What They Really Mean When They Talk About ‘Electability’.

The horse race term that’s packed with hidden meaning and subtle implications.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo via Kamala Harris on Instagram

The media and a significant portion of the American public absolutely love the horse race aspect to the presidential race. One thing that the TV pundits thoroughly enjoy talking about during the analysis of who will pull ahead is electability. The dramatics are good for ratings, and they know it. Rather than discussing key policy issues, there is no denying that they prefer talking about whether or not politicians stand a chance against the opposing party in a general election.

Since he jumped in to the race, Joe Biden has worked to position himself as the most electable candidate in the race, ready to take on Donald Trump in a head to head election.

But what does that word ‘electability’ actually mean?

Given the context of the political climate in the country, I would argue it’s simply coded language for appeasement. It is an argument that the country is too racist, sexist, and bigoted to elect someone who represents any significant change. It feels as though that word is nothing more than giving in to the ugliest aspects of our society, and staying away from a candidate who will ruffle any feathers.

This isn’t a phenomenon that just applies to progressives.

Back in the day, many of us remember that the ‘electability’ argument was used against Barack Obama when he was the underdog against Hillary Clinton. At the time, political strategist Mark Penn wrote a memo in which he stated that Barack Obama was “unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun”, and went on to say:

“I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”

Barack Obama, not fundamentally American in his thinking and values?

I can understand addressing key factors in an election like name recognition and the financial situation of a candidate, but what was it about Barack Obama’s fundamental message and thinking that was so different from the likes of Hillary Clinton? Sure, he positioned himself against the Iraq war that Clinton had voted for, but that was one of his key strengths in the campaign.

Penn also proposed a targeted attack against Obama’s “lack of American roots”.

Make no mistake, all of these “electability” factors cited by Obama’s opponents within his own party at the time had nothing to do with his policy or his message, but everything to do with the color of his skin. For these pundits, strategists, and fellow politicians to dismiss Obama as unelectable was deeply rooted in an either conscious or unconscious desire to appeal to the racist sentiments still entrenched within all aspects of American society.

Regardless of whether we are to the left or more centrist in the democratic party’s ideological spectrum, there is no denying that all of us associate Joe Biden with the days of Barack Obama. The media is quick to point to this as one of his strengths, and feel this will largely help him win favor with African American voters. However, they tend to leave out the fact that Joe Biden was not chosen to help Barack Obama win African American votes. Biden was selected as a vice presidential candidate in order to make the white voters more comfortable.

These democrats that Biden was selected to appeal to are the democrats that went on to vote for Trump in 2016, and the democratic elites are hoping that Biden is what we need to bring them back. They would rather appease the clear racist sentiments that exists within this part of the base instead of trying to appeal to younger, more liberal voters.

The failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is affecting the conversation surrounding “electability” of candidates like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren as well. Of course, I’m sure sexism was a significant part of why Clinton was seen as unlikeable, but to ignore her poor campaign strategies in crucial states and her persistent snubs of the progressive base is doing a massive disservice to the discussion surrounding how to move forward in the 2020 election.

To the pundits Clinton’s failure means that the country is simply “not ready” for a woman to be president, and they are passing this idea off on to the campaigns of two incredibly strong candidates simply because of their sex. But, both women continue to perform strong in the polls. Yet Harris in particular, as a black woman, continues to have her campaign portrayed as simply a run for “second fiddle” just to get on the ticket with someone like Joe Biden.

Frankly, I am tired of the “electability” question this early on in the primary, before we have even had a debate and seen how the message of each candidate resonates afterwards.

At this point, for a candidate to be dismissed as unelectable is just another way of saying: conservative white America won’t go for that. Un-electability, especially in the context of a fairly centrist candidate like Kamala Harris, doesn’t even have anything to do with her message. Much like Barack Obama, her very existence as an African American AND a woman is considered a liability by the white liberals on television, and that’s something we should not tolerate.

On the flip side, Bernie Sanders is conveniently dismissed as just another old white guy. What could he possibly bring that’s new to the table, right? Dismissing Sanders as just another white guy conveniently ignores that if elected, he would be the first Jewish President in American history, which would be no small accomplishment considering the staggering rise we’ve seen in anti-semitism in recent years.

I am more than happy to discuss candidates and the probability of their success on the basis of policy, but we have no business writing them off simply because of race or skin color, which is what the “electability” conversation does all too often. These conversations serve as another reminder that the democratic establishment has learned nothing from the 2016 race. They see the election of Trump as a sign that they must hold the center-right, and that substance and representation must be pushed to the side.

Lauren is a writer & leftist with analysis on topics related to politics & policy. She can be reached at LaurenMartinchek@gmail.com or Twitter @xlauren_mx

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store