One of the hardy perennial topics of contemporary left-of-center politics is the fear that Donald Trump has poisoned this country’s civic life in ways that will inflict long-term damage on America and on the world. My colleague Andrew Sullivan spoke for many recently in wondering if the degenerative “process is accelerating, and we may be nearing a point of no return.” That fear, of course, feeds Democrats’ much-discussed obsession with finding the most “electable” 2020 opponent for Trump, and probably underlies the implicit message of the current King of Electability, Joe Biden, that we need a quick restoration of the Obama status quo ante in hopes of reducing the Trump presidency to a brief, nightmarish aberration.
But in that very obsession with electability lives a particularly powerful and poisonous example of Trump’s sinister influence: This world-class misogynist’s 2016 victory has convinced many Democrats that they cannot — they dare not — nominate a woman for president in 2020, and perhaps for as long as Trumpism is a dominant strain in American politics.
This fear has percolated just under the surface during 2020’s invisible primary and is now being forced into plain view by the recent success of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin explains that “electability” worries grip Warren’s supporters as well as those backing other candidates:
Senator Elizabeth Warren has built the most formidable campaign organization of any Democratic presidential candidate in the first nominating states, raised an impressive $25 million without holding high-dollar fund-raisers, and has risen steadily in Iowa and New Hampshire polls.
Few candidates inspire as much enthusiasm as she does among party voters, too, from the thousands who turned out for her speech at the Iowa State Fair last weekend to the supporters in this western Iowa city who repeat her catchphrases, wear her buttons and describe themselves as dazzled by her intellect and liberal ideas.
Yet few candidates also inspire as much worry among these voters as Ms. Warren does.
Even as she demonstrates why she is a leading candidate for the party’s nomination, Ms. Warren is facing persistent questions and doubts about whether she would be able to defeat President Trump in the general election. The concerns, including from her admirers, reflect the head-versus-heart debate shaping a Democratic contest increasingly being fought over the meaning of electability and how to take on Mr. Trump.
These “concerns” aren’t always strictly expressed as being about Warren’s gender. Her fiery progressivism convinces some Democrats that she might be a foil for Republicans’ attacks on “socialism” (though unlike Bernie Sanders, she rejects the socialist label). Then there are her admitted mistakes in dealing with the minor “scandal” of a claim of Native American heritage, which seems a trifle compared to the incumbent’s vast record of mendacity and racism. And I know Democrats who just have a superstitious terror of nominating a Harvard professor representing Massachusetts (home to three failed presidential nominees in the last eight elections).
But as Li Zhou acerbically observes at Vox, these recitations of Warren’s vulnerabilities reflect the very different standards applied to women running for president after 2016:
While many people have candidates they’re excited about, their top priority by far is beating President Donald Trump. And for some, because of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, they’re not sure certain candidates — namely, women — can do it.
“Biden and Warren are our top two choices,” voter Connie Esbeck recently told Vox’s Tara Golshan in Iowa, adding, “I’m still afraid there’s going to be people that are prejudiced against electing a woman.”
“There are some old stubborn guys, they may not vote for a woman,” said her husband Glenn Esbeck, who had previously supported Clinton.
The Esbecks are far from alone in expressing this sentiment. It’s a fear driven by Clinton’s recent defeat, the high stakes associated with unseating Trump and longstanding skepticism of women in politics, experts tell Vox.
What makes this narrative strange is that this isn’t about Democratic primary voters preferring men to women. It’s about the belief of Democratic primary voters that the general electorate is a more than a wee bit piggy. And why do they believe that? Because a man like Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Put most bluntly, blue America is convinced that red America is deeply misogynistic. So in order to reverse the 2016 outcome, Democrats just can’t take the risk of running even the most highly-qualified woman.
Zhou tries to explode this mind-set systematically. She notes the extremely skimpy empirical data supporting the idea that gender was a key factor — among so many competing factors — in the 2016 outcome; the impressive general election record of women in the 2018 midterms (including women in the “heartland” regions where piggy men are supposedly the primary swing voters); and the spotless electoral record of Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. These women have not run for president before and lost. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — the presumably more “electable” men in the field — have, notes Zhou. You could almost call it the most irrefutable data point of them all:
“When people say it shouldn’t be a woman this time, because a woman lost last time, well, men have been losing the presidency for hundreds of years,” says Amanda Hunter, a policy director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
Add in the evidence that Democratic voters express more enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of a woman and/or person of color than of another white guy — stronger than the evidence Clinton lost because she is a woman — and it becomes clear the fears about actually nominating a woman are almost entirely a matter of assuming that Trump’s misogyny is shared by the voters who will decide the 2020 elections. And beyond that, the fears reflect the atavistic gut conviction that the purple-state backlash against a women will exceed the frontlash from those happy, finally, to break that last political glass ceiling. Trump has so thoroughly demoralized Democrats that they are exhibiting sexism in their own political judgments in the guise of “electability.”
Electability, of course, is a slippery concept to begin with, and by the time Democratic voters formally weigh in the prevailing assumption that old white men are vastly more electable than women or people of color could have been eroded by additional evidence. And it’s also possible that the neurotic conviction of so many Democrats that this deeply and persistently unpopular president is so infernally powerful that electability is the only thing that matters could fade.
Democrats need to ask themselves questions like this: Is the historic value of electing an eminently qualified women as president worth boosting the odds of a Trump reelection from, say, 20 percent to 22 percent? How about the value of electing a president who can actually get important things done? Personally, having evaluated the “theories of change” being advanced by the various candidates, I think the two Democrats with the clearest visions of how they will accomplish their policy goals happen to be Warren and Klobuchar, not Biden and Sanders, as I noted recently:
[T]here are some possible avenues for at least a limited 2021 progressive offensive, ranging from Elizabeth Warren’s strategy for breaking down McConnell’s power, to Amy Klobuchar’s proposed blitz of executive orders …
What won’t work is magical thinking about what a new president can accomplish. Joe Biden’s Senior Center nostalgia for a Senate where people reached across the aisle to get things done is a cruel hoax, even if his own “Senatitis” blinds him to that fact. But so, too is Bernie Sanders’’ empty claim that he will somehow create a “political revolution” more powerful than the vast interests protecting the status quo.
So if you have two women, one “progressive” and one “moderate,” who can credibly promise a greater 2020 payoff than just ejecting Trump from office, why keep preferring men who appear to live in a different era (Biden) or country (Sanders)? Yes, Trump has gotten deeply into the donkey’s head, and has convinced Democrats that his dark misogynistic soul is America’s. That’s some serious damage.