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What’s the Matter with “Electability”?

Last week, we asked what (and who) it may take for Democrats to defeat President Donald Trump next year. As we examined the big picture, we wondered if too many pundits and party leaders have been making the wrong assumptions about valuing “electability” and “middle ground” over honesty and good policy.

Today, I figured it’d be worthwhile to zoom in a little more. What exactly is “electability”, and how should we truly determine who is “electable”?

What is “electability”, really?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Over the weekend, I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. So was Jennifer Rubin in her most recent Washington Post column: “In fact, women aren’t just electable, they were elected in droves in 2018 — in state legislative, House, Senate and governor races. […] It is time to bat down the surreptitious and insidious ‘not electable’ meme once and for all.”

First off, Rubin has a point about 2018. After all, we have the first woman-majority Legislature here in Nevada. We also have two women U.S. Senators (Catherine Cortez Masto [D] and Jacky Rosen [D]), two more women in the U.S. House (Dina Titus [D-Las Vegas] and Susie Lee [D-Las Vegas]), three women holding statewide constitutional offices (Lt. Governor Kate Marshall [D], Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske [R], and Controller Catherine Byrne [D]), and women as Mayors of three of our four most populous cities (Carolyn Goodman in Las Vegas, Debra March in Henderson, and Hillary Schieve in Reno).

Photo by Andrew Davey

And in the past four months of covering the campaign trail here in Nevada, I’ve noticed here what Jennifer Rubin is seeing there. U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) were leading the progressive side of the field on policy from the very beginning, and fellow Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) has been doing the same on the more moderate/centrist side of the field. Fellow Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) has quickly been catching up with the other progressive women with detailed policies on education, gun violence, housing, equal pay, and abortion rights.

As we discussed last week, perhaps the most important questions to ask this election cycle are why we’ve fallen into our current meta-crisis of crises and how we intend to solve these crises. Whether we agree with all of their solutions or not, we can’t deny that these four women have put plenty of thought into their respective platforms full of solutions. Isn’t this more important than obsessing over “electability” metrics that don’t seem to measure anything beyond one’s identity? And really, doesn’t that matter more than “her tone”, “her wardrobe”, “her age”, or “her emails”?

Enough with the worries over “identity politics lose election”.

I’ll confess that I haven’t covered Andrew Yang’s campaign as much as I wanted to. But then again, he may not be thrilled with how I’m covering his campaign today. But hey, then again, perhaps he should have given more thought before taking to Twitter to proclaim, “Identity politics are a great way to lose elections. We need to bring people together.”

Here’s where we must return to 2018. As we know very well here in Nevada, voters of color, women voters, LGBTQ+ voters, and younger voters played major roles in building last year’s “Blue Wave” that washed Democrats into power up and down the ballot. The same dynamic largely played out nationwide, hence why Democrats now have a House majority and have reversed much of the losses they suffered in state houses across the nation for the last ten years.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Of course, here’s where we must poke more holes into the (stereo)typical “electability” construct. Remember that time in 2008 when that one Senator from Illinois ran? His father emigrated to the U.S. from Kenya, then met his mother at a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii. When he was just four, his parents split. He was subjected to all sorts of political attacks over his rather unique identity, which is why… Oh wait, Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s 44th President in 2008. And in 2012, he won reelection despite waves of “concern” over his stance on immigration reform, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ civil rights.

What if intersectional justice is actually part of “the winning strategy”?
Photo by Andrew Davey

There are many reasons to be grateful for Nevada’s early state position. Perhaps the top reason is our state’s diversity that provides some counterbalance to the overall “party decides” nomination process that tends to favor straight white male “establishment” candidates. Our diversity also means that our voters add strong voices to the national chorus of demands for answers from candidates and campaigns on matters of intersectional justice, from immigrant civil rights to women’s reproductive rights.

Once more, with feeling, progressives’ growing demands for intersectional justice did not jeopardize Nevada Democrats’ “electability” in 2018, or in 2016 for that matter. And looking at the 2020 map, similarly diverse “swing states” (like North Carolina and Arizona) will determine control of the White House and the U.S. Senate in 2020. Wouldn’t it make sense for national Democrats to examine why Nevada has turned “blue” and work to replicate that success in more “swing states”?

Photo by Andrew Davey

And for those who fear that a call for intersectional justice risks sinking the chances of achieving economic justice policies that “enjoy broader appeal”, they’re better off looking at the actual data than buying into certain pundits’ assumption that new civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are somehow jeopardizing opportunities to raise the minimum wage or roll back anti-union laws. After all women, immigrants, communities of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans tend to be at the very front line of struggles for economic justice due to decades of discriminatory traditions that have held down our wages, denied us housing and health care, and made it harder for our communities to survive.

So where am I going with all of this? If nothing else, remember this: “Electability” is not some innate, sacrosanct quality, but rather a synthetic construct meant to boost certain candidates and ideologies at the expense of others. Before Donald Trump won the presidency (by losing the popular vote) in 2016, Barack Obama won twice. And with Trump still as unpopular as ever, “the polls” show that just about any Democratic nominee can defeat Trump with the right message and the right strategy. So now, it’s up to Democratic voters to decide what that right message and strategy are.

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