Clinton’s share of the popular vote was not markedly different fromthe shares won by losing male candidates past—she won a slightly largerproportion of the vote than Mitt Romney and John McCain had previously managed;a slightly smaller proportion than Al Gore and John Kerry.

Her performance, in short,was statistically unremarkable—any additional handicap she might have faced asa woman simply cannot be found in the vote tally. It’s possible that her gendermight have cost her some support in the regions of the country critical to anelectoral college victory. But the margins in those places were extraordinarilyclose—to believe that female candidates are doomed to fail is to believe,implausibly, that there were no conceivable scenarios in which Clinton mighthave garnered the few thousand more votes necessary to carry her to victory.The lesson some Democratic voters have internalized stands opposite to thetakeaway that the figures actually offer. Clinton’s narrow loss is hardly evidencethat a woman can’t win the presidency. It proves that a woman can.

But received wisdom aboutelectability is powerful precisely because it defies reason and is resistant tocritical scrutiny. Like many of the other concepts that shape electoralpunditry and political discourse—charisma,qualification, momentum, authenticity—electability is a shibboleth of apolitical mysticism that “tickles the brain” only because it cannot fullyengage it—a drab, gray astrology, maintained by over-caffeinated men.  

The whole idea muddles more than it clarifies. Consider the leaders of the 2020field. The candidate most favored by voters who prioritize electability is Joe Biden:a moderate, appealing to middle of the road voters who want our partisandivisions bridged and political norms restored much more than they favor anyparticular policy program. He also has considerable baggage. Beyond whatevercontroversies Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine might bring to a generalelection, Biden can also expect intense scrutiny over his mental fitness andany gaffes he might make on the campaign trail. He could also face the same struggleto juice turnout among the Democratic base as his primary rivals.

Turnout, of course, iscentral to the electability case for Bernie Sanders, who believes theDemocratic electorate can be expanded with disengaged voters, young people, andsome Trump supporters, all drawn to his candidacy by ambitious policies likeMedicare for All, which would materially benefit the working class. But it’soften said that Sanders’s leftism might turn off the middle-class suburbanitesand moderate voters who were integral to Democrats taking the House in 2018.Elizabeth Warren, just to the right of Sanders on policy, does better with moreaffluent voters but is thought to be too progressive for some and is wrestlingwith the aforementioned worries about gender. Pete Buttigieg, a man and amoderate, isn’t, and has demonstrated real pull with the same sort of more affluent,educated voters with whom Warren is strong. His lack of experience, however,could fuel doubts about his competence, and he has struggled, moreover, to winblack voters—a hurdle some have shakily tied to his sexual orientation. Thoseworried about this might be willing to consider another white, male moderate—astraight one, with more support among African American voters. This, naturally,brings us back to Joe Biden … and so on.

This is a discourseincapable of producing anything beyond recursive guesswork—hypotheticals withinsuppositions that send us pacing in circles over questions that no electioncan actually resolve. The victory or defeat of any given candidate does notforeclose the possibility that they might have performed differently underslightly different circumstances and cannot tell us conclusively whetheranother candidate might have done better or worse. The 2016 election race drewus close, but not close enough, to understanding this. Any politically engagedperson today can rattle off a list offactors that might have tilted the race: Russian interference,irresponsible coverage of the Clinton email scandal, Trump’s omnipresence oncable television, James Comey’s eleventh-hour machinations, the Clintoncampaign’s inattention to the Rust Belt. Yet the politically engaged have also taken to believing thatelectability is a stable and perhaps even measurablequality innate to the candidates themselves. This belief persists despitethe victory, in that election, of a man who was widely considered one of themost unelectable candidates ever to seek the presidency. Now many of the sageswho rendered that judgment have reconvened to tell us Donald Trump can only bebeaten by someone matching a profile—white, male, moderate—that has not wonDemocrats the presidency in 24 years.

It might work this timearound. It also might not. All we can be reasonably sure of is the persistenceof a dynamic that Trump’s nomination and election brought into relief—givenpartisan polarization, and assuming the absence of a strong third-partychallenge, just about any candidate from one of our two major political partiescan reliably expect to win the support of about half the electorate. Differentcamps within the Democratic Party have put together plausible theories on whatmight put one candidate or another over the top in the states and regionsnecessary to prevail in the electoral college. But these are hermetic argumentsthat could run up against a variety of competing factors—from unforeseeable worldevents to the state of the economy to the competence of each campaignorganization—once the general election leaves the world of abstraction. Theextremely early relevant numbers that we have, the candidate favorability andhead-to-head matchups, don’t tell us anything more than what we should alreadyknow: We are in for a close race, and the leading Democratic candidates arecompetitive with Trump.

If this dissatisfiespundits and voters alike, we should ask ourselves how and why they came toagree so closely. Last week, Democratic strategist Jared Leopold made anobservation that has been repeatedly echoed by reporters on the ground in theearly states. “Cable news has warped voters’ brains and turned everyone intomini-pundits,” he told Politico. “That means candidates need to win not just onpolicy but on process.” This seems like a product of both the uncertainty thatTrump’s election created among voters and shifting norms in politicaljournalism—in which fixed characteristics and variables granular enough to beplugged into statistical models have largely supplanted the naïve horse-racejournalism of yesteryear, with its focus on narratives and assumption of closecompetition. It’s ironic that this mode was dominant within a period when electoralmargins were wider and victories were more decisive. That era is now fading—evenas candidates run neck and neck more often, and even though it has become moreplausible that a specific event or misstep could nudge one candidate or theother just over the line.

In many ways, the newanalytical mode has left us better informed. But it is also driving us mad. Forover a year, the Democratic primary had been defined by novel policy proposalsand theories of change. Now, electability as a concept, a runaway monster, hastorn it all down—not just by seizing much of the oxygen and attention availablein the discourse but also, as a second-order impact, by distracting and fuelingenmity on the left. Until last week, the debate between supporters of BernieSanders and Elizabeth Warren had been centered around the records of bothcandidates, their strategies for achieving their political goals and thesubstance of those goals themselves, given meaningful differences inperspective on topics like health care and American foreign policy. What we havenow is a drearily conventional political slap-fight that grew from competingideas about who can win the election and how. 

Our elections should neverbe about elections. A voter who hastaken to a narrow model of political possibility cannot be told much about themerits of proposals and candidates that aren’t fitted to it. It’s alwaysclarifying to consider just how many of our freedoms have been extended and howmany lives have been saved by people and policies that prevailed againstperceived odds. The more that ideas like electability arrest our politicalimagination, the less likely those outcomes will become—an entirelyself-fulfilling dynamic that cedes our agency to the judgments rendered byblinkered pundits and jury-rigged algorithms. The democratic principle rests onthe assumption that the votes the people cast on candidates and the proposalsat hand are, in fact, votes truly for or against those candidates and proposals—thatour votes are based not on what we suppose might win, but on what we believe isright. That assumption has always been flawed. But we should work to bringreality as close to it as we can. your social media marketing partner
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