Over the past year, former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has been consistently elevated by the electability narrative. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, currently polling in second, has been repeatedly written off by the mainstream media as unelectable. “Electability” has been the most frequently made argument in favor of nominating Biden over his competitors, and it has probably been the biggest booster — apart from the Obama aura — keeping his exhausted presidential campaign alive.
With so many Democrats emotionally scarred by 2016 and terrified that Trump will win again next year, there has been a growing susceptibility to conservative and centrist narratives about the American electorate. Research has shown that fear and anxiety can drive people to become more conservative, and for many emotionally distraught (and older) liberals, the election of Trump seems to have done just that. According to the electability narrative, American voters are overwhelmingly moderate and don’t trust any candidates who seem to lean too far to the left or the right. This makes Biden, the centrist who is worried about Democrats gaining too much power, the perfect candidate for the electability crowd. To them, he is the safe and prudent choice, unlike Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who are both too radical for America in 2020.
The electability argument should have died in 2016 after the most unelectable candidate in history defeated one of the most supposedly electable, but here we are. More than three years after Trump shocked the commentariat with his victory, the pundit class is as determined as ever to employ the same old tropes and clichés that led to disaster in 2016. The entire concept of electability is, as Matt Taibbi puts it in his recent book, “Hate, Inc: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another,” conventional wisdom in search of scientific recognition” — and in 2016, the data was unambiguous. Trump should never have won the election, according to the polls. He was a walking case study for unelectability and seemed to do the very opposite of everything that presidential candidates were supposed to do, according to conventional wisdom.
While Trump appeared to shatter all of the assumptions that political journalists and pundits have long made about electoral politics, many seem to have since concluded that the president is an anomalous freak of nature and that all of their previous beliefs still hold true. For many of the leading exponents of conventional wisdom, the recent election in the United Kingdom, which saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party lose badly to Boris Johnson’s Tories, was a confirmation of this. Centrists in the Democratic Party seized the UK election as a cautionary tale for the Democrats not to move to the left as Labour did. “Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left,” declared Biden shortly after the election.
The comparison is lazy and simplistic, and it betrays an ignorance of British politics. Most important, the central issue for the 2019 UK election was irrelevant to American politics, and had nothing to do with left- or right-wing ideology. This election was fundamentally about Brexit, which left Labour badly divided. Corbyn was perceived as an uncharismatic and personally unpopular leader who failed to take a clear position on Brexit, which ultimately doomed Labour despite the party’s extremely popular policies.
One of the clearest parallels between the UK and the U.S. is the media and its flagrant bias against left-wing candidates, or what some have recently come to call “centrist bias.” From the very start of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise four years ago, the press unfairly maligned and smeared the candidate. A study from the London School of Economics and Political Science, which scrutinized articles from the major British newspapers, found that Corbyn was “thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader,” through “lack of or distortion of voice,” “ridicule, scorn and personal attacks,” and through “association, mainly with terrorism.” This grew even worse after he became leader of the Labour Party, and for several years now Corbyn has been endlessly vilified and misrepresented by the British press. A 2016 analysis of BBC’s coverage of Corbyn concluded that critics were given about twice the amount of airtime as supporters on BBC News at Six, and “pejorative language” was used by BBC reporters to describe Corbyn, his team and his supporters. It only grew worse over the next two years, and a recent audit of the media coverage during the 2019 general election by Loughborough University posited that there was twice as much hostile coverage in the top British newspapers as there was in 2017.
It’s no secret that the American press isn’t a fan of Bernie Sanders either, although he has been largely immune to negative coverage, and is far more personally popular than Corbyn ever was in the UK. Since his 2016 campaign he has been consistently written off as too radical, too old, too divisive — and therefore completely unelectable. So far, coverage of his 2020 campaign has been largely a repeat of 2016. A recent analysis of MSNBC’s coverage during the months of August and September of Sanders and the two other leading candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, found that Sanders received the least amount of coverage — less than one-third of Biden’s; by comparison, Warren received about half the coverage that Biden got) — and also the most negative. Though Sanders has consistently ranked as a top candidate since the primaries began, those in the press have done their best to ignore or diminish him, propping up numerous candidates who have since dropped out or fallen in the polls.
After all that, Sanders is still standing. He has become impossible to ignore, and as Jeet Heer recently observed in the Nation, the “Bernie Blackout” seems to be over. The mainstream media now recognizes that Sanders isn’t going anywhere and has a real shot at winning the nomination. Now, Heer argues, the “most important barrier [for Sanders] is the concern Democratic primary voters have over electability.”
There is little doubt that the media will continue to paint Sanders as utterly unelectable. This will happen despite the fact that the Vermont senator seems to be the best positioned to win in the battleground states that Trump won in 2016; as a recent analysis in Jacobin points out, Sanders has out-fundraised all of his opponents in the counties that flipped from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016. The best argument against the electability conceit takes the form of the man currently sitting in the White House. “Centrist bias” is essentially a bias towards conventional wisdom, and over the past five years Donald Trump has consistently proven conventional wisdom wrong. If Democrats yield to the pressure of conventional wisdom once again and nominate the candidate who is electable only on paper, Trump may prove all the experts wrong yet again.
Conor Lynch is a freelance writer and journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Week, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter…