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The Electability Obsession

Daniel Geary writes: Who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump? That is what everyone is asking as voting in the contest to be the Democrats’ presidential candidate begins in Iowa on February 4th. It’s the wrong question.

Anyone today who thinks they can confidently predict a candidate’s electoral chances hasn’t been paying much attention. No one could have foreseen that in 2016 the US would elect as its leader a shameless con artist, reality TV star and unapologetic racist who weeks before the election was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. In the UK, no one bet on the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, on the success of the Brexit referendum, on the loss of Theresa May’s majority in the 2017 election, or on the landslide victory by her successor, Boris Johnson, in 2019. In our unsettled times, conventional wisdom no longer applies.

Moreover, if one looks at the three or four leading contenders for the Democratic Party nomination, it is hardly obvious which stands the best chance in the general election. Anyone who tells you they know which is most electable is probably just projecting that magical quality onto their preferred candidate.  

The frontrunner, Joe Biden, has staked his case on electability. But his case is clear only for those who subscribe to the discredited conventional wisdom. Biden certainly has electoral merits. He has strong appeal among African Americans (a key Democratic constituency) as Obama’s former vice president, and his centrist policies would help him attract moderate voters repelled by Trump. Unlike Hillary Clinton, he projects affability and authenticity. And as a man, he would not suffer from the sexism that Clinton faced.

But he also has serious flaws. He has never been an effective candidate on the national stage, having flamed out of a previous Democratic primary for plagiarising a speech from Neil Kinnock. Always gaffe-prone, he has seemed particularly out of touch during this campaign. Asked a question during one debate about how to address institutional racism, he bizarrely advised parents to “make sure you have the record player on at night”. Such gaffes have not hurt him much so far, but they would certainly prove a vulnerability if asked to face up to Trump, a man with a genius for merciless mockery.

In his long political career, Biden has championed economic neoliberalism as a reliable ally of the credit card industry based in his home state of Delaware, been an unwavering proponent of militarism and the military-industrial complex who supported Bush’s war in Iraq, helped promote mass incarceration, and in 1991 infamously attacked Anita Hill when she brought highly credible claims of sexual assault against Clarence Thomas in his Senate confirmation hearings. Nominating Biden would send a message that the Democratic Party still belongs to the same elites bent on maintaining a social order friendly to corporations and the very wealthy. It would certainly alienate the most energetic constituencies in the party, who have seen it as a vehicle for significant social change to address issues such as gross economic inequalities and the climate crisis, as well as a sizeable group of anti-establishment swing voters.

Biden appeals to those who pretend that Trump is a one-off aberration and wish to go back to normal times. But there are plenty of Americans, including many Democrats, who are deeply discontented with the old status quo. That is how we got Trump in the first place. Where Trump promised to “make America great again”, Clinton offered the complacent message that America “was already great”. It didn’t work in 2016. The third way politics of the Clinton era that saw traditional social democratic parties shift to the right have in this decade time and again proven electoral losers across the globe. Maybe four years later with Biden in place of Clinton, the message would work this time. But, seeing as it failed last time around, there’s hardly any guarantee that it’s a winning strategy.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, appeals to the same sentiments as Biden. But as a fresh face he would seek to invest the old centrist agenda with new energies, much as Macron has in France or Trudeau in Canada. Unlike Biden, though, he has no current appeal among African Americans, polling at 0 per cent among them in a recent national poll. He also polled at only 2 per cent in a national poll of voters under the age of thirty-five, and so is apparently even more abhorrent to this constituency than is Biden. With such limited appeal, he is not one of the leading candidates for now, though that could change should he win Iowa (a real possibility) or should Biden falter.

The most serious challengers to Biden at present come from the left of the party. In the 2016 primary race, the septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders surprised everyone by nearly wresting the nomination away from the anointed Clinton. Many have compared Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, and with good reason. Both have revived left-wing ideas with a strong base of support among young people crippled with student debt, unable to purchase homes, facing unappealing career options and angry at what their elders have done to our planet. But Sanders is not Corbyn. He is a more skilled politician and a far more popular figure in the US than Corbyn ever was in the UK. By some accounts, Sanders is the most popular politician in America. And while Corbyn failed to appeal to Northern English working class voters in 2019, Sanders has proven appeal to their analogues in crucial states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, who swung to Trump in 2016.



Sanders, however, remains a very divisive figure within his own party. He is disliked by many older Democrats and would not attract affluent moderates, who would vote for Biden. His candidacy might provoke a third-party run from a centrist such as Michael Bloomberg. It is also an open question what kind of press coverage Sanders would receive were he to become the nominee. So far in this campaign, the mainstream media has largely ignored him, but their traditional hostility to leftists would no doubt come into play in a general election.

Elizabeth Warren would be a far more unifying figure within the party than either Biden or Sanders. Sanders’s candidacy makes Warren seem moderate by comparison, but there is little doubt that a Warren nomination would represent a significant leftward shift for the party. Warren advocates a wealth tax on billionaires and speaks of breaking up the monopolies of tech firms. She would be left-wing enough to capture the enthusiasm of the Sanders bloc while not so radical as to turn off the Biden bloc or to invite the media’s total disapproval.

But Warren would face difficulties of her own in the general election. Though her policies are populist and she effectively channels righteous anger in her appearances, there is a strongly technocratic cast to her campaign, as reflected in her unofficial slogan, “She has a plan for that.” Though Warren has humble Oklahoma roots, she too often appears as the Harvard professor she is today. This is the wrong political style to appeal to the non-college educated voters that Biden and Sanders attract and which are necessary to win in the key Midwestern swing states. And, while it is long overdue for the US to have its first woman president, the deep sexism in American society could prove a disadvantage for Warren, as it was for Clinton. Finally, her inability to handle the question of her Native American ancestry could prove a major disadvantage.

By any objective accounting, it is impossible to say which Democratic candidate is most electable. Moreover, the whole discourse of electability is hiding what is really going on in the 2020 primary: a battle over the future direction of the Democrats. The Democratic Party is not actually a political party in the European sense. It doesn’t hold annual conventions, it doesn’t elect a party leader, and it doesn’t have a membership (US voters can register as a Democrat but there is no party which they can join). Since the erosion in the 1970s of the institutional pillars of the party ‑ labour unions and urban machines ‑ the leading party institution, the Democratic National Committee, focuses largely on fundraising. Primaries are the main mechanism by which the rank-and-file can help determine their party’s direction.

And the alternatives offered to Democratic voters this year are as stark as they have ever been. One path is to make the Democratic Party something it has not been for a half-century, a serious force for social reform to the benefit of ordinary Americans, a project that characterises both the Warren and Sanders approaches, though in different ways and to different degrees. The other is the restoration of the status quo of pro-corporate policies of the kind pursued under its last presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. With such a momentous choice, primary voters should vote with their values rather than for the candidate they imagine has the best chance of beating Trump. Actually, that’s what most of them are doing whether they know it or not.

The path of status quo restoration has the strong support of corporate donors, particularly from the finance and tech sectors, who play an outsized role in the party because of big money’s importance in American politics. But it would be a mistake to believe this path lacks appeal among a sizeable chunk of the party’s rank and file. Unsurprisingly, it appeals to those most secure with their place in American society: older middle-class Americans content with their economic and social status who see no need for radical change in a nation marked by sickening economic inequalities, increasing concentration of power in the hands of corporations and the very rich, rampant militarism, appalling rates of incarceration and reckless pollution of the planet.

When Democrats who support the status quo ante claim that Biden is electable while Sanders is not, they are often merely disguising their class and generational privilege. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard one of my baby boomer relatives complain about how crazy and unaffordable is Sanders’s plan to make state universities tuition-free. They say this despite the fact that they themselves benefited from heavily-subsidised tuitions when they went to university back in the 1960s that did not require them to graduate with tens or hundreds of thousands of debt. Free university education is easily achieved by reordering social priorities. Many nations less wealthy than the US offer free university tuition today at a time when the US has managed to spend over $1 trillion on a war in Afghanistan that its leaders have known almost since its inception that they have no notion of how to win. But policies such as free university education would involve taxing those very baby boomers who protest how unrealistic they are.

No doubt there are Democrats who will vote for Biden because they genuinely believe him to represent the best chance of beating Trump. At least since the time of Reagan, Democrats have been led to believe that the US is a deeply conservative society and that only those Democrats who tack to the centre have any chance of gaining the presidency. Older African American voters seem to be attracted to Biden largely because they think he has the best chance of beating Trump. One can hardly blame them for wanting to support anyone who can throw that white supremacist out of office. But their trust in Biden’s superior electability is misplaced. It would be a deep tragedy if Biden wins the nomination because of votes from Democrats who would actually prefer the party to take a different and bolder direction but who fear that Biden is the only one who can beat Trump, only to see Biden lose to Trump or to defeat Trump when a more inspiring candidate would have done the same.

The obsession with electability exacerbates the political short-termism that has crippled the Democrats in recent decades (in contrast, key Republican constituencies from libertarians to conservative evangelicals do have a long-term agenda). Democrats should be thinking not only about beating Trump, but about defeating Trumpism. The Republican Party today only caters to a minority of Americans. It benefits from structural advantages of the less than fully democratic American system, but Trump is hardly Reagan. Actually, he is one of the least popular presidents in US history, who has never won the approval of more than 42 per cent or so of Americans. Democrats have the chance to construct a political coalition that can set the agenda for the next generation by bringing together the overlapping blocs of people under forty, racial minorities and the working class. But to do so they need to stand for something.

Among the primary candidates, only Warren and Sanders have that vision. But only Sanders appears to have a long-term strategy for how to radically transform American politics. Warren, as admirable as she is and as genuine a victory as her election would be for the left, seems to view this race as a means for her to win the presidency so she can put her plans in action. Sanders, on the other hand, sees it as just another step in building the kind of movement needed to effect the kinds of permanent political change that are necessary. Is it crazy to think that the best hope for the future of the US, and by proxy the rest of the world and planet. lies with a seventy-eight-year-old socialist who recently suffered a heart attack? Maybe so, but then again we live in crazy times.

Photograph: buzzfeednews.com

20/1/2020