There’s a modern proverb I like that goes, “You’re not in traffic. You are traffic.” (I live in Los Angeles, where driving is equal parts ubiquitous and punishing.) In so many words, this saying expresses that we can cause harm even as it appears to happen to us.
This idea strikes me as pertinent in modern American politics. As Democrats face an important primary choice between competing theories of the world, the question of “electability” appears everywhere. It is built into polls, where record numbers of liberals admit to preferring a candidate who will certainly beat President Trump in November over one who closely shares their views on the biggest issues. It surfaces in stump speeches and debates – every candidate standing has repeatedly exhorted voters to imagine them “taking on” President Trump in general election debates, has talked about their strong polls and general election strategy. In the Nevada debate last week, Senator Sanders was asked how he could support a fracking ban when most Pennsylvania voters don’t. (Pennsylvania is an important swing state.) Never mind that they in fact appear to, or that the morally correct stance could be an unpopular one, or that Pennsylvania voters are likely to primarily vote on the basis of other cues and issues than fracking bans. The implicit logic of the question was clear: governing is all well and good, but how will you win?
I have a different take than the debate moderators, because the fact is that no one really knows who or what is electable. In the wake of George W. Bush’s victory over the decidedly inoffensive Democrat John Kerry in 2004, a popular notion among the commentariat was that the Democrats ought to play it even safer. Esteemed members of the commentariat argued that Kerry had not been stridently conservative enough on cultural issues like guns and religion. The next nominee Democrats chose was Barack Obama, a candidate who proposed fundamental change in Washington and famously pricked conservatives on the subject of guns and religion, instead. Obama was also black, a seeming liability for the election. He won the White House easily.
That the speculation around electability has fared poorly for two presidencies in a row has done little to deter Democrats this cycle, the lessons of 2008 and 2016 poorly internalized. Rather than question the premise that elections are a game with easily observable rules for winning, the intense speculation around electability has only intensified, and the ticket (the President/Vice-President pairing) is where the game really gets going. Voters and commentators have become obsessed with finding the candidate who has the best chance of winning in November and finding that perfectly complementary running mate. As soon as prominent politicians bow out of the race, they get asked about serving as Vice President on cable news shows and The View. Indeed, the culprit of the electability zeitgeist is certainly cable news and similar shows, where analysis – panels of salaries who treat elections as simple games with observable rules – has replaced much reporting.
Fine, the average voter or CNN commentator might assert, you can have Elizabeth Warren (a woman) or Cory Booker (a black man) at the top of the ticket. In our cautious climate not all voters would even go that far, and I discuss that trepidation below. But all would concede that stranger things have happened. Surely, though, a commentator might say, you can’t run two women on the presidential ticket. You can’t run two black people, it follows. Or two lefties. The unexpected popularity of Stacy Abrams as a Vice-President contender implies another fact: in this American era, you can’t run two white men. But of course you can.
In fact, there is a moral and entirely legal world where two black people run a presidential ticket because they can and they win and hire a black Secretary of State and a black Secretary of the Treasury and a black Chief of Staff. Perhaps these candidates are strictly the best people for the job, perhaps they get along particularly well, or perhaps they are visionary leaders who think black leadership is what America needs to heal from its wounds. Double for any other supposedly dangerous identity: left, woman or femme, Native, strictly high-school educated, gay or trans, ESL, disabled. The list goes on. But electability is a game that requires you to compromise with yourself, and the rules say this is politically inconceivable.
How did we get this way? Why does our governance seem so negotiable, and why does our imagination come so short?
My diagnosis in three parts: One – Democrats are deeply cautious by nature. As political scientists have pointed out, Democrats must continually assemble diverse coalitions that involve people of all identity groups and ideological persuasion. As Ezra Klein writes in his new book, where GOP identity politics involves appealing deeply to one, relatively homogenous voter group, Democratic politics involves fragile and testy coalitions between many groups. (Jokes have been made about the party eating itself or engaging in circular firing squads.) As a result, the party is understandably attuned to giving all sorts of voters some representation. But this is where the justifiable basis for gamifying the ticket ends.
Two – people are afraid to say how they feel. Take the top of the ticket: Perhaps you like Joe Biden because gradual change from the status quo and low-drama management of the White House seems ideal to you. But admitting that you don’t personally support a woman candidate for President may draw ire from your friends. So you simply observe that a woman cannot win, which portrays you as the dutiful bearer of bad news rather than a voter ensuring a woman won’t have a shot. The same idea in reverse is true of the Vice-Presidential slot: people who want their favored politician elevated to a national stage are often emphatic about that candidate’s winning odds rather than their governing merits or personal appeal. Doing away with pretend omnipotence about what can win in November would force people to take responsibility for their actual positions and preferences.
Finally, most importantly and most mistakenly, people overestimate the effect of a two-this, two-that ticket (or otherwise untraditional ticket) on voter choices. By dint of modern American polarization, candidates who win the nomination are almost automatically entitled to between 40-45% of the vote. In other words our two-party system and partisanship minimize the role that individual candidates or policy stances have over any election. It’s hard to know, but it’s likely that few presidential elections are won or lost on the narrow margins that distinguish candidates of the same party (and very few indeed on the basis of vice-presidential candidates).
The polls we have, though only modestly predictive so far from the election, bear this out: At the top of the ticket, all of the candidates poll competitively against Trump, despite what you’ve heard about disqualifying flaws. Warren often does a touch worse than Sanders, who does a touch worse than Biden. Low name recognition complicates some polls, as surely does the fact that intraparty tempers are running high. Further, unforeseen scandals and world events are likely to significantly change who polls how between now and November. And that’s the top of the ticket; a Vice-President is multiples less influential on the outcome. So the trade-off is just that — a trade-off, giving away the governance you might actually want for a casino’s chance that another ticket will do better in the election. By way of example: the affinity between the two leading progressives (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) is well-documented. One might expect them to team up on the ticket and take advantage of their complementary styles and worldviews. But according to the tortured logic of electability, Sanders should surely pick Kamala Harris (a black woman) or Mike Bloomberg (a studied centrist) as his Vice-President. The internal conflicts and intellectual incoherence of these tickets are ignored, as is the worst case scenario: the President dying. In that case, his or her successor would see and govern the country wholly differently. What am I voting for if I vote for that ticket?
Democrats also overestimate the effect of a two-this, two-that ticket because they assume that other voters are incorrigibly biased on the basis of race and gender. Bias is real, but there’s little reason to think it would be worse with two women or two black people on the ticket. In an influential (and lightly contested) article titled Critical Mass, Professor Allison Konrad writes of corporate boards that,
- “Multiple women help to break the stereotypes that solo women are subjected to.”
- “With just one woman on a board, ‘gender, as the obvious feature that makes a solo woman different from the rest of the group, becomes the key characteristic that people notice.’”
Konrad is much more excited about three women in a room than two women, to be fair, and corporate America may not be perfectly analogous to the presidential contest. But again, polling bears out the point: in 2016, Elizabeth Warren proved that a woman VP is no danger to a woman President. As Clinton concluded the nomination fight and pondered a Vice-President, Warren polled similarly to all the male candidates. ABC wrote up the evidentiary poll from Monmouth in 2016:
- “When asked how Clinton choosing a woman as her running mate would impact votes, a mere 4 percent said they would be more likely to vote for the pair, 10 percent would be less likely to vote for them, and a whopping 86 percent said it would not make a difference.”
- “Other options in the poll included Senators Tim Kaine, Cory Booker, and Al Franken, as well as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. Each of these options left a negative impression, with respondents saying they would be less likely to vote for Clinton if she chose any of these men as her VP.”
In other words, sexism isn’t likely to multiply with more women on a ticket. Two black people aren’t scarier than one. Voters can safely support a ticket made up of two people who complement each other, and/or who would do the job best.
We can turn to philosophy to understand the mode voters are in. In liberal philosopher John Rawls’ vision for public reason, which I was exposed to through columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, voters and politicians (anyone in the arena) sometimes have to bargain with their counterparts about the reason they’re doing something to build enough consensus to do that thing. Perhaps a Senator wants higher taxes on the rich because she believes it’s morally dubious to have high national inequality, but she foregrounds a different argument to win votes from her conservative colleagues: that higher taxes can pay down the debt. In this fashion, deeply personal values, views, and experiences (often religious or spiritual) can be turned into working consensus so long as its rationale is widely agreeable and/or relatively secular.
Even practiced as such, public reason can be frustrating for everyone. In the speech she gave at her graduation from Wellesley College, HiIllary Clinton said, “for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” She implored leaders to expand their ambition, however efficacious narrow ambitions might be in achieving themselves.
Ironically, it was her opponent for the nomination in 2016 who took her advice most to heart. For many, what was refreshing about Bernie Sanders’ 2016 candidacy was that his views and values – even and especially those that seemed unelectable – were on simple, earnest display. Sanders outperformed expectations in ‘16 and as of this writing leads the field this year. His ideas have profoundly shaped the party.
John Rawls was generally supportive of everyday voters engaging in the same sort of public reason as public officials, but the space that public reason takes up among voters now is unequivocally outsized. In conversations with friends and acquaintances, I find that personal views on issues and styles have become irrelevant and unknowable amid the presidential race, replaced by the quest for the perfect, publicly reasonable candidate – the candidate who is good because they can win, the vice-president who is good because they can help win, the ticket that couldn’t be mistaken for saying anything about their private values.
These conversations are sad to me. I am still young and think fondly of making what appears to be impossible possible. I do not want to circumscribe the future of the country so narrowly and so cynically.
For those who share my discomfort, rest assured: the evidence we have suggests that we can run two black people on the same ticket. We can run two women on the same ticket. Let’s talk about who’s best for the job. It’s time to bring the era of pretending other people are the problem to an overdue close. You are not in traffic. You are traffic.
In her influential 1992 poem “I want a president,” American artist Zoe Loenard states flatly, “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president and I want someone with no health insurance…” She goes on to namecheck deportation, civil disobedience, emotional damage as desirable qualities. Her point was this: Forget about the game. Think now about the representation you want and the country you want. Think about that moral world that lies beyond respectability, electability.
The author of this piece welcomes feedback and comments and he can be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org