I was in a bar talking to one of my good friends about the election. I gave her my standard opening salvo for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): our institutions aren’t working, and we need a candidate who is dedicated to replacing them instead of making minor tweaks. “Fair,” she told me, “but the man literally calls himself a socialist. If he gets to the general election, he’s dead meat. He’s unelectable.”
Yes, Democrats should absolutely be concerned with who’s electable and who isn’t. By virtue of our two-party, first-past-the-post electoral system, we have a winner-take-all situation that has to be addressed. And I believe Sanders is realistically poised to win a general election. But for some reason, that last word annoyed me. “Unelectable.” I got riled up — isn’t that the logic that led us to elect Hillary Clinton in the primary last election cycle? Then we lost. Maybe Democrats need to stop worrying about who’s electable and start voting with their hearts, I told her.
My friend then reminded me of what was at stake in this election. U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration has separated hundreds of children from their families. American foreign policy has been ridiculously unstable, leading us to the brink of war. Despite his claims to being the “king of debt,” Trump has skyrocketed our national debt thanks to tax cuts that let massive corporations off the hook for billions of dollars in taxes while doing little for the average American. We need someone who we’re absolutely sure could win a general election — a moderate like former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), take your pick.
I think what annoyed me, though, is that I’ve heard this term “unelectable” being thrown around so lackadaisically. But it does represent a valid fear. If we were 100 percent sure that we could beat Trump by nominating a yellow dog, as the saying goes, it would probably be worth it — that’s how much of a threat Trump is to American prosperity.
However, we can’t have that certainty, and so we have to pick the candidate we think is best. Yet we’ve been hindered from having a fair conversation about the benefits of progressive candidates because of this false idea of electability. For a lot of moderates, “unelectability” just seems like a way out of arguing actual policy. It’s also been a term that’s been used to cover clear sexism; even in the light of a plethora of data indicating how often women win elections, the “electability” of candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is still immediately questioned. Indeed, if you unpack the term “electability,” you end up with a lot of surface-level and deeply flawed concerns.
Many polls show Sanders outright winning against Trump in a general election. As much as any argument against Sanders’ electability is thrown around, it’s clear that the magnitude of the problem isn’t as large as one might expect.
Sanders’ age is constantly brought up as a concern when considering “electability.” An older president may not be able to govern as efficiently as someone younger due to lack of vigor, some may argue. Sanders, however, is just a year older than Biden, the candidate with the greatest proportion of supporters who believe he’s the best candidate to take on Trump. (Sanders comes as a close second.) If age is not a factor for Biden, it shouldn’t be for Sanders. Even still, Sanders’ age hasn’t taken anything from the energy he displays on the campaign trail.
Most Americans, to put it lightly, are not comfortable with the term “socialism.” This is absolutely a rhetorical hurdle for Sanders to overcome. I would encourage everyone to listen to his own definition of democratic socialism. Americans tend to associate socialism with communism and the authoritarian regimes that arose with it in the 20th century. But the United Kingdom, ever our ally in democracy (God save the Queen), is, by Sanders’ definition, perhaps as socialist as they come. In fact, part of the reason why Brexit was so popular was because of appeals like the widely disputed claim that, if Britain left the European Union, they would have hundreds of millions more pounds sterling per week to fund their nationalized, single-payer health-care system.
Recently, Warren claimed that Sanders remarked that a woman couldn’t become president in a private conversation. If Sanders ever said that women are unelectable, he was completely wrong on both a moral and statistical level. As of the publication of this article, he has vehemently denied that claim. The progressive movement he started is not only theoretically concerned with gender justice, but has earned the support of women nationwide. Sanders has to continue fighting for intersectional ideals, just like he has throughout his senatorial career, now more vocally than ever.
Hillary Clinton, sans being mired in untrue or overblown scandals and conspiracies, seemed as electable as they come. In a sense, she was; she won the popular vote by over 2 million votes. But she lost the Electoral College because of a slew of states that flipped against the Democrats, most of which are in the so-called “Rust Belt,” or the former industrial heart of America, that most Democrats relied on as a firewall. Clinton would have needed to convince around 200,000 voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — 0.06 percent of the U.S. population — to win.
One of the prevailing explanations for Trump’s win is the prevalence of racist and sexist attitudes, and many have argued against interpreting the results of the 2016 election in any sort of economic context. Yet the data shows that Trump’s victory didn’t come from him gaining too many new voters: it was that Democrats lost them in droves. Most of the mainstream candidates haven’t focused on speaking to those constituencies. Sanders, on the other hand, has spent his life supporting policies that seek to support disadvantaged Americans, like the ones who still live in places like the Rust Belt years after the beginning of its industrial decline. He remains the leading proponent of Medicare for All, the only plan aimed at completely ending the health-care crisis in America. In the Senate, he’s received bipartisan praise for overhauling the Veterans Administration and has fought via filibuster to end tax cuts for the hyper-wealthy as to increase funding for public programs. What has your candidate done to get elected?
Devin Bog (20C) is from Fremont, Calif.