election 2020

‘Electability’ Is Now Code for Not Wanting to Vote for Bernie

As the number of candidates whittles down, more Democrats are using the term as a way to avoid saying what they really mean.
March 3, 2020, 6:21pm
Bernie Sanders against a black background
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout the Democratic Primary, the term “electability” has been employed as a way to quickly boost one candidate or dismiss another on grounds so vague that they cannot be disputed. The electability argument generally goes something like this: It’s not you, and it’s not me either. It’s people who aren’t in this room and who we can never and will never speak to, but who I can confidently tell you will never vote for that candidate, only this candidate. You know how people are—not me, other people.

Historically, the train of thought has been used to question from a distance whether a candidate of color, like Barack Obama, or a woman candidate, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, had the appeal to win over the mythical people your uncle has never met but feels like he has a pretty good understanding of because he watches the primetime block of MSNBC at least three times a week.

Now, as the number of realistic Democratic candidates whittles down to a small handful of old white men (and Warren, barely), more and more Democrats are using the linguistic horror of a term as a way to avoid saying what they really mean—which is that they, personally, really don’t want to vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Tuesday’s episode of The Daily provides one such useful example. The central character is Brian Keane, a 52-year-old Democrat from Arlington, Virgina, and the co-founder and CEO of a software company. Keane once worked on Capitol Hill, and his wife is a partner at a law firm that represents clients including the DNC.

Early in the episode, Keane describes his community as "wealthy" and “left of center.” Explaining why his county voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders at roughly a 2-to-1 ratio in 2016, Keane launched into a broad electability argument, the likes of which have been replicated countless times in newspapers across the country over the last year.

“We understand that you want to vote for somebody who can be elected, and so you don’t want to kind of just say, ‘Oh, let’s just go crazy and vote for Mr. Potato Head because I think he’s great and see what happens,” Keane said.

Later, he added, “If we have a nominee to stand up against Trump that says we need a socialist revolution, we’re going to lose.”

The argument seems steeped in logic: A staunch Democrat, Keane truly just wants to defeat Donald Trump, and he does not believe Sanders—a self-described Democratic Socialist—will be able to win over Americans. But in the same episode, Keane reveals something else. It’s not that he simply thinks other people won’t vote for Sanders. He himself doesn’t want to either. “I think it would be really, really bad for the party,” he said. When The Times asks Keane whether he’d vote for Sanders in the general election, Keane says it would depend on who Sanders selected as his running mate.

“A socialist revolution is not what we need,” he said at one point. At another: “I could never imagine that the Democrats would nominate someone who is not a Democrat.”

Ignoring the human mind’s lack of predictive powers, Keane’s bifurcated answer becomes self-defeating: Keane is dead set on the Democrats defeating Trump come November, so much that he names electability as a core issue to him. But if Sanders wins the nomination, Keane might not vote for the Democratic nominee, which would lower Sanders’ odds of defeating Trump and subsequently make Keane one of the mythical voters he believes the party needs to win over right now.

That is the point: With Sanders, as with other candidates before him, “electability” is a shield—a way for self-described progressives to bring up uncomfortable arguments they themselves don’t want to be associated with. Keane at least deserves credit for saying the quiet part loud. Should Sanders fight off the centrist transformer forming around Joe Biden, you can expect to see a lot more well-to-do people say they fear Sanders just isn’t electable, when what they’re really saying is that they are ever-so-slightly worried about their tax bill.

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