Language is powerful, and opinion makers know it. Case in point: the way pundits use supposedly value-neutral words like “electability” and “viability” to handicap our Democratic presidential primary candidates. They have become buzzwords of the moment, thrown around to establish legitimacy and enforce inevitability.
But what do pundits, insiders, and the media really mean when they use them?
Let’s be clear: More often than not it means “white,” almost always it means “male,” and invariably it means someone who will not upset the status quo.
It is not a coincidence that the “electable” candidate of the moment is Joe Biden. And he and his campaign staff seem to know exactly what that means. When I opened Joe Biden’s announcement email, it read: “America is an idea based on a founding principle that all men are created equal.”
Not all people. All men.
You might think that kind of casual misogyny in 2019 would cause a media firestorm, or at least a little controversy. It didn’t. From talk-show pundits to the political press, “Uncle Joe” continues to be dubbed the most “electable” candidate in America. This is despite the fact that Biden has withdrawn from two Democratic presidential primaries, the first time in disgrace, the second time after getting 1% in Iowa. That’s “electable?”
Or consider Beto O’Rourke, who lost his run for Senate but instantly became a favorite to run for president. I don’t mean to disparage O’Rourke here; he ran a tireless campaign in Texas that inspired millions, and he did better than many past contenders in challenging political terrain. But that applies just as much if not more to Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, neither of whom were given the same presidential buzz.
And take Pete Buttigieg, who has become a media darling. “Mayor Pete” has built a reputation as a policy wonk, but has yet to release anywhere near the rigorous campaign proposals offered by, say, Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris outpaces him in fundraising and leads him in some polls. Still, he is deemed viable, and has become ubiquitous on the airwaves and on the covers of magazines.
You may say there’s one more exception on the flip side of this “electability rule.” Bernie Sanders is probably the one white male candidate whom the pundits haven’t given the sheen of “electability.” But Sanders violates other rules and norms of the comfortable center. Sanders has positioned himself squarely against the political and economic status quo under which generations of political consultants and talking heads like themselves have done so well. So no “electability” for him.
I am not arguing the relative competitiveness of these candidates. Time and a number of primaries in the near future will answer those questions. Rather, I am suggesting that we critique how we talk about electability. When the media calls a white, male, corporate-friendly candidate more “electable,” what we’re really hearing is a belief that the candidate will appeal to a country that prefers white men in office. Worse, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Language like “electability” can bolster a history of oppression and narrow the field of ideological debate. This is not a neutral statement of fact. This is a value statement loaded with prejudices and politics.
Joe Biden’s announcement email was not a mistake. Someone on his team calculated that much of our electorate is not invested in changing that status quo. It’s the same strategy that led Biden to refuse for decades to apologize to Anita Hill, to refuse to take responsibility for physical encounters that made women colleagues uncomfortable, and to refuse to take responsibility for his opposition to school integration or his terrible crime bill.
With Obama as the notable exception, white men have run this country for centuries. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t face the fact that at least some Americans, and even some Democratic primary voters, feel that exception was more than enough. Still other primary voters will make the calculus that the “safer bet” is to run white men of a certain mold who will not ruffle the feathers of those voters who don’t want to see change.
To be clear, I think that calculation is wrong and that there are plenty of data points from 2018 that prove that women and people of color running on a progressive message can win. Abrams and Gillum did historically better than their white male predecessors, for instance. At 32 years old, Mandela Barnes is now lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, defeating eight years of ultra-right-wing rule in that state.
Pundits can disagree with that assessment, but they should at least be honest when they do. Let’s actually take the race, class, and gender realities of this country head-on. Is a white, male, centrist really the panacea to four years under Trump? Is this country too misogynist to accept a woman as commander in chief? Will a woman or person-of-color running for president on a structural change agenda present the clearest contrast to Trumpism?
These are all questions that we can and should address. But as long as we allow the dishonest language of “electability” to shape the conversation, we are stifling debate while giving cover—and legitimacy—to systems of oppression. To effectively challenge injustice, we must honestly call it what it is. Using accurate language can open up a broader discussion about the kind of country we want to live in, and how best to get there.
To political pundits and the press: I invite you to swap the word “electability” with “white;” “viability” with “well-funded by large-dollar donors;” and “likable” with “male.” Maybe then we’ll have a news cycle in which a politician who reinforces racist or sexist norms is the one deemed unelectable. At the very least we’ll live in a media environment where we are fully transparent about the biases that have kept progressives, women, people of color and other underrepresented communities out of the halls of power for a generation.
Maurice Mitchell is national director of the Working Families Party and a senior fellow at Prism. You can follow him on Twitter @ciphersankofa.