The ‘electability’ trap

“If ‘electability’ previously meant ‘the candidate most associated with the hawkish and business-friendly wing of the party,’ it now seems to have become purely and nakedly demographic,” Alex Pareene writes in “Democrats Have Created an “Electability’ Monster.” Hilary Clinton voters, he writes, “are flocking to the various white men in the race, avoiding candidates they actually might like, because they see their own affinity for those candidates as a political liability.” Pareene:

“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.

Pareene, like me, grew up in the Age of Reagan when dull old Walter Mondale, the last unreconstituted liberal Democrat, and Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis — who saw his election chances rise in the closing weeks of the campaign when he at last embraced the liberal tag — lost to Republicans who made no pretense about electability. In the 1988 race, a considerable percentage of the Democratic base wanted Jesse Jackson; party leaders, afraid of a black man talking like a liberal heading a national party, preferred the safe Dukakis — and Dukakis still lost to George H.W. Bush in a landslide. Probably Jackson would have lost to Bush, running as Reagan II, but at least he would have galvanized supporters instead of what happened in November 1988 when Democratic Party solons decided the answer was, guess what, more electability. Enter Bill Clinton.

“Electability,” Pareene writes, “is a way to get voters to carry out a contrary agenda—not their own—while convincing them they’re being ‘responsible.'” Already the MSNBC kaffeeklatsch yesterday afternoon centered on new polls showing Joe Biden’s significant lead over other candidates for no other reason besides The Candidate Who Can Beat Trump, aka electability. His candidacy depends on nothing other than Obama-era nostalgia and an untested belief that being a white man will win back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (I suspect the Dems needn’t worry about at least the first two states, but I’m not Steve Kornacki). There may be a formidable number of Democratic voters for whom the Obama years represent the suspension of critical thinking necessary to ignore the shitload of problems the president left behind. I’ve heard pundits call what Biden offers a “restoration.”

It’s worse, actually: Biden offers conservatism in the classic sense, a reaffirmation of values and a license to tinker, modestly, with the status quo; the conservatism that dominated the Republican Party before January 1981.

Finally: after Trump, what status quo?

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