The Electability Contradiction

The facially plausible case for Hillary Clinton is that neither Clinton nor Sanders will get much done given the GOP Congress. Thus, it doesn’t really matter which one of them becomes President, only that it is one of them and not a Republican. Clinton is clearly way more electable than Sanders and thus Clinton should be nominated.

Interestingly, in the last month or so, many of Hillary’s media supporters have been indirectly making the case that she has serious electability problems.

Here’s Catherine Rampell making the case that Clinton is structurally prevented from behaving in the kind of authentic and sincere manner that appeals to voters:

These qualities are what make him seem “authentic,” “sincere” even — especially when contrasted with Clinton’s hyper-scriptedness. Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t give a damn if he’s camera-ready.

This is, of course, a form of authenticity that is off-limits to any female politician, not just one with Clinton’s baggage.

Female politicians — at least if they want to be taken seriously on a national stage — cannot be unkempt and unfiltered, hair mussed and voice raised. They have to be carefully coifed and scripted at all times, because they have to hew as closely as possible to the bounds of propriety available to both their sex and their occupation. They can’t be too quiet or too loud, too emotional or too cold, too meek or too aggressive, and so on.

Here’s Rebecca Traister making a substantially similar point about the ways in which Clinton is structurally prevented from getting behind the kind of ambitious proposals that appeal to voters:

That hurts, and it falls into a very old, very well-worn gendered pattern, in which women — understanding that making promises they cannot back up will not get them taken seriously and that they must prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent — become the nose-to-the-grindstone wonks, easily compared to know-it-all bores like Tracy Flick and Hermione Granger. They’re the wet blankets, the ones all too acquainted with the limitations imposed by the world, and all too eager to explain their various ideas for working around them. Men, and especially white men, whose claims to public or political power are more easily understood, are permitted a slightly looser approach.

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution.

Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

Here is Courtney Enlow repeating these same points and adding that Clinton has been structurally prevented throughout her career from adopting the kinds of good and clean politics that voters like:

FIRST AND FUCKING FOREMOST, COOL, YOU LIKE BERNIE’S WISHES AND DREAMS APPROACH TO POLITICS. “FREE COLLEGE FOR EVERYONE AND A GODDAMN PONY.” YES, THAT SOUNDS FUCKING WONDERFUL BUT DO YOU THINK HILLARY COULD EVEN SAY THOSE WORDS WITHOUT FOX NEWS LITERALLY BURYING HER ALIVE IN TAMPONS AND CRUCIFIXES?

YOU DON’T LIKE THAT SHE PLAYS THE GAME? THAT SHE HAS TIES TO THE ESTABLISHMENT? FOR ONE THING, THAT’S HOW SHIT FUCKING GETS DONE. FOR THE OTHER THING, THE BIGGEST THING, A WOMAN DOESN’T GET THE FUCKING OPTION *NOT* TO PLAY THE GAME. NOT NOW. NOT YET. WE ALL WISH THINGS WERE DIFFERENT BUT THEY DON’T BECOME DIFFERENT WHILE WE’RE ATTACKING THE FUCKING PERSON WHO CAN MAKE THAT POSSIBLE.

IT IS ABSOLUTELY GUT WRENCHING THAT THIS BADASS, IMPORTANT WOMAN HAS BEEN DIMINSHED AND WRITTEN OFF AND HATED HER WHOLE CAREER, HER WHOLE EXISTENCE AS A PUBLIC FIGURE. YOU LIKE BERNIE BECAUSE HE DOESN’T PLAY THE GAME, BUT FOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FOR A WOMAN, SHE HAS HAD NO OTHER CHOICE.

These are three examples from this particular genre of essay, but there are dozens more. The way the genre works is you identify a criticism of Clinton — that she’s unlikable, inauthentic, insincere, has weak policies, has a bad track record, constructed and participated in a corrupt political money machine — and then you defend Clinton from the criticism by saying sexism in society makes it impossible for her to do or have done otherwise. Insofar as it’s not fair to ask someone to do the impossible, the upshot of this argument is that it’s unfair to criticize Clinton for these deficits.

Most of the debate on these articles focuses on whether it is actually impossible for Clinton to do or have done otherwise. This debate tends to hit a dead end pretty quickly as both sides just assert that it is or isn’t impossible back and forth without having any definitive way of resolving the disagreement.

But there seems to be a bigger issue lurking in the background. If it is truly impossible for Clinton to do the kinds of things that attract voters, then that means she has serious electability problems. If it’s impossible for her to be a likable, sincere politician with inspiring, ambitious ideas that really gin up the enthusiasm, then that means she’s a weak candidate. Whether this is her own fault or the fault of pernicious forces in society doesn’t change the ultimate fact that she’s weakened by it.

If you believe that the most important thing is electability, and believe that sexism makes it impossible for Clinton to do a lot of the things that are important for electability, then where does that leave you exactly? Should you roll the dice on a candidate who, by your own account, is so heavily weighed down by double standards and gendered expectations that she cannot appeal to voters? That seems like a big risk to take with the White House on the line, doesn’t it? Can we really gamble on running someone who is apparently severely handicapped as a candidate when four Supreme Court nominations hang in the balance?

I bring this up not to actually endorse any particular argument on this front, but rather to point out the tension in many of these electability arguments. To say Clinton is electable is also to say that sexism is not that big of an impediment to being a good politician that appeals to voters. Conversely, to say that sexism is a big impediment to being a good politician is to say Clinton is not that electable.

Why the Pundits Ignore the Truth About Sanders Youth Support

The reason Sanders is winning among the younger generation is that the younger generation is more left-wing than the older generations. The left-wing nature of Millennials has been substantiated in many polls. But instead of admitting this, many pundits have cooked up bizarrely complicated theories to explain why the youth (and especially young women) are going for Bernie. The most amusing of these theories to date is the Steinem theory (which has received qualified endorsement from some prominent pundits) that young women are simply fake geek girls following the Bernie boys in order to be cool.

When people disagree with you, it is natural to try to psychoanalyze them to figure out what’s truly going on. And this is what many pundits (almost all of whom are for Hillary) have been doing to young people and young women in particular.

But in that same vein, I think it might be useful to psychoanalyze why the pundits are psychoanalyzing youth. What the hell is going on in their head that makes them so reluctant to accept the basic fact that young people are more left wing and are thus going for the more left wing candidate?

I think part of the answer is that, for many of these pundits, being leftist (nay “very liberal”) is a big part of their self-identity. They cut their teeth being the “very liberal” bloggers and pundits of the 2000s. And they just cannot stand the idea that they are more conservative than the generation coming up behind them. Even though their politics have not changed, they are now the lamewads because the youth are actually more left than they are. They cannot countenance this and so they refuse to countenance it.

Theories of Why Young Women Support Bernie

Just like young men, young women support Bernie over Clinton by huge margins. This creates a rather interesting situation for the pundits to explain. I have been monitoring the take channels waiting for the pundit theories to come. But so far, I haven’t seen much. The pundits seem eager to explain why young men support Bernie, but are hesitant to explain why a similar number of young women support Bernie.

For the most part, I expect the pundits to just punt on this question: hold out and wait for Clinton to win the primary and then it will be kind of moot. This is the easy way out of a rather unwelcome situation for many.

So far, I’ve only seen two prominent people deal with this question head on. Here they are.

1. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had this to say (bolded part is the question she was answering).

Do you notice a difference between young women and women our age in their excitement about Hillary Clinton? Is there a generational divide? Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.

According to DWS, young women are simply complacent about abortion rights and, perhaps, women’s rights more generally. And this is why they support Bernie over Hillary.

2. Gloria Steinem

Here’s what Gloria Steinem had to say.

First of all, women get more radical as we get older because we experience… Men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. It’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men because they are going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking “Where are the boys? The boys are for Bernie.”

According to Steinem, younger women are simply less radical than older women and are also just going to where the boys are. And this is why they support Bernie over Hillary.

If you’ve seen any other prominent people offering thoughts on this question, please do share and link in the comments.

In Reality, the Bernie Bro Argument Shifts Endlessly

Amanda Taub has a piece at Vox in which she gives her account of what the truly bizarree cottage industry of Bernie Bro think pieces is really about.

Here’s Taub:

The kerfuffle over harassment by Sanders supporters isn’t about Bernie. Nor is it about who gets to be president or whose supporters are better. Rather, it’s about the way the Democratic primary — from TV media coverage to online debates that are only tangentially related — is just one more thing that tells American women the depressing truth about what’s it’s like to be a woman trying to do things in America today.

The rest of the thesis is scattered throughout, so it’s hard to effectively blockquote. The short of it is that women online pundits are just generally upset about sexism in politics and the Bernie Bro fixation (which is mostly unfounded) is a kind of an offshoot of that.

This is a neat attempt to salvage what has been an utter disaster for the Clinton punditry, but the problem is that it has no relationship to what has actually been said about Bernie Bros, which has shifted again and again over time.

1. The Beginning: Overzealous Idiots

As Taub notes, the Bernie Bro thing began when an upper class white man who graduated from an elite private university (Robinson Meyer) complained about how he doesn’t like his own Facebook friends’ zealous support for Bernie. Meyer did not say the Bernie Bro harasses anyone. Nor did he accuse him of sexism, except maybe in one instance where he psychoanalyzes why the Bernie Bro may not be saying something: “the Berniebro might always seem like he’s going to say that we need economic equality for all genders but doesn’t actually say it, because he knows that it wouldn’t go over well.” (Bernie is a vocal fan of equal pay, though I can’t speak for Meyer’s Northwestern University Facebook friends.)

The rest of Meyer’s piece is just about how stupid Bernie supporters don’t understand political realities and what is and isn’t possible. Here’s Meyer:

The Berniebro says that Sanders isn’t only driving Hillary to the left, which you may agree is a good thing. Bernie, says the Berniebro, really could win.

The Berniebro doesn’t really have a good answer when you ask why the Democratic Party, which has spent six years explaining how its market-based health-care policies aren’t socialist, would ever find national success nominating an actual democratic socialist.

The Berniebro doesn’t really talk about how President Bernie Sanders would interact with the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

The Berniebro asserts that this country needs highly principled, pie-in-the-sky progressive policies, regardless of how likely they are to become legislation. The Berniebro supports free college for all and a $15 minimum wage.

To repeat, Meyer doesn’t once say that the Bernie Bro is a harasser or that he is being particularly sexist. He just says that he’s as passionate as he is oafish about real politics. His piece is not really different from the piece earlier this week from another upper class white person who graduated from an elite university (Alexandra Schwartz) in the New Yorker. The only real difference is that she accuses all of Bernie Sanders’ young supporters of being unrealistic political idiots, not just his young male supporters.

Here’s Schwartz:

So purity, a highly useful principle to make use of while running for office, is all but useless to politicians who actually arrive there, and the voters least likely to see that are young ones. The belief in the possibility of true purity might be a delusion for most voters, but it’s a privilege of youth, the province of people for whom the thrill of theory hasn’t yet given way to the comparative disappointment of practice.

Note that both of these wise upper class white scolds are in their 20s.

2. The Middle: Sexist Hillary-Haters

The beginning of the Bernie Bro — as an overzealous politically naive idiot — gave way to the midlife of the Bernie Bro, which was a sexist Hillary hater. The midlife of the Bernie Bro is when I stepped into the fray because it was when actual concrete claims were being made about young Bernie Sanders’ supporters that were demonstrably untrue.

Amanda Marcotte was the chief proponent of this new Bernie Bro. Here’s Marcotte:

The Bernie bro phenomenon of young men whose enthusiasm for socialism is goosed by an unacknowledged sexism appears to be a real, measurable phenomenon. A lot of Sanders supporters, male and female, prefer him because of his socialist ideas. But the gap between young men and young women does suggest, though I’ll get no end of grief for saying this out loud, that a chunk of Sanders support with his young male cohort comes from guys who really don’t cotton well to the idea of women in power.

This was part of longstanding series of delusional Marcotte articles where she dreamed up the idea that young women were really going hard for Clinton (they weren’t) and used this dreamed up fact to suggest that young men weren’t doing the same because of sexism:

While both Clinton and Sanders had plenty of young people of all genders turning out, the young people of the Sanders crowd were just as male-dominated as the Clinton crowd was female-dominated. . . .

If Clinton wins the primary, the perception that a bunch of women, particularly young women, “stole” the election from Sanders is probably not going to sit well with this crowd. Who will no doubt angrily tell you that sexism has nothing to do with their rage, no sirree.

The problem Marcotte ran into is that she based her Bernie Bro argument on the empirically false claim that young women were going hard for Clinton and young men were going hard for Sanders. When she tried to prove this claim with empirical data, she failed spectacularly, using a dataset that actually showed no difference between young male and young female support for Sanders. Additionally, the biggest sample poll yet of young voter preferences actually showed young women breaking harder for Sanders than young men.

Note that this midlife Bernie Bro was theorized as a real life phenomenon that was voting for Bernie because of sexist hatred of Hillary Clinton and perhaps sexist hatred of powerful women more generally. He was not a Twitter user at this point. He was an actual offline human being who supported Sanders because he didn’t like women.

3. The End: Online Harasser
So, to rehash, the beginning Bernie Bro was an overzealous politically naive idiot — not a harasser or a sexist. The middle Bernie Bro was an offline Sanders supporter who favored Sanders because he hates women — a sexist, though not a harasser. Which brings us now to the end (I hope) Bernie Bro who is an online sexist harasser.

This latest version of the Bernie Bro is what people are talking about now. This is the person described in the recent spate of articles citing articles citing articles about online harassing Bernie Bros (Mashable, BBC, Jezebel, etc.). These articles created an unfortunate backlash because a number of the very few examples they all cited (which were curiously the same across each article) were actually women or not even Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

So in short, a half dozen stories got written about a phenomenon that all cited to one another. The stories all had the same vanishingly few examples and then a few of those examples were neither Bernie nor Bro. When your journalism is this bad, people naturally wonder whether you have other motives.

But putting aside the weak substantiation, the point here is just that the online harasser Bernie Bro is the newest version of the Bernie Bro. This person only came into existence maybe a month or so ago. Before then, he was a totally different creature with totally different characteristics.

4. The Problem With Shifting
The problem with shifting explanations and shifting descriptions is that they are usually signs of motivated dishonesty. When you tell me someone is bad because he did A and then later you say he didn’t do A but he did B, and then later again you say he didn’t do B but he did C, the natural inference is that you just don’t like the guy, but that you aren’t being forthcoming about why.

In the election context, this leads naturally to the speculation that you just don’t like him because he’s not for the person you are for. What deep down makes you so dislike this person is that he is actively trying to defeat you. And hey, we all get mad at people who are trying to beat us and our team! But, from that anger, people sometimes build out elaborate and shifting explanations about why their opponent is also objectively heinous, not just because they have bad opinions about who should be President.

Hillary Clinton’s Wildly Unrealistic Puppies and Rainbows Plan

The funniest thing about pro-Hillary punditry is the claim that her proposals are achievable while Bernie Sanders’ proposals are not. This has been all over the punditry of late, especially in the oldsplaining get-off-my-lawn punditry aimed at the rude teens who support Sanders. For an example of it, look no further than the New York Times official endorsement:

In the end, though, Mr. Sanders does not have the breadth of experience or policy ideas that Mrs. Clinton offers. His boldest proposals — to break up the banks and to start all over on health care reform with a Medicare-for-all system — have earned him support among alienated middle-class voters and young people. But his plans for achieving them aren’t realistic, while Mrs. Clinton has very good, and achievable, proposals in both areas.

This is frankly insane. Hillary Clinton’s legislative agenda has a 0% chance of passing through the GOP-controlled Congress. None. Nothing. Zilch. This is true, not only because the GOP fundamentally disagrees with her proposals, but also, crucially, because the GOP pursues obstruction for its own sake. It has been very explicit about this. The GOP has (probably correctly) determined that helping a Democratic president pass things of note benefits the Democrats and hurts the Republicans.

Moderate liberals used to understand this fact. One of the big stories of the 2016 election is that many have now apparently unlearned this reality. Or, more likely, they need something to say about why Hillary should be favored over Bernie, and pretending that she can actually get her legislative agenda done is the only thing they can think of.

1. Theory of Change
We’ve heard a lot in this election about Sanders’ supposedly faulty theory of change. Most of the analysis on this has been pretty bad and has not actually responded to what his campaign seems to think his theory of change actually is.

Sanders appears to be a believer in what we might call the Burlington Model of change. In the Burlington Model of change, you capture the executive and then, through exemplary executive operations and large scale organization, you use the executive office to get your opponents run out of the legislature in the next election. I call this the Burlington Model because this is what happened in Burlington, Vermont when Sanders captured the city from the incumbent Democratic establishment.

Whatever you think of Sanders’ theory of change, he at least has one that takes into account the procedural hurdles to getting his agenda across. Clinton has none. She appears to believe that her becoming President will create this puppies and rainbows land of unicorns where a GOP Congress will help her pass her legislative agenda. Few in the media have called this out, but it is truly a nonsensical fantasy.

2. How to Decide for Real
If the conventional wisdom is correct and neither Hillary nor Bernie can get their legislative agenda across, then how should you actually decide between them, if your goal is to be super-practical pragmatist person? There are basically two ways to go.

2a. Executive Actions
First, you look at how they might differ solely on things that the executive has control over. That means you look at judges, agencies, executive orders, and foreign policy. Except for foreign policy, these things don’t get much play, and so it can be hard to actually evaluate them. But, standard reasoning here would suggest they’d be the same on judges, Bernie would be more to the left on agencies and executive orders, and would be much less hawkish on foreign policy (Hillary is extremely belligerent, even by centrist Democratic standards). So, it seems, the pragmatist case that purely fixates on how the world might be different under Bernie or Hillary would probably have to go with Bernie.

2b. Electability
Second, you may look only at who has the best chance of winning in the general election. Under this approach, you don’t focus on who might be better as President. Instead you argue that keeping the Republicans out of the office is a far bigger deal than whatever the difference between Bernie and Hillary would be, and that therefore the only thing that matters is who is most likely to beat the Republicans. Put simply: it matters a lot that a non-Republican wins, but it doesn’t matter that much which one.

The trouble under the Electability approach is that it’s really just not that clear what the answer is. The Bernie side points to head-to-head polls that show that Bernie seems to do better when matched up against Republican frontrunners than Hillary. The Hillary people then (not implausibly) say that these head-to-heads are not predictive because Bernie has not received much attention from the Republican attack machine. So one side points to the polls and the other side has a decent argument for why the polls might not be reliable. This means we are stuck using hunches about electability, which obviously might cut in either direction.

The other complication with electability it that it really depends on the matchup. The media talks about electability as this standalone thing, as if Sanders might have 85 electability points and Clinton 90 electability points. But, in reality, Sanders might be more electable than Hillary against certain Republicans while Hillary might be more electable against others. Until we know who the opponent will be, assessing who is the most likely to win the general is a wildly computationally complex task for which we don’t even have reliable information anyways (see the prior paragraph).

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use the electability approach. It’s just to say that this particular argument, which is the only argument at all for Hillary, is based on hunches that cannot be substantiated one way or another.

3. The Pundits Are Bullshit
You don’t have to base your vote on this pragmatist calculation of course. There are various other arguments out there, e.g. those about symbolic gains of each candidate and the long game implications of each candidate. But what you can’t do, if you are being honest, is cry about the unrealism of Sanders platform without also crying about the unrealism of Clinton’s platform. And that is what the pundit class (which is heavily in the pro-Hillary camp) are currently doing.