When a journalist asked Joe Biden on the day of the Nevada caucuses how he could slow down Bernie Sanders’ electoral momentum, Biden replied: “I beat him by going to — just moving on. People want to know who’s the most likely to beat Donald Trump.”
Chris Cillizza at CNN, sensing that the argument Democrats have been using for months to justify Biden’s nomination has passed its sell-by date, called this the “electability trap.” Biden’s consistent losses in three primaries have seriously compromised his claim to electability. “The truth about human nature, and therefore politics, is that people tend to want to be aligned with a winner. And if you don’t look like a winner, they will go to someone who does. Electability, then, is in the eye of the beholder.”
In the period leading up to the primaries, the mantra of television pundits contained a pair of propositions: Joe Biden represents traditional stability, and though his lack of a vision inspires no one, it reassures the fearful. This means he’s electable. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent an extreme that challenges traditional American values and worries professionals in the world of politics and finance. Though they may be skilled at generating enthusiasm, they are by definition unelectable because they are cutting themselves off from the true sources of power and funding.
For months the working hypothesis was that American voters are fearful of anything out of the ordinary and will align with what is familiar rather than what promises to upset the balance. Consequently, in the eyes of many pundits, the idea of being electable correlates with being ordinary, familiar and predictable. It is becoming clearer by the day that this represents a fatal misreading of recent history. As with so many things, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 changed people’s vision of the way politics works in the US. Alas, it hasn’t changed the way pundits think.
Here is today’s pair of 3D definitions:
Before 2016, an adjective used to describe a political candidate perceived to have multiple personal virtues, few visible faults, a calm, serious demeanor and an image that resembled that of a responsible leader. Synonym: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney.
After 2016, an adjective used to describe a candidate who, despite any number of obvious faults, can convince party officials that they have the material means to win an election. Synonym: Michael Bloomberg.
Before 2016, an adjective used to describe a political candidate perceived to have too many visible faults and too atypical a personality to earn the confidence of a majority of voters. Synonym: Sarah Palin, Donald Trump.
After 2016, an adjective used excessively by the Democratic Party to describe a candidate with too many principles and too independent a character to take orders from the party’s traditional infrastructure. Synonym: Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders.
Donald Trump broke a kind of glass ceiling when he became not just the first billionaire president, but the first to flaunt his wealth and promote it as a positive reason for voting for him. Being a self-aggrandizing billionaire has consequently become a criterion of electability alongside that, still promoted by Democrats, of being ordinary and predictable. The Republicans know Trump is electable because he was elected.
The Democrats, at least until very recently, believed Biden is electable because he is ordinary, unsurprising and a familiar face. The two images are diametrically opposed, but the contradiction doesn’t seem to worry the pundits. The Democrats have even been tempted by the idea of replacing their first reflex — of betting on the ordinary and familiar (Biden) — by the choice of an assertive billionaire, Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg’s rise in the polls and Biden’s decline in the weeks preceding the Las Vegas debate testifies to one previously unverifiable truth about democratic institutions and political decision-making in the US. Bloomberg has reportedly spent more than $400 million in an advertising blitz. Money on its own turns out to be far more convincing to mainstream Democrats than ideas, personality, experience or names. Someone who can demonstrate they have enough money to defy all existing norms, including norms of decency, will be rewarded. Trump proved it in 2016.
Though the billionaire’s putrid performance in his first debate has weakened his position, Bloomberg has already proved it in 2020. That doesn’t mean that money alone wins an election. It does, however, mean that the belief is now solidly implanted among the political class that those who aren’t secure in the amount of money they control are destined to lose.
The Democratic Party finds itself facing a quandary it thought it could avoid. Its most electable candidate is no longer Joe Biden. He has clearly failed to demonstrate his ability to attract voters. As Slate reports, “the top-dollar Democratic donors who initially backed Joe Biden … have been preparing to switch their allegiance to Bloomberg.” Their reasoning was simple: Bloomberg could crush opponents — both Democratic rivals and eventually Trump — by outspending them.
But Bloomberg also had to prove his potential for getting people to want to vote for him. The debate demonstrated Bloomberg’s vulnerability with voters, who were turned off by his performance. At the same time, the Nevada caucuses demonstrated Sanders’ capacity to mobilize voters. No one seriously thinks even Bloomberg’s massive spending will give him enough delegates to convince the party of his electability. Will the establishment Democrats continue to bet on his spending alone as the means of overcoming Trump?
The real question anyone who believes in democracy should be asking is this: Why should the criterion of electability outweigh all the factors that concern the governing of a democratic republic? The very word republic derives from the Latin expression used by the ancient Romans: res publica. It literally means “the public thing” and may be translated into English as “commonwealth.” This designates the shared and mutually managed resources of the nation.
US culture, especially as it has evolved in the last half a century, has turned away from the very idea of “public things” to affirm its categorical belief in things that are managed exclusively by the private sector. The public and the common citizen have lost their wealth.
The res publica implies not just the mutualization and sharing of resources but also a notion of collective solidarity. That happens to be the focus of the debate about Medicare for All. It has become a symbolic struggle between those who recognize and endorse public wealth and those who refuse it. Recent polls show that as many as 70% of voters in the US are in favor of single-payer health care. That may be the principal explanation of Sanders’ success in the early primaries. It may also be the most obvious indicator of electability in 2020.
Trump’s odd and widely unexpected victory in 2016 overturned decades of tradition in the US concerning the image citizens had of the president. The traditional image conditioned the idea of electability. Presidents were required to appear sober, rational and responsive to the respected analysts who were reputed to promote to the best of their ability an objective understanding of the economy and society. Even Ronald Reagan, perceived by many as a failed Hollywood actor more interested in performance than a rational perspective, made the effort to conform to that image.
Things began to change slightly when George W. Bush allowed, and even cultivated, inarticulate confusion as a feature of presidential discourse. But at the same time, he showed at least superficial respect for the idea of objectivity, trying to make a rational case for what turned out to be outlandish and dangerous lies. Barack Obama briefly restored the image of the staid, rational leader.
Then came Donald Trump, who took some hints from Reagan (the media performer) and Bush (the bold liar). Rather than just varying the forms of prevarication previous presidents had cultivated, Trump boldly subverted the entire tradition and proved that a candidate could be electable without paying any attention to serious thought and objective reasoning.
In one sense, Trump was reviving a lost tradition. Before the age of broadcast media — in the age of P. T. Barnum and snake-oil salesmen — it was possible for flawed and manifestly irresponsible candidates to win the presidency. But once the radio and then television brought the voice and image of leading politicians into citizens’ homes, the personal flaws became too evident to neglect. At the same time, the emerging science of political marketing uniformly stressed the importance of building for the media an image imbued with the public virtues of responsible and thoughtful decision-making. Flaws could still exist, but they had to be minor or marginal enough to permit their being professionally airbrushed out of the official portrait.
In a post-Trump world, the very notion of electability has become almost meaningless. And yet for the past year, the Democratic establishment has elevated it to the status of the unique virtue required in its presidential candidate. Back in September, Ronald Brownstein, writing for The Atlantic, called the Democrats’ bluff in an article with the title “How Pundits May Be Getting Electability All Wrong.” He predicted at the time that “If Biden, for instance, can’t beat Warren in the early states, or vice versa, more voters are likely to question whether the losing candidate can beat Trump.” He was wrong about Warren but right about the trend, of which Bernie Sanders turns out to be the principal beneficiary.
Perhaps in November, the Democratic pundits will finally begin to understand what electability actually means. Today, in early 2020, they still seem to be working with an idea that was already out of date in 2016 — an idea that should have been definitely discredited by the result of that election.
[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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