what we talk about when we talk about electability

What does it mean for one candidate to be more “electable” than another? Some people object to even posing this question, arguing that “electability” is just a cover for maintaining the status quo, generally favoring dominant class, race, and gender patterns. In other words, by “electability” many people just mean that they want a candidate that most resembles prior successful candidates, and since the vast majority of prior successful candidates were older, white, male, and centrist – to be electable often just means to be an old white man from the political center.

But when we talk about electability, we’re not just talking about the qualities of the current candidates. We’re really talking about what happened in the last election. We want someone that’s not prone to the same dynamics that lost the last election. That’s really challenging today, because over three years after the last Presidential election, there isn’t broad agreement about what happened. The three prevailing theories are:

  1. Bigotry. This theory says that Trump supporters are fundamentally motivated by racism and sexism.
  2. Economic despair. This theory says that the hollowing out of the middle class has led to sentiment against immigration, free trade and rapid modernization.
  3. Media dysfunction. This theory says that both intended (by Russia) and unintended (by BigTech) consequences of modern media distorted the election results.

The easiest opinion to hold is “It’s a combination of all of the above!” But most people who claim to hold this opinion secretly believe that only one of the three is the truly critical reason for the result of the last election. Often this is a secret even to themselves, but the truth is revealed by your opinion on who is really the most electable candidate.

If you think Biden is the most electable candidate, then you think that bigotry was the critical factor in the last election. Biden is the old white man from the center, and despite his high approval among black voters, he also was a main proponent of harsh criminal laws that disproportionately harmed black people, so he looks safe enough to many bigots. This is the right profile to sway bigoted swing voters. You tell yourself, “He’ll win if he can just avoid shooting himself in the foot.”

If you think Bernie is the most electable, then you think that economic despair was the critical factor last time. All those poor hollowed out voters they keep interviewing in diners should love the economic message that Bernie has been consistently espousing for decades. Doesn’t hurt that Bernie is old, white, and male – but if you thought that does the trick, then you would go with Biden. You go with Bernie instead because he’s got the loudest, clearest message about fundamental economic change. You say, “He’ll win if he can just avoid being tagged as a socialist.”

If you think Warren is the most electable, then you think that media dysfunction is what really drove the last election. She’s the smartest, the most accomplished in both pre-politics career and national legislation, and a member of the largest identity group (women). This time around, the Russians will still be a factor, but if we can only police the mainstream media enough to get them to concentrate on substantive policy positions, then Warren’s policy and legislative record should win the day. “She’ll win if only she’s portrayed fairly.”

By the way, if you think Buttigieg is the most electable … keep thinking. Maybe he’s the candidate for those who really do think the last election was the outcome of a perfect balance of the three reasons. You think that bigotry won’t hurt him too much, since he’s white and male, and even though he’s gay you think the country’s sentiment has changed enough so that it’s a non-factor for bigots. You think he can navigate the discussion of economic despair by simply smooth-talking the issues without troubling his biggest donors. You think the media loves him, and will continue to treat him with kid gloves. These are delusional thoughts. The reality is that Buttigieg is vulnerable for all three of the reasons in the prior election: Bigots really are bigoted, including against gay people. Buttigieg is clearly a proponent of the economic status quo, anyone in economic despair will see right through him. And the media will turn against Buttigieg, in part because that’s just want they do, but ultimately it’s because there’s no there there. He was the mayor of a small city, with zero national exposure. That’s even less qualification for national office than a reality television star. Trump would destroy Buttigieg in a landslide.

As a reward for reading this post, let me remind you of what we talk about when we talk about love. It’s a good read, somehow both hopeful and disheartening, and strangely resonant to peruse after pondering our current politics.

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