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The Electability Monster Must Be Destroyed

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17.01.2020

We are several days now into a spat between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—the Democratic primary’s two progressives who, as has been widely reported, have observed a pact of non-aggression against each other for the majority of the primary campaign. That arrangement collapsed amid two controversies. The first was brought about by the leak of a Sanders campaign canvasser script which had volunteers challenging Warren’s viability in the general election based on the composition of her coalition in the primary—a kind of argument, it should be said, that has been made against Sanders throughout the race. The second, more serious controversy, was brought about by Warren’s allegation that Sanders had privately confessed to her his belief that a woman cannot win the presidency.

Both of these controversies, in their own way, touch upon the question of electability, which polls have told us is front of mind for Democratic voters. As far as Warren’s gender is concerned, even those who argue that Sanders deserves criticism if he made the remark concede that many ordinary Democrats are themselves wary about nominating a woman. “It can be hard to shake the tickle in the back of your brain,” The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle wrote Wednesday, “that Mr. Trump’s retrograde brand of politics—his naked appeals to sexism, racism and other forms of old-school bigotry—can be weaponized all too easily against a woman opponent, who, fairly or not, already faces generic, gender-based hurdles.”

It is clearly true that perceptions of female candidates can be tinted by sexism and that women face more obstacles to success in politics than men. But our last presidential election was instructive. It’s often pointed out, appropriately, that Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Trump in 2016. It should also be noted that Clinton’s share of the popular vote was not markedly different from the shares won by losing male candidates past—she won a slightly larger proportion of the vote than Mitt Romney and John McCain had previously managed; a slightly smaller proportion than Al Gore and John Kerry.

Her performance, in short, was statistically unremarkable—any additional handicap she might have faced as a woman simply cannot be found in the vote tally. It’s possible that her gender might have cost her some support in the regions of the country critical to an electoral college victory. But the margins in those places were extraordinarily close—to believe that female candidates are doomed to fail is to believe, implausibly, that there were no conceivable scenarios in which Clinton might have garnered the few thousand more votes necessary to carry her to victory. The lesson some........

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