Finally, someone just said it.
The buzzword so far in the 2020 Democratic primary has been “electability.” Former Vice President Joe Biden is crushing his opponents fueled by the notion that he’s the most electable candidate in a field of record-breaking diversity – because he can “take on” President Donald Trump in Midwestern swing states, such as Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
But really, the unspoken part of that “electability” conversation has been about identity – race and gender and region. More plainly, it’s about whiteness. Or even more plainly, it’s about the power of whiteness.
At an event in Detroit, a big, black, Midwestern city, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has been knocked for being “cautious” (also a codeword with race and gender implications), took on the “electability” argument and framed it about race and gender and region.
Harris in front of an NAACP audience: “There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest.’ But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often, their definition of the Midwest leaves people out.
It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit. It leaves out working women who are on their feet all day – many of them working without equal pay. And the conversation too often suggests certain voters will only vote for certain candidates regardless of whether their ideas will lift up all our families. It’s shortsighted. It’s wrong. And voters deserve better.”
Shorter Harris: When people talk about electability in the context of 2020, they are talking about white, male candidates and white, working-class voters.
According to a recent CNN poll, 46% of Democratic voters cited “electability” as being a top issue in choosing a candidate. That same poll has Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the first choice of a combined 54% of Democratic voters. The rest of the field is mired in single digits, with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg seeing something of a surge.
Biden, of course, is banking on being better known than Buttigieg, and more mainstream than Sanders, when making his own “electability” case.
Buttigieg has likened himself to Biden, saying they both speak “to the middle of the country.”
Translation: They can win in the Midwest because they both have a special unique appeal and power with (white) voters. And where does that special, unique appeal and power come from? Whiteness.
A line in a Time Magazine cover story on Buttigieg puts it this way: “As a white man, Buttigieg may appeal to more traditional voters, yet women and voters of color are the heart of the Democratic coalition.” Another helpful translation: Traditional voters = white voters.
So what about African-Americans, who made up 25% of all voters in the 2016 Democratic primary?
Harris delivered her pointed take on “electability” in front of an audience of about 5,000 mostly black voters – and that was, of course, on purpose. Her chances of winning the primary rest on not only convincing voters that she’s the best candidate, but also that they can trust that in supporting her, they are choosing someone who can beat Trump.
The Politics of Us
How well she’s doing remains to be seen. For black voters, while many certainly genuinely like Biden, the vice president of the first black president of the United States, there is also something else at work. Call it pragmatic pessimism. A view that America – specifically, white America – is too racist and too sexist to elect a black woman – or any woman – as president.
“She’s phenomenal, but she’s female. I would love it. People aren’t there yet,” one Detroit woman told me. “I will vote for her. Do I think she can win? I’m not certain. I think we are ready, but is America ready?”
A black man in Selma, Alabama, who had come to Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the anniversary, offered Biden and Harris, in that order, as his perfect ticket.
In Columbia, South Carolina, a black woman who is prominent in local party politics said all she’s concerned about is who can beat Trump.
“So that gives me Biden,” she told me. “I like Elizabeth (Warren), I like Kamala … but I want someone who can pull from Trump’s base … and I don’t think a woman can do it. So my black friends will likely be mad at me this go round! And my female friends.”
A black, female Uber driver in Detroit said: “I know a little bit about Biden. I like him. If someone is of lesser status than that they have no hope against Trump.”
What about Harris?
“Black women are at the bottom. It’s not going to happen,” the driver said.