As the Democratic primary field narrows, women watch from the sidelines

'Electability' became a self-fulfilling prophecy

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 03: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for a selfie. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MARCH 03: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) poses for a selfie. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A lot of Democratic primary voters are still getting their bearings after the political winds shifted on Super Tuesday to fill Joe Biden’s sails, followed by Elizabeth Warren dropping out. 

Women, in particular, are struggling with a race that started out featuring so many strong female candidates only to narrow to two white, male septuagenarians competing to take on the elderly misogynist-in-chief.

What happened to all that energy from the Women’s March? The diversity of the Democratic primary field, at the beginning, seemed like a fitting response to the retrograde sexism, racism and savage elitism of the Trump administration.

Instead, self-fulfilling prophesies about “electability” drove voters to back the candidate who seemed like the safe choice — a white, male member of the political elite. Never mind Biden’s stumbling debate performances or his lack of inspiring vision. He promised to take us back to a gentler past, and a lot of people thought that other people would vote for him.

Biden is the overthinker’s candidate. The argument for him does not rest on the idea that he is the best or most inspiring option. Rather, he looks like the candidate who can beat Donald Trump because he is least likely to offend the largest number of voters. And part of not offending people is reaffirming the status quo, including a sense that the natural order of things is that white men rule.

“I don’t know about you, but the election results this week filled me with more hope than I’ve felt in years,” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, calling Biden’s ascendance “one last chance for the establishment.”

That’s great if the establishment is working well for you, as it clearly is for David Brooks. Not so great if you see inequality and discrimination as longterm problems that reached a peak with the toxic presidency of Donald Trump. 

For some people, it’s not comfort with the establishment but realism about the ugly, entrenched forces in American politics that make Biden look like the most likely choice to beat Trump. Either way, the trend is dispiriting.

For a while there, it seemed like the Democratic candidate in 2020 would be running on a vision of a nation where the old order is finally, inevitably giving way to demographic reality. After the backlash election of 2016, we were moving forward again as a diverse country full of empowered women that values democracy, equal representation, and opportunity for all.

After Elizabeth Warren destroyed Michael Bloomberg in the last two debates, putting an abrupt end to the fantasy that a Republican-friendly Daddy Warbucks could parachute into the race and save us all by buying the nomination, she looked like the candidate best equipped to similarly expose Trump.

Warren combined Bernie Sanders’ thrilling economic populist message with a more appealing, accessible style. Plus, her willingness to talk openly about sexism was a breath of fresh air in our current Mad Men era.

But it turns out that being the unity candidate, whose supporters are pretty evenly divided between progressives and moderates, was a liability instead of a strength. Warren was too many people’s second choice, and lacked a large base of her own that could overcome Sanders’ infrastructure of progressive support or the moderate vote that quickly consolidated around Biden as the other candidates dropped out.

And then there was the dreadful double standard summed up as concerns about a female candidate’s “likability,” which helps fuel the self-fulfilling prophesy that a woman can’t get elected.

Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris helped chip away at that old canard, just by being highly visible, highly qualified women running for president. They helped push us toward a day when Americans can imagine a woman president, and when, watching a skilled female debater go up against a mediocre male candidate, they won’t fall back on the idea that the woman seemed somehow less likeable, and the more “electable” candidate, for all his obvious weaknesses, is always the man.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.