In the grand scheme of the 2020 campaigning cycle, there was nothing particularly special about the October Democratic debate. Aside from the fact that Elizabeth Warren received the frontrunner treatment, there were no big surprises. The stage remained crowded with 12 candidates (up from 10 in the third debate), everyone got a chance to fire shots at Trump amidst the ongoing impeachment inquiry, and health care was the most talked about issue of the night.
Although it was encouraging to see the candidates touch upon urgent topics that received less attention in the previous debates, I was irritated that they kept skirmishing over the one issue that has loomed over the Democratic primary since the first major candidates stepped into the ring: electability.
God, how I am sick of hearing about electability. No one has directly cited the term in a debate, but certain candidates deliberately play into it.
Specifically, the more moderate politicians in the bunch (e.g. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg) have invoked the argument that Democrats should place their bets on who is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump rather than who has the most ambitious or progressive platform—as though those things are mutually exclusive. Now, they say, is not the time to be aspirational. Now is the time to be “realistic.” To play it safe. To settle for a white, center-left Midwesterner who can pick up the Rust Belt.
And many Democrats are buying it. Even those who would like to see someone like Bernie Sanders in the White House are skeptical of his chances in the general election.
I won’t deny that the fear of a two-term Trump administration is a legitimate one, and I understand why Democrats would rather be safe than sorry. However, I do not think it is productive to assume a negative linear relationship between the leftness of a candidate’s agenda and their electability.
Luckily, Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate turned renowned voting rights activist, offered remarkable wisdom when she visited Northwestern University on Thursday, October 10. As a Black woman who grew up a Democrat in the South and held her own against an incumbent white male Republican last year, Abrams knows a thing or two about political feasibility. So listen up, 2020 candidates and apprehensive Democrats.
“In each place I’ve lived, I had to fight against the notion of what progress means, of what’s possible for people who look like me, who come from communities I come from, people who are not supposed to be part of the power structure,” Abrams said. “And one thing I learned growing up was that if I only played by the rules that were assigned… I’d never win.”
Abrams said that during her campaign, she was repeatedly advised not to emphasize her race or gender, including by other Black women.
“We get trained to believe that victory is impossible unless we’re something else,” she said. “I don’t believe that we have to be a homogenous, ideologically uniform party in order to be successful…. Instead, I believe that we have to be a party for everyone.”
She was not only talking about better government representation for women, people of color and other marginalized groups, although that was one of her central motivations while running for governor. Just as she refused to downplay her identity for the sake of appearing more palatable, Abrams does not endorse the idea that far-left voters should support a candidate with more moderate stances, or that the eventual Democratic nominee should aim for the center simply based on how they think the political middle will vote.
“We should vote for people because we trust them to lead us,” Abrams said. “We don’t know what centrist is anymore. It is not [progressive] to say you shouldn’t die for lack of healthcare. It is not progressive to say that we shouldn’t kill the planet… Any of us who are trying to decide who to support based on who we think someone else will support, is not as smart as you think you are.”
Perhaps you are skeptical of Abrams’ advice because she ultimately did not become the governor of Georgia. Be that as it may, she still insists she won that 2018 election. Her loss, Abrams says, had little to do with how well she campaigned and how many supporters she amassed, and much more to do with the fact that her opponent, Gov. Brian Kemp, allegedly used his position as Georgia’s chief elections officer to commit voter suppression.
Based on Abrams’ experience, we ought to be less worried about how “progressive” or “moderate” the nominee is and instead focus our attention on getting as many people to vote as possible. Quelling voter apathy and removing barriers to the ballot box are good first steps. That’s why Abrams founded Fair Fight Action, an election reform organization dedicated to ensuring that all eligible voters feel empowered to cast a ballot in 2020 and beyond, without being impeded by election mismanagement.
As nightmarish as another four years of Trump would be, I do not think fear alone should dictate how we vote. And Abrams agrees.
“I promise you, the sheer dichotomy between whomever we nominate and the current occupant of the White House will be sufficiently stark as to transform the election and America.”