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Is the Dems’ 2020 Election Strategy an Overcorrection from 2016?

The center will not hold forever. This year, however, the very survival of the Republic may depend upon it holding one last time.

It's easy — and, as shorthand, correct — to chalk up our final two presidential options this election cycle to misogyny, and there's a clear element of it in how we got Biden as the Democratic nominee for the highest office in the land. In many respects, it’s an overcorrection from 2016, when we saw the first woman nominated for a major party’s presidential ticket, yet there’s some shading worth noting.

I think the Biden choice — which barely felt like a choice by the time we hit March — also speaks to the electoral math against this particular incumbent, given that campaign’s singular sexist ugliness and the incumbent’s words and actions ever since. Against a generic R--which the current WH occupant is assuredly not--it’s well within reason the Dem establishment (and rank-and-file White working-class voters) would've been more confident rolling out a Warren (my preferred choice) or Harris (another strong option who ran an uninspiring campaign overall, now [thankfully] the VP nominee) into the general. That’s a loaded oversimplification if we were to stop there, so let’s dig into that thesis some more.

I think it’s also impossible to allude to this very real gendered fear, without also noting the uniqueness of the way the incumbent openly flouts, and fans the flames of, sexism and misogyny amongst his base. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of sexism and misogyny on the left, it’s just, as Ms. Valenti points out here: “shroud[ed in] their own in concerns over “electability.”

I do think plenty of that is concern-trolling: maybe Dems, progressives especially, themselves aren’t afraid of voting for a woman for President, but they’re afraid others will not. 60% of Republicans wouldn’t want a woman for President in their lifetime.

I think to dig into those “electability” concerns further, there's also, if I recall correctly from back in March, additional elements in play:

  1. Southern Black Elders moved heavily toward Biden in the South Carolina primary, and since, helping to drive an upset that jumpstarted the, at the time, dormant Biden campaign, with a lot of reputable press being given about how "Black people know White people better than White people know themselves."
  2. The AOC endorsement of Bernie Sanders, which clearly signaled to the young, progressive wing of the party that in the race to the left between Sanders and Warren, there could only be one, and the younger and non-Master’s Degree-holding sect from that point forward swung hard for Bernie. [Is that also misogyny in its own way? I would be foolish to rule it out as a contributing factor.]
  3. The looming COVID-19 crisis — remember the drop-off bonanza just before (and after, in Warren’s case) Super Tuesday, it’s hard in retrospect not to see it as a major harbinger that the campaign was about to come to a dramatic halt and the country was about to be mismanaged into tragic, unspeakable crisis orders of magnitude worse than it had been in the 3.5 years of the current administration to date — probably forced the Dems’ hand to align behind a (and, again, this term is pretty loaded and euphemistic: “safe”) candidate early. I think the race looks different if we’re in [extreme air-quotes] the old “normal.”

What we’re seeing on the Republican side with the elevation of women to judicial and congressional positions — and there’s been quite a few — isn’t something that’s persuading women (especially self-identified feminist) voters from blue to red, and is absolutely a perversion of “progressive rhetoric to suit their own needs.”

The numbers bear that out. Women aren’t defecting to the Republican party at all, if they weren’t voting red already as a percentage of the electorate (although in raw numbers, women as a whole appear well on-track to top their 2016 turnout for Clinton, particularly among first-time voters), and there’s definitely a sliver of men who are Biden 2020 voters who went Trump in 2016.

Yes, misogyny is playing a role in the Democratic reflex to “just get Biden in there in 2020, and we’ll [author’s note: maybe, if we’re lucky, but also — hopefully — if we’re decent and smart people] address systemic, implicit and explicit bias against women holding power after.” There’s also an important racial component to how this election’s shaping up, the oddity of a 78 year-old man acting as national standard-bearer for the youthful progressive movement, and an unusual mitigating factor in a global pandemic that’s wreaking holy hell in the US in a way we haven’t seen in a quadrennial election year in quite some time.

Mostly, they all overlap in one key Democratic tradition since at least the 1994 “Republican Revolution” — Dems, rather than dreaming big and driving the dialogue and shaping the political landscape [Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy aside], are instead reacting to whatever the Republicans are doing, aiming to be the “less offensive” option between the two, instead of the “more impressive” option.

That is, as Ms Valenti concludes in the linked essay, the crux of the “fear” that’s driving “support behind Biden” —taking the left’s vote for granted, while playing not to lose the center … the men in the center in particular.

Although the exact triggers for that fear are different in 2020 than they’ve been in cycles past, the Dems are sitting back on defense rather than presenting a truly inspiring, game-changing option at the top of the ticket and proposing a sweeping wave of progressive (and diverse) candidates down-ballot. Though they’ve gotten plenty better at it this century, there’s still a ways to go before we’ve reached true parity in all three branches of government.

Still, this fear-based strategy is far from an overcorrection, it is now a generation-old strategy that’s yet to pay off, and — given the precarious place at which democracy currently finds itself a full 25 years since Newt and his political acolytes first stormed Capitol Hill — has actively cost us all dearly, gravely, and perhaps irrevocably.

In a way, that fear finally seems justified. If only they’d had the courage to get out ahead of it in the many, many cycles before now — maybe we’d all be a whole lot less afraid right now.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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