I had the first Democratic debate marked on my calendar for weeks. I texted two of my friends about it as I watched, groaning at the jokes that didn’t land and sorry attempts at Spanish. Even if the format was far from perfect, I welcomed the attempt. Finally, there was a night dedicated to talking about what a different vision of America’s future could look like, the possibilities for a country that had erred, but could be saved.
Yet as the second night came to a close, I remained confused by the sudden popularity of candidates like Pete Buttigieg, whose small town charm belied his lack of national political experience. I was skeptical of how seriously journalists treated his candidacy, especially when women in the race with decades-long records of public service went unmentioned. Buttigieg is a polyglot, a Rhodes Scholar, and a combat veteran. But he’s competing in a field where none of these characteristics are unique to him, and where female and non-white candidates often play down their pedigree to avoid alienating voters: why didn’t it hurt him to be the “smart” one?
Much of what I have heard from Buttigieg supporters is genuine—a desire to be heard and represented, the meaning of a young gay politician with a chance at the presidency. But there is also a certain mythology around his run. He could be the “intellectual” candidate because the media presented him as a safe and comfortable choice: a small-town white man who still meant something for progressive representation. Pastel photoshoots and playful profiles humanized him in a way that is rare for a field so large. Buttigieg’s dogs receive more press coverage than some candidates did on the debate stage. Pundits describe him as fresh-faced and articulate, then criticize Elizabeth Warren for looking like Hillary Clinton.
During the debates, I was in awe of the women at their podiums, whose presence challenged the notion that if Hillary did not completely shatter the glass ceiling, nobody would. Yet I struggled to find journalists who felt the same way. Instead, article after article centered on the men in the race, asking which one of them could save democracy.
Debate coverage means little so early, but it shows how theories of what a winner looks like can shift polling numbers and shape the election. After the first debates came to a close, I wondered if the male candidates knew what a gift their “electability” was, what an edge they got from being who voters believe America wants. Women have to be phenomenal to have a chance. Men just have to survive.
This is not a story about Buttigieg. It is about who is taken seriously in politics. While “electability” can help write off any marginalized candidate, it is most often used to trivialize female politicians. But “electability” does not say when America will be ready for better, if ever. And it does not promise that waiting for a brighter tomorrow will work better than fighting for one.
There should not be a gap between who voters perceive as the best candidate and who they think can win. Yet that seems to be one of the overarching themes of the Democratic primary. An early August poll from Quinnipiac University showed that 21 percent of primary voters favored Warren, but just 9 percent viewed her as the most electable candidate. Electability reduces women to their gender, while ignoring that if there is ever to be a female president, someone must be the trailblazer. As Rutgers political science professor Kelly Dittmar said, “if we assume that proving electability requires a woman being president, we can’t use that as the measure to elect the first woman.”
There is no nominee guaranteed to beat Trump. The road to the presidency is untold and unknowable, grounded in an American political landscape that has changed so much since 2008. The assumptions “electability” makes are especially dangerous after 2016, an election that defied what so many people thought Americans believed. Trump was not a conventionally “electable” candidate. Democrats will not win a game that Republicans are not playing.
It is possible that unseating Trump will mean convincing swing state Independents to vote for Democrats. It is also possible that it requires a campaign that recognizes the historical disenfranchisement of voters of color and young Americans, one which may be more convincing from a voice that isn’t white and male. Even if Democrats must win back Trump voters, who is to say that the best way to reach them is by clinging to political decorum?
If an “unelectable” candidate loses to Trump, the voters who supported them—who are disproportionately members of marginalized communities themselves—will be made to feel responsible. Moderates will accuse primary voters of giving up guaranteed good for possible perfection, for “pushing the envelope” when the stakes are so high. Expecting to be genuinely represented is deemed a political luxury that America cannot afford, especially while children are left in cages and mass shootings dominate the news. No candidate is worth it.
But who is a “safe” nominee anymore? What would an America unambiguously ready for a female President look like? When will women not be considered foolish for trying?
Believing that America will become politically tolerant if given enough time is baseless and ahistorical. While saying that America is “not ready” for a President who is not a white man could be true, it would also be ceding understandings of identity to violent white supremacist movements. From women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement, history shows that progress does not come from keeping America comfortable. We must expect better from our political allies, which means expecting them to vote for the best candidate, not the safest one. And it means holding ourselves to that standard, too.
The people we like, the ones who make us feel secure, are not politically neutral designations. Our gut feelings are shaped by a system meant to keep power in the hands of those who have always had it. They are grounded in an American past that systematically excluded so many voices. “Electability” demands that voters settle for scraps. We deserve better, and we should vote like it.