A collage of photos of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders

State of Disunion

The Electability Myth

"Electability" is a standard held only for Democrats, while the GOP can use their corrupt and craven ways to power their base. So what are we going to do about it?

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Democratic voters have been desperate for a win over Donald Trump, and as a closing argument, presidency-hungry candidates have promised it to us. Bernie Sanders has called for his revolution; Elizabeth Warren has publicly confronted the belief that a woman can’t win, and Joe Biden has staked his entire campaign on being electable due to his broad popularity as vice-president and his bond with suburban and exurban white men.

But what they all know and won’t tell any voter, is that electability isn’t real—and they wouldn’t have it if it did.

It is almost impossible to prove a negative, but the absence of electability is obvious in the form of a single man: Donald Trump. To ask whether Donald Trump was electable is to reveal the sham of the concept. With three wives, dozens of accused assaults (with many of them substantiated), four bankruptcies and a $25 million fraud case, the math on Donald Trump’s electability doesn’t add up. Yet he bears the imprimatur of electability since the last election granted him the power of the presidency. That Donald Trump becomes electable because he has been elected reveals a circular logic, an ouroboros of rationalization.

If Donald Trump can get elected, then does it really matter that Joe Biden can’t answer questions about racial inequality without resorting to racial tropes? Voters didn’t mind Trump receiving endorsements from white supremacists after all. With Trump elected, who cares that Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a single policy enacted with his name on it after 30 years as a federal legislator? Trump had never held elected office, worked in politics or effected policy before taking helm of the country. And is Elizabeth Warren really unelectable based on her budget math when Trump ran and won on promising a wall that Mexico would pay for?

It is a telling flaw in electability that it only exists for Democrats. Failures in professional ethics or personal character—whether that’s embezzlement and insider trading or promotion of violence and alliances with white supremacists—are irrelevant for the election of Republican leadership. No matter how innumerate, ridiculous or flatly impossible the promises are, voters never ask GOP officeholders to even explain themselves, let alone make good on them. When those same promises ostracize voters and poll terribly, no one describes Republicans as divisive or unelectable. The practical reality of this demonstrates that electability is not about coherent leadership, meaningful policy or broad appeal; it is about meeting the emotional needs of a very specific group of voters.

The fundamental truth of what we call “electable” is that all voters are equal, but some voters are more equal than others. The votes of those living in cities, actively championing equality, or identifying as “hyphenated-American” are actively diminished, if not outright ignored by the process of determining electability. Instead, the voters who determine electability always live in the middle of the country rather than the coasts, are more concerned with personality than principle, and are necessarily always white. In essence, what we are told is electability is falsely advertised as a battle for the hearts and minds of the country, when it is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party’s base.

This paradigm has skewed our electoral perspective to reward Republican malfeasance, at grievous cost, rather than to cherish that which makes candidates electable, regardless of party. True electability is a function of process, not a trait that can be summoned by force of will. Getting elected is a product of doing, not a state of being. If the next Democratic candidate is to demonstrate their electability in this election cycle, they will have to demonstrate their understanding of the forces arrayed against them in the shape of voter suppression and foreign-funded propaganda, use policy to connect and support the broad range of interests in their coalition, and display efficacy by successfully turning out their most dedicated voters to make the case for their candidacy.

The mythology of electability is one that has allowed a flagrantly exploitative white supremacist to rise to unparalleled executive power, while we question the basic competence of his opponents over marginal failures. It has forced our entire republic to cater to the whims of a political minority, whose standards are not built to maintain the future of the people, but to oppress some to the benefit of others. Most tellingly, this pernicious myth rests as the foundation of the futile promises and flawed campaigns of Democratic candidates, promising to restore a harmony that never existed at the cost of a unity that could. In 2020, we can either reject electability and its lies or allow our continued embrace of its irrationality to destroy us.

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