Impossibility and Electability

"what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do"

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times is an avid chronicler of a specific type of worry within the Democratic party. Pinned to his Twitter profile is an article about centrist Democratic governors worried that the party is going too far to the left. He has been reporting on variations of the same worries for years, but sadly, we’ll never know whether Martin himself thinks the Democrats have gone too far to the left. He’s an objective journalist (formerly for the conservative National Review and centrist Politico before he joined “even the liberal” New York Times) and the job of objective journalists is not to have opinions, nor is it (apparently) to evaluate the truth through the use of evidence and investigation. The job of an objective journalist is to format other people’s opinions as news.

Today, the opinion that is news is that Elizabeth Warren is impressive, but voters are worried whether she can win.

There are a few variations on the opinion. Some think she’s too far to the left. Some think the country’s too sexist. Some thinks Trump could devastate her with a years-old attack based on a racial slur that already seems to be losing its punch. But all the opinions in the article fit the parameters of the headline “Many Democrats Love Elizabeth Warren. They Also Worry About Her.”

To be fair to Martin, it’s true that the opinion is out there. It may be amplified by the likes of him to the point of a feedback loop, and it may coincide with the interests of his class, but it’s something I’ve heard expressed very often myself, and something I’ve even felt before. When I first was leaning toward Warren and showed as much with this joke piece, a friend texted me “Sounds like you are on the warren train based on your newsletter this morning / On a policy level that makes sense to me / It’s too bad humanity is probably not up for it.” At the time, I agreed with him that I didn’t think she was the most likely winner, though I’d like her to be. But I also thought of what another friend said, that “electability” can be trap, a way to shake people out of a clear path that could have led to victory if they had enough confidence. I thought of something a relative said, when his friend was joining Barack Obama’s campaign, that he respected what his friend was doing but was worried the country was too racist to elect a black man. (That same relative is now worried that Warren and Sanders are too radical to win.) I thought of myself last fall, wanting badly for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to defeat Joe Crowley, but feeling like he had too tight a hold on the political machine in Queens. I also thought of my favorite book when I was a kid, The Phantom Tollbooth, and how that book’s concept of impossibility mirrored our concept of electability:

I can imagine some dialogue like this happening at Obama’s inauguration, or (though I hate to see it) Trump’s inauguration, and if Elizabeth Warren is elected president, I’ll post some close variation on this passage like the nerdfan I am. (“You were unelectable… completely unelectable.”) That’s not to say that objective and instinctive measures of possibility aren’t relevant, but sometimes thinking about “electability,” like The Phantom Tollbooth’s “impossibility,” can be a way to talk yourself out of what is happening. Elizabeth Warren isn’t electable just because she wants to be – it’s because she’s rising in the polls, dominating both the debates and the overall policy discourse, showing personal strength, and appealing to a wide variety of voters. Electability isn’t some magical quality that she doesn’t have. She has a lot of challenges. Getting elected president is hard. Like the kid in the book, nobody can do it without anybody’s help. But, also like the kid in the book, she has the courage to try. She sees both the presidential campaign and the structural change of America as things that can be done.

People are picking up on that. While I may grouse and snark at Martin and the NYT, the concern trolling was also an acknowledgment that Liz Warren has the juice right now. People might be worried that the person who has the juice has a tough road ahead, or that she’ll run out of it later, or they might be worried that she’ll change things in a way that makes their status a little less secure, but they do see that she’s got it. Back in October last year, when she was in the news for her misguided DNA test, I thought she didn’t have the juice, that the tank was empty. Over time, she’s been proving me wrong. Since she opened her campaign with transformative policies like universal childcare and an asset tax (not just income! not just property! not just gains!) on the wealthy, I’ve been paying attention. Then, her engagement with supporters was brilliant and exciting and fun. Then, she responded to each national news issue clearly, swiftly, and decisively. Then, her “I Have a Plan For That” branding took off. Then, she lit up town halls and stuck around to answer questions afterwards. Then, she won both the first two debates, once winning even the night she wasn’t on. It does not seem impossible to me that the person who can do these things can also win an election against a stumbling field of Democratic challengers and an unpopular Republican president.

That’s not to say I’m not worried. Like any reasonable person, I’m very worried about this election. I reckon all the candidates are worried. It’s not stupid to discuss these things. It’s not stupid to worry about misogyny or economic cowardice or interference from billionaires or failing to connect to groups of voters. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t trust a political amateur fanboy to relieve these worries, especially if he draws his figurative structure from a children’s book. I reckon Elizabeth Warren is feeling fear, too, though I don’t think she’s afraid, if you define “afraid” as when your fear makes you unwilling to do things. I think that’s what I see that makes me most confident she can do this: she gets all the worries, but doesn’t seem afraid, not of messing up or taking a stand or taking on big structural forces or being attacked by conspiratorial figures. And that’s a broad characteristic I associate with electability, or really any type of ability.

Stories are stories, but one reason I think of the Phantom Tollbooth so often all these years later is that it (like a lot of children’s literature) is really good at capturing, in very clear metaphor, some of the mental structures and fallacies that lead even seemingly wise adults into self-defeating foolishness. And I think sometimes simple stories describe the kind of behavior people deeply respond to, even if they can’t figure it on paper. People can tell when someone’s being brave and clear and toughing it out, and they can tell when someone’s hedging, and sometimes they’re more attuned to these things than they are to the finer points that people are hedging around. Warren’s famous “ending” of John Delaney didn’t resonate because people really gave a shit about Delaney, and I doubt she did either. It resonated because “I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for” is something we deeply feel about who we want our leaders to be, even as most people have a lot of trouble sorting out policy or right or wrong.

And let’s not forget that line about not doing it alone. The silver lining of the Jonathan Martin article was that, while there are a lot of people worried about what “they” will say about or do to Elizabeth Warren, I didn’t see a lot of people who weren’t willing to fight for her themselves. All those worrywarts in the article seem like they’d campaign hard as hell in the general. People who hauled ass for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and people who wished they had after it was over, they’d be up for it again. Of the huge group of activists who made Bernie Sanders wildly overperform expectations a few years ago, there are some who still only have love for Bernie, but if it came down to it most would put it on the line again for debt forgiveness, free college, universal healthcare, and challenges to corporate power and wealth that hadn’t been seen since the new deal.

So I dunno, seems to me like she can win, but I guess we’ll fucking see. Need to run an election first.

For more thoughts on elections and possibilities, you might enjoy “Maybe Joe Biden Can Win.”