Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “How to Choose the Most Electable Democrat in 2020” advises Politico. “Amy Klobuchar’s best argument for 2020: Electability” CNN reports. “Is Electability The Only Thing That Democratic Voters Want?” WGBH, the Boston NPR affiliate, wonders. These articles, all from a one week stretch this February, speak to a prevailing compulsion in our politics, boosted by our media.
Adam: Time and time again we hear about the primacy of “electability,” which is a nebulous but self-evidently important criteria when selecting a candidate. On this episode we’re going to drill down on the origins of the term “electability.” How it’s a concept embraced by brain dead horse race obsessed pundits and why the concept is inherently racist and sexist and why it’s designed to draw voters away from candidates they actually agree with to ones more in line with the agenda of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.
Nima: We’ll be speaking later on the show with Anoa Changa, host of the podcast The Way With Anoa.
Anoa Changa: It’s actually very challenging for certain people to break, at least it had been before this past cycle. The perception was it was very challenging for certain types of people to not only break into the electoral field as a candidate, but to be a quote unquote “viable” candidate, someone with the potential for winning. So you had to look a certain way, you had to have a certain resume, certain connections and you had to not address certain issues, right? You had to stay far away from them.
Nima: In recent months, since the moderate blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections and with the 2020 presidential election already looming and the two-year campaign process already in full swing, there’s been no shortage of this type of political horse race coverage. New York Magazine in December 2018 had an article headlined, “Elizabeth Warren and the Democrats’ Electability Dilemma.” CNN, in early January 2019, headlined an article, “Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown Score High on Electability; Elizabeth Warren, Not So Much.”
Adam: Then NBC News in February, early February 2019, reported on a new poll they conducted with the headline, “Poll: Dems want ‘electable’ challenger who can beat Trump. Values come second.” Sort of setting up this totally bogus false dichotomy by asking this extremely loaded push poll about what candidates want. Reporter Alex Seitz-Wald noted, one of the sort of more dull and derivative political reporters in the game said quote, he was “Spooked by the 2016 election, Democratic voters say they want above all else someone who can beat President Donald Trump, according to a new poll… The only problem is they disagree on how you beat Donald Trump..The poll from Monmouth University found that an unusually large number of Democratic voters are prioritizing “electability” over values as they begin to think about whom to support in their 2020 presidential primary.” Quote, “In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020 because of their desire to defeat Trump. This is something to pay close attention to when primary voters really start tuning into the campaign.”
Nima: So then Chuck Todd, good old Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, speaking to Boston Public Radio on February 7th of this year basically echoed this using his own little kitchen table anecdote.
Chuck Todd: I can tell you this, in my focus group in my house, my focus group doesn’t care who the nominee is. (Laughs) They just care about winning. And so, the one thing that my focus group says is, ‘if you’re going to screw this up, get out of the way’ type of mindset, whatever that is. And, and so, and I, and then I always like he said, ‘what does that mean?’ It’s like, look, just don’t get in the way, don’t hand them more material, don’t make this harder, don’t screw this up.”
Adam: Yeah. And then Jon Favreau, who was one of the Obama hanger ons, I think he was a speech writer who now does the POD Save America is increasingly standing for Kamala Harris and he sorta does these faux realistic savvy tweets. He said, quote, “The Democratic electorate showing up to meet its candidates is far less ideological and skeptical than the one that lives on social media. Some days, the gulf between the discussion on Twitter and the discussion at campaign events is a mile wide.” So we sort of see this new iteration of electability where we sort of reduce the kind of Twitterati, which is sort of a way of dumping on activists or people involved in politics. He would go on to say “Weird,” this was his own personal words, he was previously quoting the article itself in his own words. He said, quote, “Weird. I guess Democratic voters aren’t showing up at rallies and responding to candidates by saying ‘That ain’t it, chief’ and ‘Here for the ratio.’” The sort of general patronizing attitude here is that Democrats don’t care about ideology. They don’t care about issues, so let’s not really talk about peoples’ problematic positions. Let’s not talk about Kamala Harris’ record as a prosecutor. Let’s talk about her electability, which again is something that is really just a code word for ‘let’s not have a discussion about values and policy, let’s talk about some nebulous manner or condition or intrinsic property one has that allows them to beat Trump.’ Without really defining what that means or how one measures that.
Nima: Plus a lot of these articles make this electability issue something of like a new phenomenon. Like, oh, all of a sudden Democratic voters are really just wanting to win as opposed to talking about the stuff that really matters to them.
Adam: Before the Democrats didn’t care about winning it all.
Nima: Right. Exactly. Well, and so you see actually in that Patrick Murray of Monmouth University quote from the NBC News article that we quoted earlier, him saying that voters are now willing to like flip that calculus. Like that’s simply not true political ideology, at least not a particularly liberal let alone leftist one. Like ideology hasn’t really been prioritized in the Democratic Party for quite some time. And so what we’re going to do today is look back at the electability argument, trace some of its origins and really get to the heart of what’s going on here.
Adam: Yeah, totally.
Nima: For instance, The New Yorker wrote in 2004 about just this thing. And so there was this article during the Democratic primary and it said this quote, “Democrats say that what they are seeking above all this year  is a candidate who can beat Bush, and while [Howard] Dean, campaigning as an antiwar, anti-establishment, outsider maverick, tapped the leaderless party’s hot anger, the stolid war hero [John] Kerry, with 20 years of experience in the foreign and domestic policy debates of the Senate, better fit the cold calculus of electability.” Similarly, in February 2004, The New York Times’ John Tierney saw the danger in actually doing this and he wrote this quote, “Voters keep calling John Kerry the most electable candidate, the one most likely to defeat President Bush, and are quick to cite his many admirable and heroic qualities. But when they went to the polls in the Wisconsin primary last week, many seemed to have the same reservations about Mr. Kerry that Willy Loman had about his neighbor: He is liked, but not well liked.”
Adam: So, yeah, you have this total false dichotomy about electability versus like romantic people. And the implication of that is the left-wing is full of a bunch of like unrealistic ideologues and you need Serious People, capital “S,” capital “P,” to come in and tell you that’s actually more important we win, right? They’re all about winning. But the thing is the supposedly electable candidates from John Kerry to Hillary Clinton, they don’t win. I mean, if you remember the main argument for Clinton against Obama, and of course this had huge racial undertones to it, was that she was electable.
Adam: This is something, it’s impossible to sort of quantify or really figure out what that means in any meaningful sense. Really, electability arguments are what people make when they don’t have anything to add to a conversation but are paid to talk about politics. It’s not about what’s right or what’s valuable or what’s important or what’s moral or what sort of is normatively important. It’s a description. It’s a sort of quasi descriptive comment. You’re saying, ‘oh, someone’s just not electable’ without ever having to really show your homework as to how you arrived at that conclusion.
Nima: Well and what it also does on top of that is establish the stakes of horse race politics as being purely beholden to establishment gatekeeping, right? So that the ruling class of a party or the ruling class of a country is going to make the decisions ultimately for who is going to be able to wield power, who is going to be able to win elections, who’s going to be able to be in charge. And therefore the kind of thought processes of the masses or what animates voters to actually go to polls winds up being secondary, if not completely irrelevant because you’ve already done this kind of clairvoyant tea leaf reading about who can actually win this thing. And so you’re projecting upon the voting public and doing that through the media, which laps this shit up, and deciding who is going to be someone who can win. And we hear this all the time. And the thing is, you know, we talk about Democratic politics a lot on this show. We’re going to be delving into that a lot on this episode as well. But I do want to point out that some of the origins of this electability talking point, a lot of them actually stem from the right-wing. For instance, William F. Buckley who founded The National Review, he’s kind of this, you know, uber-conservative guru party leader. He established, as I said, The National Review back in the ‘50s, in the mid-’50s, he hosted “Firing Line” for 33 years from the mid-’60s to the late-‘90s. He said in an interview, April 18, 1967 in The Miami News — basically he was asked who the smartest choice would be for the Republicans to a run in the 1968 election. He said this, “The wisest choice would be the one who would win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” And so, you know, he at that point then said that Richard Nixon would be the strongest GOP candidate. This was ’68 and so you kind of see this idea of whoever can win is the one to go with. The difference however, between the right and the left on this generally, is that the right thinks that who can win is the furthest right candidate, but the Democrats think that who can win and who they push generally is the most center, potentially center-right candidate, because they think that their track to winning, especially this is after Nixon beat George McGovern in ’72 and McGovern was seen as like being too far left. Mondale was destroyed by Reagan in ’84, Mondale was seen as being like super radical. After this, the Democratic Party establishment decided that the way to win elections as Democrats is to just run as Republicans.
Adam: Yeah, and what’s funny is the sort of the inciting incident of this whole thing is Michael Dukakis in 1988, but the thing is Michael Dukakis was the moderate electable politician. He wasn’t even really in the Mondale wing of the party. He was considered a center, center-left politician. We’ve now revised that to make him look like he was sort of this radical left-wing character because he opposed the death penalty, and so this is where it became lore, right? This became the kind of conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party, it’s now sort of receded in recent years, but for years it was the idea of electable was interchangeable with conservative.
Nima: Well we can’t really talk about the nineties without first talking about the seeds of this, the origins of this in the eighties. So after Reagan wins election in 1980 there’s this kind of come to Jesus moment from the Democratic National Committee Commission on presidential nominations, what’s otherwise known as the Hunt Commission. And so it was created by the DNC in 1981 and it wound up effectively creating superdelegates. That was established officially in 1982. And through kind of investigating the creation of this through the DNC, you see that the hypothesis was basically that the reason the Democrats lost to Reagan is because the party leaders didn’t have enough influence on who the nominee should be. And so this gets established. Superdelegates kind of become now this new gatekeeper of the party, they determine who is electable kind of regardless of what the voters think, you know, obviously driven by that but not beholden exactly to it. And so by 1985 you see the Democratic Party really getting worried. And this, you know, this has been building up since the civil rights era in the ’60s but then, you know, through Nixon and Ford and then eventually Reagan, you see this real kind of worry that what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “racial issues” were then deemed quote “a factor in democratic defections.” And so you saw this idea that if the Democratic Party is too beholden to their black voters, that’s not going to win them elections.
Adam: Which again, this goes to this recurring theme we see over and over again, which is what’s good for the ruling moneyed interest class of the Democratic Party, which was increasingly becoming more professional, more managerial, more wealthy, was overwhelmingly white. That being racist was actually what we needed to win and people recall Clintonism was predicated, was founded on, the third wave Clintonism which came from the DLC was founded on the idea that Democrats needed to be more racist. What was the first thing Clinton did to show that he was a new kind of Democrat? He rushed down to Arkansas in 1991 and oversaw the execution of Ricky Ray Rector who was deemed by the courts to be quote unquote, “mentally retarded.” This is how he sort of proved his centrist bona fides. This is, by the way, before Democrats somehow use centrism interchangeably with being like anti-racist or pro-LGBTQ in the ’90s when centrists, again, this is before they needed to find somewhere to go to look vaguely left when they repeatedly threw people of color and African Americans specifically under the bus, that the centrist way, the electability way was to be racist, was to demagogue on racism and to sort of go just far enough to the right where the African Americans wouldn’t leave you because you weren’t a goddamn Republican, but so far to the left you could still court moneyed white interests who wanted to see black people executed and put behind bars.
Nima: And so this moneyed white interest actually drove the move toward this electability idea and it was driven in particular by a group that was established in 1985 post Reagan reelection called the Democratic Leadership Council. And it was formed by Wall Street friendly Democrats basically taking their cue from the Coalition for a Democratic Majority who had previously sought to limit the influence of the so-called new left of the Democratic Party in the early seventies again after the civil rights era of the sixties and so the Democratic Leadership Council, the DLC, really wanted Democrats to promote conservative economic policy. These are also, you know, known as Third Way Democrats or New Democrats. And so they just saw victory, they saw a potential success by remaking the party in the image of what? Republicans.
Adam: Yeah, that was the code you cracked. To beat Republicans you just did what they wanted you to do with a slightly more liberal version. And it’s true, the Democrats won the White House. It’s true the Democrats of course then lost the Congress in ’96 but they did in ’94 to ’96 they had all three branches or all two branches of the elected government. And then this raises the question at what cost? At what cost? The soul, right? At what cost did they achieve these gains? And on the backs of whom was this obsession with electability centered? When you center electability and you de-prioritize values, these things are not ethereal, they’re not abstract, they have real world consequences, right? That if you can win elections by pandering to white racists and white establishment, tough-on-crime-ism, there’s collateral damage to that obsession. Is it worth winning if when you win you have to just adopt, you know, so many of the policies of those you extensively oppose?
Nima: Right. And so the DLC in particular pushed this idea that the thing that was really holding the Democratic Party back was the influence of labor unions and what they actually called quote “special interest groups” unquote, which you can intuit what that actually means. Whose interests are deemed too special to win elections?
Adam: All interests are special interests. All capitalism is crony capitalism. These terms don’t mean anything.
Nima: And so you see the same people who engineered this still kind of pushing these ideas. David Axelrod was a Bill Clinton strategist back in the early nineties and pushed this idea of electability, you know, and then you see people like Mark Penn, a pollster, consultant, chief strategist for Clinton’s ’96 presidential campaign along with Hillary Clinton’s 2000 senate and 2008 presidential campaigns. He has now not only had decades of kind of promoting this idea of don’t be too radical, you have to be electable as a Democrat. And so he’s now become kind of like a pro-Trumper because inevitably like you just wind up being a Republican. So you see more recently Mark Penn wrote in Fox News at the beginning of this year, January 11, 2019, “Voters want RESULTS not resistance from new Democratic majority.”
Adam: Well, what does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything. These concepts are totally meaningless. Like I mean Mark Penn, this is a perfect idea of what we’re talking about, right? Someone who was paid an exorbitant amount of money to basically direct the Clinton campaign in 2008 and the large part of the Democratic Party platform around that time in his focus he constantly uses, and he does this all the time in interviews, he does this when he frames all his editorials, about why the the Democrats need to move center. He routinely uses this nebulous white woman soccer mom in Fairfax, Virginia swing voter as a stand in for really the class of interest he serves, which is the wealthy donor class that all electability does is it takes what’s good for the donor class and uses, and concerned trolls, the Democratic Party to focus more on their needs, but rhetorically replaces that class with some nebulous white, moderate, Republican voter who that’s why they’re so centered and so prioritized because really there are a proxy for the rich.
Nima: And so you see media really pick up on this. Slate magazine in April of 2016 headline, an article, “Polls Say Bernie Is More Electable Than Hillary. Don’t Believe Them.” And so you kind of see this across the board. The same thing happened with Corbyn in Britain. You know, that he was deemed unelectable until what happened? Elections happened.
Adam: Right. And then it turns out he improved the Labor Party’s position, the greatest bump they had in 70 years. And uh, you know, Bernie lost to Clinton after starting from way behind the 8-ball. So everyone’s unelectable until they’re electable. And then suddenly everyone now is doing a cheap impression on Twitter of Ocasio-Cortez, right? Totally unelectable, now everyone’s trying to be her. It is like the classic sort of, you know, and when you limit your moral imagination and politics to what’s electable, you by definition are limiting what you can do to the thing that just came before, right? That every general fights the last war, that everyone’s just trying to try to duplicate the last thing that worked, which in this case, increasingly is everyone is trying to find the next Obama and like these, these fucking white dorks like fucking Joe Kennedy and Beto fucking O’Rourke.
Nima: Right. And so it not only is very kind of retrospective, right? That what we need to do now is what worked at one time in the past that we can point to. So let’s replicate that and it completely dismisses and marginalizes any attempt to actually move forward. And I mean look, that winds up being kind of the obvious motivation of party leaders, of people who are already in power. But it speaks to, and I’m, I’m going to throw this out because, hey, it’s, it’s our fucking podcast and I can, but it speaks to exactly what Karl Marx wrote in 1845 when he wrote, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” And so it’s the kind of maintenance of that power structure with no vision for anything even remotely progressive or new.
Adam: Or that can change the status quo. And what’s funny is that when there’s tension in this logic poll after poll after poll after poll showed that Bernie Sanders would do better against Trump, there’s this cognitive dissonance sets in and they’re like, ‘oh, actually, uh, he hasn’t been vetted yet.’ And of course that’s something we’ve, we’ve disproven on the show many times.
Nima: Once they start throwing out that he’s a Communist, then it’ll all fall apart.
Adam: Yeah. But they did that anyway. You know, they did that, there was 10 different questions about his socialist ties in the Democratic debates. There was, you know, numerous articles about this. It wasn’t like getting try it, but it’s just, it’s funny to me that like when you come up against something so, cause it wasn’t even like a close thing. It was, I mean he was out polling Clinton by 10 points.
Adam: ‘Oh. Oh. Actually what we said was not true. There’s this other thing you haven’t considered which is he hasn’t been vetted.’ Well, that seems rather reverse engineered doesn’t it? Doesn’t that seem like something you’re just sort of making up as you go along?
Nima: Meanwhile, on the right, you would imagine taking cues from 2016, the electability argument would not be particularly persuasive anymore. I mean, Donald Trump is President, unfortunately.
Adam: The whole reason why the, you know, the entire Republican establishment’s argument was Donald Trump isn’t electable.
Adam: And I think it’s fair to say, now, granted there was a lot of various anomalies, you know, Russian interference, you know, Clinton dropping the ball 17 different ways, but you know, there’s an argument that no other Republican would have beat Clinton because Trump reshaped the dynamic of the race in a way that was very bad. I think it was mostly due to racist demagoguery, but nonetheless, I mean if there’s one person that disproves the electability theory, it’s the fucking current president who was supposed to be the least electable person on Earth.
Nima: Right. Which means that then when you have now the next presidential election on the horizon, the democratic establishment is again saying ‘we need to win, we need to beat Trump, and anything will do that can beat Trump,’ but the thing that they think will do is this nebulous thing called an electable candidate, which apparently they get to decide who that is.
Adam: Yeah. And again, it’s 100 percent of the time electability arguments are made to jam down some shitty centrist politician. It’s never the other way around. And I think anytime something goes in one direction, as we discussed in our last episode, we should be very suspicious about why that is.
Nima: So to speak more about this, we’re going to be joined by Anoa Changa, host of the podcast The Way With Anoa. She’s going to join us from Atlanta in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Anoa Changa, host of the podcast The Way With Anoa. It’s so great to have you back on Citations Needed. Thanks so much for joining us.
Anoa Changa: Well, thank you guys for having me. It’s so great to be here when I’m not like being accused of being a Russian bot, you know, so —
Nima: Just you wait.
Anoa Changa: I know it’s going to happen soon probably, but at least I’ve had a little bit of time off. So it’s like —
Adam: Yeah, we, uh, wanted your perspective as someone who’s worked in the sort of intersection of left-wing politics and activism and also electoral politics, this is a show specifically about electoral politics. And so we were discussing the concept of electability, namely its growth as a sort of propaganda term in the 1990s to really just mean conservative. In your view, as someone who’s worked in campaigns and followed politics or rather worked around campaigns and followed politics from the point of view of activists, how does that term, in your opinion, how is that sort of use to kind of undermine, this is a loaded question by the way, how is it used to, uh, undermine left-wing pressure and left-wing candidates and what kind of net effect do you think this has even on how activists and left-wing candidates themselves perceive what it is they do?
Anoa Changa: I think it’s a really necessary question because we see, not just around individuals, but around the issues that people champion, right? Electability is used as this leverage to determine whether or not people are quote unquote “viable” or worthy of support and potential. It’s allegedly a potential for their ability to win, which you know, in my opinion and a lot of other folks, when you actually start looking at what it takes to actually win elections is a lot of times it’s a bunch of crap, right? So I do think it’s a loaded term, not so much, you know, in terms of the way you’re asking me the question, but it’s loaded in terms of how we actually start building and preparing people to run for office. Because one thing that I have often like had an opinion of is that it’s actually very challenging for certain people to break, at least it had been before this past cycle, the perception was it was very challenging for certain types of people to not only break into the electoral field as a candidate, but to be a quote unquote “viable” candidate. Someone with the potential for winning. So you had to look a certain way. You had to have a certain resume, certain connections, and you had to not address certain issues. Right? You have to stay far away from them. We just saw Representative Ilhan Omar, you know, setting off a huge firestorm around the issue of whether or not you can critique APEC and its role as a lobby, you know, in terms of money, etcetera, in issues around antisemitism. Addressing AIPAC, addressing Palestinian rights and human rights and those issues has been a longstanding taboo. Someone like a Rashida Tlaib, someone like a Ilhan Omar would have been unelectable. They would not have been viable even three years ago, four years ago, five years ago. Right? In our very recent history, we have seen that just like one of the most polarizing issues I can think of. But I even think, you know, being here in Georgia, where we had Stacey Abrams run her race for Governor, the idea that she was a larger set black woman who was single, unmarried in the South with nappy hair was actually something that people during the primary tried to leverage as a sign that she was not electable.
Nima: Yeah. So actually that’s something I’m so happy you brought it up. Can you lay out, which you have also, you know, written and spoken about before, this tale of two Staceys?
Anoa Changa: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. So here’s the thing. So in Georgia in 2017 there were two women who ran for governor on the Democratic side in the primary, you had Stacey Abrams, Stacey Evans, both lawyers, both members of the Georgia House and Stacey Abrams was the House Minority Leader. I forget the exact position but Stacey Evans also held a leadership position within the House Minority Caucus, and they ran against each other for governor. It became the Staceys or the tale of two Staceys. The other interesting fact was the prior lieutenant governor, who was running for governor on the Republican ticket who was considered fore runner, his middle name actually was Stacy. That’s why they call him Casey Cagle. He hated the fact that his middle name was Stacy. It’s spelled the same exact way as the two women. And so we actually had three Staceys in the race. But that’s a whole other story.
Nima: That’s Georgia for you.
Anoa Changa: That’s Georgia for you. Yes. But with Stacey Abrams, the idea was that, you know, Stacey Evans was considered more electable because she was white. She grew up in rural poor working class family community. She was married, she had a child. She fit the stereotypical model of what a candidate should look like. You know, she was also petite. She looked like the type of person that I guess Republicans, conservative leaning voters could identify with and vote for. Because the conventional wisdom of folks down here or really probably nationwide, we look at the way the consultant class works is that Stacey Abrams, like I said, is a larger, she’s a heavyset black woman. She’s single, she has no children. There was a whisper campaign, you know, trying to slam her as being a lesbian. Not that there’s any issue if she were a lesbian, but again we’re in the South so that type of stuff is seen as making someone not viable. Plus she has natural hair. So these are all things that institutionally were thought to work against her in addition to she’s a black woman. In terms of what makes people acceptable to the system. Like another thing, like similar with Ilhan and Rashida Tlaib, you know, neither Stacey had a really bold stance in terms of Israel and in the state election it’s very weird. This shouldn’t be even an issue, but when Georgia was going to pass it’s version of an anti-BDS bill, Stacey Abrams, the black Stacey, voted against it. Stacey Evans voted for it. It became a very huge issue though during the primary, not because either them are like super anti-AIPAC or do not consider themselves friends of Israel or anything like that, but just merely that vote alone somehow was seen as making Abrams less viable. Even in that way in terms of the issue. Her whole stance though is not, unfortunately as someone who supported her, it was disappointing to me and I wrote about it, that it wasn’t because she believed, you know, it’s something revolving around, you know, Palestinian human rights. Not saying that she doesn’t or she does, but the language around it’s very muddled, but it was really about the first amendment issue that we see the ACLU and other folks objecting on. So she has still objected for a good reason that we see many of our allies in the Senate objecting. But that type of thing was seen as something that could have potentially been removing her from contention in this race. And we see that happening in candidates across the board. So we bring it out to local level, we bring it out to candidates who are running on, you know, really strong progressive platforms and the idea is that conservative voters, moderate voters will not support these people. So you got to run to the center-right, or else you’re not going to be viable.
Adam: Yeah. Which is conveniently where the primary donors are.
Anoa Changa: Which is conveniently where the donor class is. Exactly.
Adam: This was sort of the rub. We talk about it a lot at the beginning. But um, the thing I find so interesting is this play that’s happened in the last three, four months of Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke was sort of, has sort of stolen-
Nima: BEH-toe Adam, BEH-toe.
Adam: I’m not getting, this guy’s not, he’s not Latino. I’m not giving him his fake Latino nickname.
Adam: There’s no correct way to pronounce his stolen-valor ass, pseudo-Mexican nickname, I’m going to pronounce it however I want to.
Anoa Changa: Actual Latino people gave him the nickname. Someone explained to me —
Adam: Yeah, he says that it was in high school when he was in El Paso, but like, I’m sorry —
Anoa Changa: But someone said that it was his parents, like his mom or something like that. I’m like that’s some BS.
Adam: Yeah he’s had like three or four different origin stories, but whatever. I think it’s bullshit. I think he’s a total empty shirt. So he’s been held up as the sort of golden god of the future of the Democratic Party, you know, HBO series, Esquire profile, a sort of quasi-astroturf campaign to run for president. And meanwhile Stacey Abrams who ran just as close and just as competitive, if not more competitive of a race, I think probably more competitive, is sort of not a non issue. It’s just not really talked about ever because she doesn’t have this vague electibility-ness to it, which is obviously heavily racialized and heavily gendered. Could we talk about the ways in which you’ve observed the kind of mass sanctification of Beto, but Stacey Abrams as sort of a, you know, she got the, uh, rebuttal for the state of the union, but that was pretty much it.
Anoa Changa: Right, right, right. We’re talking about Beto and the ability to run and who is given the audacity to even dream big as candidates. Right? I mean even going back to 2016, all the potential folks that could have possibly ran coming out of an Obama era, the sense was that everybody was told to stand down because it wasn’t their time cause it was Hillary’s time and she was entitled to, you know, the presidency. I mean Julian Castro, who has an exploratory committee or I guess the problem is he doesn’t really get any coverage. Right? So I think he’s actually launched for real, for real now. He literally is like almost seen as a non factor because he sat out instead of seizing on the opportunity and time that he was in in 2016. And I think when we talk about electability and thinking about who gets to be on this large platform and who gets the audacity to dream that big that they can run for president. I don’t know if anyone is doing that to Stacey Abrams. What I do know is just like what you’re saying is when the conversation was happening about who else besides the major front runners we were thinking we’re going to run, you know, before people started launching exploratory committees, coming post, you know, election night, I mean you have Stacey Abrams on election night giving the most bold leading response that you’ve seen from Democrats. Like it’s the type of backbone we’ve been wanting that party to have for quite some time when she refused to concede and not because she was being a sore loser, but because you know the numbers, the votes, the issues that had been happening, you know, we saw Andrew Gillum rush and concede, we saw Beto O’Rourke rush and concede. This fight’s similar issues in both Florida and Texas and so to then suddenly see and talk about Beta, he should run for president, it’s like ‘dude, you couldn’t even defeat the Zodiac killer, you gonna run for president?’
Anoa Changa: But nobody, you’re right, very few people mention Stacey Abrams in the same breath, but it also comes from this understanding about who is electable, who’s accessible. I mean Beto O’Rourke, he’s cool, he’s hip, you know, I gave him a second look once I found out he could skateboard and was in a rock band, had no clue he was married though, considering I never heard any mention, I thought he was a bachelor.
Adam: Its cause his wife is independently wealthy and a huge booster of charter schools.
Nima: So, yikes.
Anoa Changa: Why we never heard of her, but he fits this mold of acceptability. Right? He’s younger, he’s hip, he’s doesn’t have that old white man like thing like you would get with Biden and some people have with Bernie Sanders as well, but he also, you’re confused because you think he might be Latino when he’s really not. Right? And then he’s from Texas and that appeal of someone from Texas, because Texas is just such a huge win for Democrats. There’s something there with him and he’s centered, let’s not be fooled. He might’ve talked the language a little bit and activists might’ve pulled his ear really hard on some things, he had a really cool viral video in a black church talking about police brutality and kneeling. But other than that-
Adam: It’s the definition of superficial, sorry.
Anoa Changa: It really is. But you have Stacey Abrams on the flip side and again, you know folks in the debate about how progressive she is or isn’t on certain issues-
Adam: Yeah totally, totally.
Anoa Changa: But, you know, you have someone who actually ran a very strong campaign that really focused on expanding the electorate, making sure that the voters, who we should be talking to, who Democrats are not e talking to and quite honestly the Green Party and a lot of progressives are not talking to either, like really reaching out to people who have been left behind by the system. The same people that, you know, folks complained were not voting in 2016 those were the people who Stacey Abrams and affiliate groups were really trying to make sure they reach and engage while also building this multiracial coalition that was going to, you know, win. That didn’t require folks to sell out on issues and try to appease moderate Republicans, those infamous Romney Republicans, that just feels so bad they’re stuck in the Republican Party and they have no place else to turn to. She shunned that whole attitude. I mean that should be something that the Democratic Party is really looking at and not just because they’re trying to figure out how to win back, you know, various states but because it’s just the right direction to go in because we had nearly half the country sit out of this election because they didn’t feel like there was anything on the ballot for them. And as much as folks like to try and say, ‘oh, the anxiety, the economic anxiety of white voters,’ there’s a piece in Current Affairs, I think it’s “The Color of Economic Anxiety” is the title, that we know from, you know, investigations and stuff done in Milwaukee, we know from work done by Working America in Ohio, that black voters, other voters also had issues with what were these candidates going to do for them economically. It felt like there was nothing was going to change so they sat up. So not talking to these people, that was something that Stacey Abrams made a center of her work, you know, going back to 2014 and she’s been building on that. So why would that not be the type of person, the type of model that the Democratic Party, that claims to be the party for all, would not want to just like lift up on such a high level. But you know, we always, we know the Democratic Party is where movements go to die and work gets co-opted, etcetera, etcetera. So it’s much easier for the donors to have a young hip dude like a Beto who sounds cool and you know the folks on the talking heads on Twitter, right? Weird Rom-Com, porn novels about him, I guess, in their spare time or something.
Anoa Changa: And that’s electability for them. But that’s not what resonates with real people.
Nima: So let’s talk about something you’ve actually written about before, this kind of false choice that you are just sort of laying out. Like there’s this idea that the Democratic Party can’t actually be consistent because it’s torn between winning this made up movable middle, right? Like the persuadable phony either independent or like not quite the worst kind of Republicans, right? “White working class,” quote unquote. So either getting them or playing to let’s say a base of the Democratic Party or expanding that base. Can you kind of talk about how this false choice is then leveraged to, I don’t know, you tell me what it does?
Anoa Changa: Well, yeah, I mean the thing is it plays into it because the Democratic Party, it’s like the Democratic Party doesn’t want to like offend like white conservatives and white nationalists, whether they admit it or not. I mean that’s why we see the Democratic leader shying away from actually taking real action against Steve King but bringing down the hammer on Ilhan Omar, right? We’re expendable in the grand scheme of things. But I think to the earlier point about where the donors are, I mean there are some donors that this fits right into like where they are. Like you need to speak to the people that they think you need to be speaking to. And that’s what it is. And for a long time that worked because people felt like they had no choice and had to just vote Democrat because the threat of Republicans being so bad was enough.
Anoa Changa: But we endured eight years under George Bush. And even though that was a lot for a lot of people, between 2001 and then by the time the crash happens with multiple wars, the crash happened in 2000 and 2009 I mean, it’s not that families are like, what else can you do to us? But at the same time, people don’t have the same motivation to be engaged in the system process any longer that Republicans are just bad no matter what our messaging is, there is a real serious demand now that Democrats actually engage and deal with communities on the issues that absolutely matter to our lives and that actually builds better engagement and builds for better representatives in our elected positions. But it really actually, we saw here in Georgia, serious increases because Stacey Abrams and other affiliated groups invested in outreach in the AAPI community, in the Latino community, with black voters. And what people don’t know is actually a lot of these groups also were talking to younger voters of all races and backgrounds regardless, you know what I’m saying, regardless of economics too. So we saw these really meaningful upticks in populations that Democrats need to win so that they don’t have to go try and appease moderate or white voters. The problem is, where the false dichotomy comes, is that you’re choosing, right? You have to, if you talk to black voters, you talk to Latinos, you talk to AAPI voters, then somehow you’re leaving out, ignoring or undermining white voters and that’s simply not true, right? When you’re talking to marginalized communities about the issues that matter, about getting them involved, engaged, these are things that benefit all of us. When we’re talking about healthcare and Medicaid expansion here in the South and you’re looking at the decimation of hospitals and medical attention and opportunity that’s affecting Black folks in rural areas the same way it’s affecting white folks. Like the hospitals closed. Nobody’s getting treatment if there is a heart attack or something else going on. Right? Like when we were driving through the southern part of Georgia and we were having a meeting with some local folks down in Albany, not far from where, you know, the poll closures, where they’re trying to close the polls in Randolph County in that general area for another event and they were talking to us about how if someone were to have a heart attack, if they need to take an ambulance, the nearest hospital is like 45 minutes away and that affects everyone across the board. So when we’re talking about these issues, but we’re making the point of engaging people in the process, that’s not leaving other people out. That’s just making sure we’re bringing more people in. Now, some may say, ‘Well, why don’t we just all come together and don’t focus on, you know, these divisive things.’ I mean, it’s these issues that we have to work through as collective spaces that actually make for better politics, that actually get closer to these goals that we’re saying we want to achieve when we’re talking about dismantling systems. And so when we’re talking about electability, we really have to stop looking through, you know, traditional political lenses of who can potentially run for office. And we’re seeing that happen now, right? We’re seeing folks who are working full time still while running for office. I mean Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was working in a bar. We have folks like Joca Marquez, who is a city councilperson in San Marcos, Texas, who was an adjunct professor who went up against a real establishment candidate as well. So we’re seeing people step up at the local level and really taking the opportunity to not just represent and stand on issues and values that matter, but they’re talking to people that have not really been engaged in the process before.
Adam: I mean, the whole notion of electability is predicated on the idea that time is static and that what’s electable today is what’s electable six months from now and that we should all sort of like do the sort of guesswork. This is a kind of theory of mind about it. And we talked about earlier, I’m reminded a lot about how Joseph Crowley, who ran against the Ocasio-Cortez in Bronx and Queens, New York, that the first debate they had, Joe Crowley sent an intern because he thought she wasn’t worth his time, that she was so fringe that it was not worth him going. And you look back at that now and it’s shocking. Who, who the fuck is Joe Crowley? You know, Joe Crowley in a hundred years will just be another sort of obscure Irish American politician that nobody remembers. But, you know, Ocasio-Cortez, she’s not the second coming, but she certainly had an impact on the discourse. And this really goes to the whole point that electability is predicated, I think, on a kind of gaslighting of progressives, which we talked about, but also kind of there’s an arrogance to it that somehow we know the future and that we know what people are going to like six, nine months from now or what the economy is gonna look like six to nine months from now and you would think after Trump-
Nima: Well, right, exactly.
Adam: They would stop doing this.
Nima: The ultimate unelectable person running against what was deemed to be the most electable person and it should completely blow up that fallacy forever. And yet we’re still seeing the same thing.
Anoa Changa: People are still doing it and the other thing about electability, there is a lot of focus on these higher offices. It really is great watching, you know, folks who got less press in her race, Ayanna Pressley, you know, kicking the door as well.
Anoa Changa: But when we look at folks who are running at the local level, because local is what I’ve done more work on and it also is what really grabs my attention and my heart. I mean, right now in Chicago you have a slate of black and Latino candidates, mostly millennial, running against Rahm backed incumbents for city council. A lot of folks keep talking about the mayor election, which is a total mess and I have no opinion, but when you’re looking at city council, there is literally the opportunity in this election, and I think it’s next week, you literally have the opportunity to shift the Chicago City Council for the long run by not only removing Rahm-backed incumbents, even Rahm is not running his money, his influence are most definitely on the ballot, but the idea that you can shift progressive values and opportunity in a city that so deeply needs it is really impactful by taking on these aldermen and their little fiefdoms. I mean it’s the same type of thing we’re seeing where folks are considered so electable that no one can pierce the veil, but all the different issues in Chicago with corruption and just the way that folks are trying to run collectively and build their own cohorts when they’re trying to run and build and develop and educating and inform people. Because I think that’s the other part of electability, right? Electability is like one of those really bad monsters from a kid’s movie that if we feed the negativity into it, it gets bigger and it can’t be defeated.
Nima: Don’t feed electability after midnight.
Anoa Changa: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a gremlin. Don’t feed it after midnight. Definitely don’t spray it with water. But if we really start to shift, not just the way we’re moving in electoral spaces and doing work, but shift our thinking, right? Like, in terms of what’s electable, how do we do this and who’s possible? I mean, Bernie Sanders definitely changed the game, at least in showing folks, he was not the first person, but I think he did it the best in our modern recent history in terms of the small dollar donations. Right? And so now we have all these candidates. Oh, I don’t take corporate PAC money or Elizabeth Warren I don’t know if she still has clarified whether she takes PAC money, I don’t know. But, you know, they get tripped up with the language because it’s not necessarily authentic to them, but, not saying Elizabeth Warren is not authentic —
Nima: You can say that. That’s okay.
Anoa Changa: (Laughs.) Well, you know, I saw her speak this past weekend, which speaking of electability, I saw her speak this past weekend, I think she needs to tighten up her stories a little bit and I think she needs to talk about Medicare for All very differently because it took her almost five minutes to answer a question about it. However, I have a little bit different take on her and her electability, um, after actually watching her in person. But that’s even a privilege. How do people actually get to see a candidate speak in person and actually interact with folks in a very genuine and real way to even change their mindset. But I think as organizers, as political commentators, analysts, as those of us who help shift and engage in this commentary around these issues, you know, we have a really good position and opportunity to help people shift the way we think about engaging electoral politics and what it is electability. I mean, even right now with this conversation about who is electable, what’s happening, I know there’s a lot of angst with folks because Kamala Harris is seeming like she’s shaping up as the front runner in this race over a year out before any primaries, which is wild. Then all the endorsements she’s racking up, but when we’re talking about electability and what actually gets people elected into office, it’s not endorsements. I mean endorsements are cool. They help with you raising money, but that’s not what, you know, if you’re knocking on a door in Illinois or somewhere, don’t nobody care that you’ve got all these endorsements from California. California is not Illinois. It’s not New York. It’s not down South. I mean I might work in California, but these things that actually matter and I think that we get so caught up in being upset and we as, you know, very vocal, angry leftists on Twitter, get caught up in being upset about these things that other people are doing that we absolutely can’t control. Yes, we can speak out about it and once we spoken out about them, it’s time to go help people get the information and tools and resources they need to do better.
Anoa: And this issue of electability, the potential of anyone other than one of these chosen establishment candidates to win really isn’t, and whether or not we can convince people to stop endorsing them, it isn’t in whether or not we can convince MSNBC and CNN, which we all know are problematic, to start covering our people better. I mean most of the people watching CNN and MSNBC aren’t even the demographic we need to be trying to get and reach.
Anoa: It really is redefining for ourselves what is electability. What does it mean to run and engage in building these spaces and start building out with real life people who we need to move to the polls to vote?
Nima: Well, there’s always the thing of like lamenting the lesser of two evils choice when it comes to certain races and yet it never seems to dawn on like the Party at large, or it does and they actually literally don’t care cause that’s the way they stay in power, but there’s like no real movement toward how about if the person we want to vote for isn’t an evil? Right? Like how about if like we actually have something to do with ideology and we insist that our candidates are consistent and that we can actually get on board with at least the majority of what they think in a very, very, very serious way rather than just replaying the same old, like whoever is not going to offend some like made up white woman in the suburbs in Nebraska, like whoever she’s going to be okay with, we need to run that person against a white supremacist. Like, how about if we just don’t play into that model?
Anoa Changa: Right, right. And I mean the other thing is like we’ve already seen this does not work. It does not work. Like having your organic white bread, organic white bread versus regular white bread, like folks are still gonna use the Wonder Bread that they know and love and that’s, you know, reasonable and affordable for their families. Like it’s not going to work, no matter, like case in point, you know, we now have, down here in Georgia in the 6th congressional district, but caught the country by storm, really expensive race, was Jon Ossoff’s race, you know, running against Karen Handel trying to take that seat and you know, he really did not have a clear message. I mean I’m not in the 6th district but I’m a few minutes away. We all got the commercials down here and I was really confused by some of the commercials. They were so bad. And I’m just like, why would anyone go vote for you? Because like you’re sitting there tweeting to make fun of the president on a commercial that only if you use Twitter would you even understand, and I use Twitter and didn’t understand until I read an article about it. So like this type of mindset, but the problem is because it’s capitalism and everything is an industry, you know you have these consultants that are pushing either, you know, doing these commercials, you have consultants that are working with these entities and these donors that want you to say certain things and do certain things because that’s what they need for their interests that they’re representing. That is so disconnected and out of touch with the masses of people across the country. You know, particularly when you’re, I refer to the South because this is where I stay, you know, this is what I rep these days, you know, when we’re down here and things like Medicaid expansion is extremely popular Republicans refuse to do anything but commission a study and pay a consultant one million dollars to tell them that a Medicaid expansion is bad. We can’t even get to Medicare, conversation about Medicare for All in these parts, you know, because we’re still trying to get over these hurdles of playing on their terms with the way they frame issues. And so that’s the thing, we got to start being on the offensive. And it’s hard because we are not resourced the same way, but we, we have people, right? And we’re connected in spaces with people in a very meaningful way and we have to stop, you know, defining things and living on the terms of whether their establishment, whether it’s from Republican establishment or the far right, or not establishment who we’re not going to join with just because they’re anti their establishment but not really anti-establishment. I mean, but it’s just like there’s so much going on but there’s so much potential. And so even though a lot of things are cringe-worthy, like tweeting a random hot sauce brand because your boss is eating collard greens, I mean, that’s not electability, that’s just being thirsty. That’s just thirst [inaudible] —
Adam: The superdelegates, which, you know, Kamala Harris presently has the most of —
Anoa Changa: Yes.
Adam: Like are the ultimate kind of pseudo electability. Right? Cause there’s this, there’s this group of elites who sort of tell you who is electable and it’s like, well this is, as we argue and it is the title of the show, it’s a tautology. They’re electoral because you’re telling us they’re electable, therefore they’re the ones who are going to win the nomination. It’s sort of the thing you say when you have nothing else to offer of substance. Right? It’s kinda like, it’s a sort of classic, you don’t love me, you love the idea of me. You sort of love the idea of a candidate as opposed to actually liking the candidates themselves.
Anoa Changa: Yeah, exactly. And I mean like, and they’re not giving you reasons to like the candidates right? They’re just saying, well, I like them.
Adam: Well ‘I can win.’ Because they know people are desperate. They know people are very traumatized by Trump for very good reasons. And they’re saying, ‘I can win.’ But again, we’ve already done this and we lost. So why are we doing this again? We did electability before and Clinton lost, you know.
Anoa Changa: And we did electability on fudge numbers, right? On weird cooked numbers. We did electability in a way where, you know, folks were telling us that when it came to Bernie than electability, those numbers did not matter. They weren’t right. But those same numbers were what people relied upon in allowing them to go full forward with, you know, pushing for a Trump nominee to be easily defeated when it was questionable rhetoric and metrics the whole way through. But you’re right about electability because there’s so many other factors that go into it that it never pays attention to what actually moves people to action. Electability, like you said, is a do as I say type of thing. Just do it because I said so or just do it because I like them or we’re the cool kids and don’t you want to be cool like us? When it’s really not attached to anything substantive or actionable that’s actually moving people to the polls because it’s one thing if we were told that Hillary Clinton was electable and that was actually matched with this real effort, the actionable effort organizing wise to move people to the polls. But there were such glaring holes because that hubris and arrogance left it up to Skynet, baby Skynet to make those decisions. So you can’t let your electability argument be unsupported if that’s the way you’re going to go. But I think for us on the left, as we were talking about, how do we move, it’s not enough to just be oppositional to this notion of electability, we have to have our own counter. We have to have our own definition for ourselves of what does it mean to run for office and to be successful. Right? Because we should actually be thinking about how to shift, not just the conversation, which is definitely important and great, I mean, we’re having real honest national conversations about, you know, single payer, Medicare for All, the things that nature. Uh, Elizabeth Warren just dropped a plan for universal childcare. So we’re having very real conversations right now that we weren’t having 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Right? But we need to do more than that. We actually need to get people in these seats at the local level, at the state level and nationally who can actually start making change the way we need it to happen and no, it’s not the end all be all, but it’s definitely a good piece of the pie.
Nima: I mean because you’re not electable until you’re elected, right?
Anoa Changa: You’re not electable until you’re elected.
Adam: I think it’s a good place to wind down. Before you go, do you want to talk about what you’re up to? What’s your podcast is and where people could find it?
Anoa Changa: You can find me at The Way With Anoa, thewaywithanoa.com will take you to the simple cast version of my podcast for those who don’t use iPhones. I’m also on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher. You can pretty much find it anywhere. It is a once a week podcast. You can hit me up on Twitter @TheWayWithAnoa and stay tuned. We’ll be launching a website, a new website soon, but we’re working on doing work with local candidates across the country. I mean 2019 is not just a launchpad for 2020. There are local elections happening every year, all over the country and that’s the cornerstone of how we build power and capacity. And I’m on Patreon! Patreon.com/TheWayWithAnoa, help a sister out because I’m a single mom and organizing is not cheap.
Adam: No, it’s not. So definitely check out her Patreon. Thank you so much for coming on.
Nima: Yeah, Anoa Changa, as you just said, host of the wonderful The Way With Anoa podcast. Thank you so much for joining us for a second time here on Citations Needed. It’s been great to talk to you today.
Anoa Changa: Appreciate you. Have a good evening you guys.
Adam: Yeah always good to have Anoa on. How many times did we say to achieve friend of the show status you need three times?
Nima: I think it’s a minimum of three.
Adam: Minimum of three, so we only have one friend of the show right now. No wait. Luke Savage has been on three times, hasn’t he?
Nima: He’s been on, I think Luke has been on eight times.
Adam: Well, Anoa will soon be a friend of the show.
Nima: That’s true.
Adam: So always good to have her on. Definitely check out her show and her Patreon.
Nima: So when inevitably over the course of the next two years, you see endless articles on electability, just know that it is horseshit and it means that they don’t actually want you to pay attention to actual issues and actual policies.
Adam: They’re saying, shut up and stop thinking.
Nima: That’s right. We’ve already made the decision for you.
Adam: By forces beyond your control. Just shut up and stop thinking.
Nima: (Laughs.) So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. As always, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out, as always, goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Lead engineer is Josh Wilcox. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 27, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.