“Electability” is Just Another Word for Gaslighting

Julie Kohler

Today, Joe Biden made it official; he is running for president. Pushed back a day, his announcement came on the heels of the She The People Presidential Forum, the first ever candidate forum focused on women of color, which was held Wednesday in Houston.

There is a metaphoric quality to Biden’s announcement nearly tripping over the Houston forum, especially coming on the heels of recent allegations that he touched and interacted with women in ways that made them uncomfortable. This is a historically diverse Democratic primary in which a record number of highly qualified women are running. The field is deep and replete with talent. Now, of all times, we need a candidate that can see the world not through the lens of his own intentions but through the experiences of women, especially women of color. Can Biden — can Democrats — rise to the moment?

Since the #MeToo movement went viral in late 2017, women have been claiming their space — demanding equality in the workplace, marching, running for office in record numbers, and changing the policy agenda. Elizabeth Warren has made universal child care a central campaign priority. Kamala Harris has a plan to increase teacher pay. Kirsten Gillibrand has made combating sexual assault a priority of her entire political career. Since women began telling our stories, we have been calling on progressive men to join us. To do better. To understand that valuing women’s dignity means standing up in the tough moments — and sometimes stepping back.

Some have. But what is infuriating is that the response from much of the political establishment has been a doubling down on business as usual.

It should come as no surprise. We have a political system built and oriented around the collective “self-assured conviction [of] authority” of powerful white men. It is the kind of authority that allows them to spend entire careers placing themselves at the center of their interactions. Joe Crowley’s assertion that media hype surrounding Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was because he “was important enough [that] people actually took note of somebody beating me,” was not sophistry. It was a man filling the considerable political space to which he has always been entitled.

It is the authority that permits powerful white men to do “politics” and leaves “identity politics” for everyone else; that positions Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke as serious presidential contenders, while speculating as to whether Stacey Abrams will sign on to become Biden’s running mate. (Demonstrating why so many of us find Abrams to be such an intoxifying political figure was the ease with which she refused to cede her space, batting away the rumors with, “I don’t think you run for second place.”). It is the authority that leads 26% of Sanders supporters to say they would rather vote for Trump than Warren. And it is the authority that allows powerful white men to claim, with no apparent sense of irony, that the best way for them to “champion” women is by running against them.

But make no mistake: it is a form of political gaslighting. Pundits and influence peddlers construct highly racialized and gendered concepts — electability, likability, charisma, promise — then deploy them in ways that perpetuate the status quo. Cable TV devotes more air time to white male candidates and rehashes ad nauseam the “woman question,” despite research showing that women candidates win their races at rates equal to men. Political strategists continue to fetishize white male voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, despite the fact that winning progressive coalitions in 2018 were comprised of communities of color and growing numbers of white women. The notion that Trump can only be defeated by a white male nominee is not just morally objectionable. It is factually dubious.

At a moment when Republicans have thrown down on a political strategy of embracing backlash anger while strangling democracy — and whose elected representation has become so bro-ey and whitewashed that there are now fewer Republican women serving in the House than there are men named Mike or Greg — it is time for Democrats to do better. Because the issue of what leadership looks like in a party whose victories are fueled by the activism, voting, and candidacies of women — especially women of color — is not a distraction. It is the main show.

But the political establishment tells us otherwise. “Do you want to re-elect Trump?” it asks us. It is a tactic — much like those unwanted shoulder grabs and hair sniffs and kisses — that is disorienting and maddening and makes us question ourselves. And so we remain in the perpetual double bind that faults us for wanting too much. That tries to relegate women to bystander status, not just to our own experiences, but to democracy itself.

“No one gives you power. You have to take it from them,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said. Indeed, entrenched power rarely concedes. But at a moment when everything is on the line, it is imperative that everyone — especially those who have historically benefitted from the political status quo — rethink treadworn assumptions about who is best positioned to lead.

Progressive men can be part of the solution. At the She The People Forum, all of the eight Democratic candidates who spoke worked to re-center the political discourse. Cory Booker framed tax policy as a racial justice issue, Julian Castro discussed the need for universal pre-K, and Beto O’Rourke embraced the Equal Rights Amendment and one fair wage. But we need more. Until we work collectively to upend a political system that for far too long has consisted of powerful white men working on behalf of — but not with — the rest of America — this will be a political moment that is fated to fall short. “Are we going to show up for people that we didn’t actually believe in because we were too afraid to do anything else?” Warren asked the crowd. “That’s not who we are.”

It is up to all of us, men included, to do the tough, clear-eyed work to prove her right.