Sick of Hearing About Electability? It Will Take Organizing To Expand Our Political Imagination.

To overcome the insistent messaging of the corporate media and Democratic establishment, we need grassroots people power.

Malaika Jabali June 12, 2019

Campaigns for Medicare for All and other progressive demands can help expand voters' imaginations.

Don­ald Trump launched his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign with impos­si­ble promis­es, from erect­ing a mas­sive, Mex­i­can-fund­ed bor­der wall to revi­tal­iz­ing dying indus­tries. Instead of being dis­missed as a huck­ster, he raised Repub­li­can vot­ers’ expec­ta­tions of the pos­si­ble and nor­mal­ized the party’s shift to its extreme. Trump’s vic­to­ry seemed to turn on its head the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that only cen­trists win gen­er­al elections.

Organizing around non-presidential candidates and issues is one way to build relationships and engage in political education, which can build power and raise consciousness for 2020, 2024 and beyond.

Cen­trist Democ­rats are nonethe­less cling­ing to that con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, under­min­ing pop­u­lar pro­gres­sive can­di­dates and poli­cies on the grounds that one of their own is the most like­ly to unseat Don­ald Trump. As one of Joe Biden’s sup­port­ers and fundrais­ers, South Car­oli­na state Sen. Dick Har­pootlian, told Van­i­ty Fair, This [elec­tion] isn’t a bat­tle of ide­olo­gies or iden­ti­ty or Medicare for All or a Green New What­ev­er. It’s all about who can stop this juve­nile nar­cis­sist from get­ting a sec­ond term.”

To an extent, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment has polling on its side. Biden con­sis­tent­ly leads in pri­ma­ry polling, and a Quin­nip­i­ac poll from May shows 61% of reg­is­tered Penn­syl­va­nia Democ­rats think Biden is the most like­ly to beat Trump. Bernie Sanders is a dis­tant sec­ond at 6%; Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Kamala Har­ris are tied at 3%.

In response, the Left can point out that poli­cies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—which Biden does not sup­port, and which sev­er­al oth­er can­di­dates do — poll well with vot­ers. We can also remind Democ­rats that cam­paign­ing on cen­trism did not work for John Ker­ry or Hillary Clin­ton. It may be ear­ly enough in the elec­tion cycle that an exam­i­na­tion of Biden’s long his­to­ry of con­ser­v­a­tive posi­tions, cou­pled with his cur­rent dis­missal of mil­len­ni­als and pro­gres­sive poli­cies, will be enough to damp­en per­cep­tions of his electability.

But giv­en the strength of the cen­trist media estab­lish­ment, it’s also pos­si­ble these per­cep­tions will not change. Through week two of Biden’s cam­paign, for instance, FiveThir­tyEight showed him receiv­ing almost as much media cov­er­age as every oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date com­bined. Left media can and should make the case against Biden, but we sim­ply do not have the mega­phone need­ed to coun­ter­act the influ­ence of broad­cast and cable news.

Instead, we need to find oth­er ways to reach ordi­nary vot­ers (and non­vot­ers). Orga­niz­ing around non-pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and issues is one way to build rela­tion­ships, start face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions and engage in polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, which can build pow­er and raise con­scious­ness for 2020, 2024 and beyond — not to men­tion achieve big­ger social goals.

That could mean lob­by­ing with Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed on Medicare for All, orga­niz­ing strikes with the Fight for 15, sup­port­ing Black Youth Project 100 in their work against the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex, donat­ing to orga­ni­za­tions in hard-hit com­mu­ni­ties (like Milwaukee’s Black Lead­ers Orga­niz­ing for Com­mu­ni­ties), or vol­un­teer­ing for the Sun­rise Move­ment. Along­side the vic­to­ries of politi­cians like Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn.), these actions can chal­lenge per­cep­tions about what is pos­si­ble and who is electable.

Labor orga­niz­ing should be key to this approach. Many unions engage in polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion with their mem­ber­ship, and dri­ve mon­ey and vol­un­teers with their endorse­ments. In 2008, 59% of union house­holds sup­port­ed Barack Oba­ma — a rel­a­tive polit­i­cal unknown then run­ning on anti-estab­lish­ment pop­ulism — over John McCain; in 2012, 58% of union house­holds sup­port­ed Oba­ma over Mitt Rom­ney. But in 2016, union sup­port for Hillary Clin­ton — seen as a cen­trist estab­lish­ment can­di­date—dropped to 51%.

The ques­tion of elec­tabil­i­ty may not be answered until vot­ers go to the polls next year. But if his­to­ry is any indi­ca­tor, an elec­table” cen­trist could very well win the pri­ma­ry and fail in the gen­er­al. Since the for­ma­tion of the mod­er­ate Coali­tion for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Major­i­ty — more than 40 years ago, in the wake of pro­gres­sive George McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon — cen­trist Democ­rats have used so-called elec­tabil­i­ty as a weapon. It may take con­sis­tent, grass­roots orga­niz­ing to lib­er­ate our­selves from it.

Malai­ka Jabali is a pub­lic pol­i­cy attor­ney, writer and activist. Her writ­ing on pol­i­tics, cul­ture and race has appeared in Essence, Jacobin, The Inter­cept, Glam­our and Cur­rent Affairs.
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