The Democratic establishment got the candidate it wanted by deploying the narrative that Joe Biden is the “electable” one—the one most likely to beat Donald Trump. But the price Democrats pay for embracing that fictional narrative is high, since it fuels Trump’s re-election, just as it helped him in 2016.
Sadly, a close reading of the electability narrative shows it’s not just untrue, it undermines democracy.
In nonfiction, Biden looks roughly as electable as Hillary Clinton looked four years ago, which is scary. The numbers keep telling us that with Biden as standard-bearer, progressives will be hard-pressed to rally the turnout needed to beat Trump.
The numbers keep telling us that with Biden as standard-bearer, progressives will be hard-pressed to rally the turnout needed to beat Trump.
The horse-race narrative of this and past elections is a made-for-media tale of who will win and why, as told by elites—political elders, party apparatchiks, mercenary consultants, think-tank partisans, and journalists. It’s a story where self-serving guesses get treated as facts and fortune-telling is never condemned as the carnival-midway fraud it is. It���s a story manufactured to anoint one of the establishment’s own.
This narrative gives Trump precisely the fight he wants, the same one he won last time—Donald-the-Destroyer against the DC elite, the media, and their chosen one.
Stories without facts are the stock-in-trade of propagandists. (Time to re-read Hannah Arendt.) No one can “disprove” them because there’s no basis for “proof” to begin with. This is why Trump punctuates his wildest stories with the rhetorical flourish, “Who knows?” Indeed, the fewer who know, the better for The Donald.
Nobody, of course, can know who’s going to win the next election for president. That means the electability story is only useful as a tool for manipulation. It was especially powerful in the virus-interrupted primaries. The polls and pundits confirmed that the Democrats’ true-blue base was scared to death about four more years of Trump and desperate to nominate whoever could be guaranteed to beat him.
The story of how Democratic elites played to this fear can be read in the timing and volume of their presidential endorsements. Through February, with Biden’s campaign mostly on life support, the former vice president still garnered 97 endorsements from “prominent” Democrats—elected officials and party bigwigs. In the same period, Bernie Sanders got 30 such endorsements, despite his surging fundraising (a staggering $46 million in February) and voter support.
South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn, House majority whip, endorsed Biden three days before the February 29 primary. Clyburn’s district was heavily gerrymandered by the Republican legislature to ensure that African Americans could elect just one Black Democrat to Congress. As that sole Black congressman, Clyburn has considerable leverage with Black voters statewide, especially the older ones, who gave Biden most of their votes. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, made his Biden endorsement on the eve of South Carolina’s primary.
In the two days between South Carolina and Super Tuesday, Biden was endorsed by 25 prominent Democrats. Both days set records for endorsements up to that point in the primaries.
The two-day orgy of prominent endorsers included three competing presidential candidates—Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke, two of whom had just stepped aside for Biden. Also endorsing Biden was Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned as Democratic National Committee chair after getting caught tilting the 2016 primaries against Sanders because Hillary Clinton was that cycle’s electable one. Next came Harry Reid, the former Senate Majority Leader, who admitted in 2016 that “everybody knew” Wasserman Schultz and the DNC had rigged the primaries for the establishment’s choice.
The myth of electability is nothing new. It’s been wielded by both parties and spread by the media for more than 70 years. It’s usually wrong. Barack Obama was declared “unelectable” in 2008. Donald Trump was the unelectable one in 2016. Back in 1948, Harry Truman was universally deemed “unelectable.” They all won, of course. But in the last two primary election cycles, the myth’s destructive power has multiplied.
Helaine Olen, an opinion columnist for the Washington Post, urged Democrats to ignore the horse-race story. “What we call ‘electability’ is actually conventional wisdom,” she wrote. But nowhere in the media was there any deeper analysis of the damage done by narrating our politics as horse-race stories where the voters’ only object is to bet on the winner.
Conventional wisdom is a story manufactured by elites to defend the status quo. It was the conventional wisdom that got Hillary Clinton nominated. The same conventional wisdom has for decades steered America to our current state of dystopian inequality and escalating climate disaster. The conventional wisdom has produced disappointment, disaster and defeat, but the Democratic Party can’t let it go.
The horse-race narrative speaks in the binary corporate shorthand of “winners” and “losers” favored by Trump and America’s wealthiest. It robs its heroes of all moral authority. If our political leaders are chosen solely because they’re supposedly going to win—not because of who they are, what they’re for, or what future vision they’ll pursue—then voters’ attachment to them is shallow and transactional, at best. This is not a narrative that builds big, principled majorities.
Ultimately, the electability story peddled by elites undermines our democracy’s dwindling capacity to respond to people’s need for fundamental change. If political parties have a purpose in a democracy, it’s to embody the principles on which the people’s best future can be built. The party then helps the people elect candidates committed to building that future. The system fails utterly when it’s upside down—when we choose “winners” and live with whatever future they deliver.
Unsurprisingly, the targets of the Democrats’ electability narrative were the leftists, socialists, women, African Americans and Latinxs—the candidates commonly deemed “unelectable” and, no coincidence, the ones most committed to disrupting the status quo.
The Democratic Party had no facts to support the story that Biden is the most likely winner—or a winner at all. Not that facts matter when fortune-telling, but Real Clear Politics’ daily tracking of national polling averages during March—Sanders’ final month as a candidate—showed Bernie beating Trump in head-to-head match-ups by 4.5 to 5.7 points, while Joe was winning by 5.4 to 7.4 points. The “gap” between them was a statistical tie—within the polls’ margins of error. More sobering is a comparison with the poll averages four years earlier. Hillary Clinton was running better against Trump than either of them in this time period, up 8 points in mid-March and 9.9 in mid-April. We all know what happened to her and, consequently, to us and our country.
Things haven’t improved since Biden became the last Democrat standing and Trump began homicidally mismanaging his mouth and the entire pandemic response. On May 1, Biden was outpolling Trump nationally by only 5.3 points. Importantly, he’s been consistently below the 6-point margin needed to be theoretically certain of overcoming the Republican advantage in the Electoral College.
Polls will continue to bounce around between now and November. What’s guaranteed, no matter how this ends, is that hoping Trump’s deadly bungling of the pandemic finally dislodges him from power is neither a strategy for needed change nor for rescuing an ailing democracy.
Reading the electability narrative carefully shows that the Democratic establishment’s deployment of this story in the last two elections has worked principally to eliminate any claim that the party can be (or wants to be) an agent of real change. It has served to end any serious conversation about countering unlimited corporate power over America’s politics. It seems quite clear now that this was the intent.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said in 1956, “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.” The Republicans have given us one such conspiracy. We don’t need two.
Kirk Cheyfitz is a political narrative expert, writer, editor, commentator on narrative and media, investigative reporter, strategist, marketer, manager, close observer of pop culture. He's learned how to integrate organizations to function in multi-discipline teams, which is crucial in an age of multi-channel media. He originated the term "post-advertising" and helped create modern content marketing. His website is Political Narrative.