Ersatz Electability And The Politics Of Fear

While I spend much of my time hoping for better professional Democrats, rank-and-file Dems have to get smarter (boldface mine):

As the horserace quants at FiveThirtyEight explained, both [Harris and Warren] are victims of the Democratic electorate’s fixation on “electability.” Polling broadly shows Democratic voters thinking Joe Biden has the best chance at winning the general election. That is exactly what Biden would like everyone to think, and that belief practically constitutes the sole argument for his candidacy

“Electability” is a crock of shit. It is defined, like political “moderation,” only in terms of opposition to things people want, but are told they can’t have, ranging from antiwar politics to left-wing economic populism to even the “cultural liberalism” that is seemingly the cornerstone of the modern Democratic Party. (Back in 2004, supporting civil unions, not even marriage, for same-sex couples was a threat to a Democrat’s perceived “electability.”) While the impulse to vote according to how you think a candidate would appeal to people who don’t share your priorities might make sense in theory, practice has revealed time and time again that no one involved in electoral politics—from the pundits down to the caucus-goers—has a clue who or what Americans will actually vote for. That was supposed to be, as the political scientist Masket says, the main lesson of Trump’s election.

But Democratic voters did not teach themselves to prioritize electability over their own actual concerns. They were trained to, over many years, by party figures who over-interpreted the loss of George McGovern, or who wanted to use the fear of McGovern to maintain their power over the Democratic candidate pipeline and nomination process. “Electability” is a way to get voters to carry out a contrary agenda—not their own—while convincing them they’re being “responsible.”

And now Democratic candidates and their most loyal voters are stuck in an absurd feedback loop. The politicians campaign and govern as if they themselves don’t believe a majority of voters prefer their agenda, signaling to their most loyal voters that they must vote not for what they want, but for what they imagine their more-conservative neighbors might want. But when voters in 2016 did exactly that, and nominated the candidate they were repeatedly told was most qualified to defeat Trump in the general election, they chose a person who went on to lose to him.

How are committed, pragmatic voters supposed to react when the person sold to them as not just the most “electable” person in this particular race, but among the most “electable” people in recent political history, loses a freak election to a preening, venal huckster who was treated as a great big joke for almost the entirety of the campaign?

…Because of the way the “electability” question was framed in 2016, and the way it then backfired, it looks very much like the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file took from that election the lesson that “a smart and capable woman isn’t electable,” not that “an establishment fixture with a tremendous amount of political baggage who is also easily and convincingly portrayed as corrupt isn’t electable.” I’m guessing many of the people who worked very hard to elect Hillary Clinton president would like to see Warren win the Democratic nomination rather than Biden, but decades of party brass (aided by a political press that spends every single election cycle talking about the electorate like it’s still Nixon’s Silent Majority) leaning on “electability” arguments to kneecap outsider candidates is currently working against that outcome.

Watching Joe Biden, a man who was already too out-of-step with the party and the country to win the nomination 12 years ago, claim the “electability” mantle only strengthens that feeling. No one really wants President Biden. It’s just that the “better things aren’t possible” caucus accidentally managed to convince some large portion of the Democratic electorate that they must hold their noses and vote for actively worse things.

Expecting voters to behave like pundits—asking people to vote for what expensive consultants and Sunday show guests imagine people like them might want instead of what they actually want—would be perverse even if it worked. But unless and until the Democratic electorate can be given license to support what it supports, each failure of the “electability” paradigm will only be taken as proof of the need to retreat further into learned helplessness.

If you’re not that excited to vote for Joe Biden, I promise you, your neighbor isn’t, either.

Part of the problem is that electability was misdefined in 2016: when the news media in its various forms uniformly has rage boners towards your candidate, said candidate might not be so electable. Pareene is absolutely right about the ghosts of McGovern. Too much of the party is still traumatized by 1968 and 1972, even as left-ish Democratic policies are now enormously popular.

I define electable as someone I can easily defend and for whom I can argue. If I knock on someone’s door or call them, can I tell them succinctly how candidate X will make their lives better? ‘X isn’t Trump’ is not a compelling argument–if that matters to them, they’re already voting Democratic. Obviously, there’s more to it (e.g., press corps rage boners), but that’s a pretty good start.

Vote for the candidate you’re excited about, and for whom you can make a good argument. It’s ok if we disagree as to who that is: different Democrats have different priorities. But electability politics are the Democratic version of the politics of fear.

And as a historical note, in 2008, the unelectable guy–for, erm, reasons–did very well.

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2 Responses to Ersatz Electability And The Politics Of Fear

  1. bks says:

    Warren is unelectable as POTUS, though she is a terrific senator. Not due to electibility but to the fact that Trump has already cornered her. Harris is probably too short (like Biden is too old), but a formidable candidate.

  2. Serena says:

    I’m hoping Warren has learned her lesson and will never again cede the terms of the debate, or the topic of the debate, to Trump. Apart from that I really don’t see why she’s unelectable. Biden on the other hand, seems screamingly unelectable to me, and Sanders has serious political vulnerabilities in a general he never got to face last time.

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