One of the primary things abusers do is convince you that your perception of reality is invalid. With romantic partners, this often involves an abuser convincing their victim that the abuse isn’t happening, or that it’s the victim’s fault.
In politics, emotional abuse is often framed as “common sense.” There is an all-too-common rejoinder which moderates give whenever a progressive puts forth a radical policy idea: “Will this help us win?”
This takes many forms: “Is this person electable?” or “Can universal healthcare gain the traction necessary to win Democrats some actual seats?”
Many centrist figures within the Democratic Party believe the answer to this line of inquiry is a resounding “no.” It has been argued by many that progressive policy ideas, especially unpopular ones, such as single-payer, detract from the necessary work of winning elections. The Democratic Party, they argue, instead needs to pivot to what works. We need to worry about these other policy ideas at a later date when we have room to work within Congress, the Supreme Court, and hopefully the White House.
This argument fundamentally betrays how the acquisition of power actually works. The American public is not a group of tightly knit idealogues waiting for politicians to shift to an ideal center. The political alignment of America is ever-changing. Ideas are not born popular. Ideas are advocated for by thinkers and groups, and if done well enough, they can form the backbone of political coalitions and movements.
The choice between electability and morals is a false one. When centrists argue about an idea or a candidates’ electability, they are, in fact, stating their preference against them, and gaslighting you into doubting the validity of your political preferences.
“Don’t listen to the thoughts going on inside your head. Listen to me,” your abuser lecturers you confidently.
What Is Electability Anyway?
In article after article, when we look at the 2020 election, we see a familiar narrative bubble to the surface: Democratic voters want their candidate to be electable. Voters want her to be able to defeat the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.
They want their candidate to win. In the words of Dan Balz in the Washington Post:
“‘Electability’ is the watchword among many Democrats this spring as they begin to evaluate the ever-growing field of candidates for their party’s presidential nomination. The question of who can beat President Trump weighs heavily in voters’ assessments.”
“It’s all that matters,” your abusers say.
Every candidate seriously running for the Oval Office, however, wants to win. We can’t rip open a portal in the space-time continuum and see who will be the real winner. Even if we did, that would create a self-affirming prophecy where we are voting for a candidate simply because the future told us to. The decision of who will win 2020 is still very much in flux. Victory will depend on if a current Democratic candidate can build a successful coalition to cinch those 538 electoral votes.
When people claim that a candidate is electable, they do not have a magical crystal ball whispering to them future polling results. They are, at best, stating what candidate they think will have the broadest appeal using the information available to them (e.g., polls numbers, demographics, campaign narratives, etc.). At worst, they are parroting about the candidate they personally already like, based on vanity metrics (e.g., “I just get a good feeling about him”). Often it’s some combination of the two, and it must be emphasized how much perception inevitably comes into play. As Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray told NBC News:
“Electability is in the eye of the beholder. Voters are not very good at predicting electability…It really is ill-informed, but we know that it’s not facts — but perception — that drive voter behavior.”
The majority of voters are not constantly weighing polls numbers and demographic data to see who will capture the highest share of American voters in 2020. When Americans speak of electability, they are stating who they personally think will attract the most votes. It’s a gut call that says more about their implicit preferences, than what candidate has the best chance at winning the presidency. There is a reason that the candidates who have thus far been deemed the most “electable” in the 2020 election are all white septuagenarians (i.e., Biden, Bernie, Warren). The perception of electability falls heavily along existing axes of privilege. As Perry Bacon Jr. wrote in FiveThirtyEight:
“In short, “electability” at times ends up being used as an all-purpose cudgel against female and minority candidates.”
It turns out we don’t need to tear open a portal in space-time to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We only need to leave our biases unquestioned.
“Don’t question it,” your abuser whispers, “You know nothing.”
This biased selection process doesn’t apply solely to electoral candidates either. The electability argument also comes up when we discuss policy.
A relevant example of this is the single-payer healthcare debate that is currently being waged within the ranks of the Democratic Party (note — single-payer is an umbrella term for a type of policy where the government pays for its citizen’s healthcare).
Many rank-and-file pundits have argued that single-payer, as a policy, will risk the Democratic party votes in future elections. FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver has penned an article claiming that Medicare For All Isn’t That Popular — Even Among Democrats. Paul Starr remarked in The American Prospect that adopting single-payer would meet “intensely devastating opposition.” Contributor Albert Hunt likewise wrote an article recently in The Hill titled Democrats ‘shooting holes in their own boat’ with single-payer plan. In that article, Hunt stated:
“Remarkable is the blindness of some liberals and their inability to appreciate how politically disruptive are major changes in health care”
“If you advocate for anything I don’t like, every bad decision is on you,” they warn. “You’re smarter than that, aren’t you?”
Opponents will often bring up polls which claim that Americans aren’t in support of eliminating their employer-sponsored, private insurance as proof that single-payer is electorally “dead in the water.” Support for single-payer, however, changes dramatically depending on how the issue is framed. When an ABC/Washington Post survey asked this question by framing that the current system left some people uninsured, support for universal healthcare increased.
The problem with the electability bias is that it ignores how political change really happens. Issues and candidates do not become popular because they possess some inherent, static appeal. An idea’s electability solidifies through proper framing and repetition.
“You’re smarter than that, aren’t you?” they say again.
How Change Actually Happens
There is an enlightenment value that forms the foundation for most of human civilization: that human beings are rational creatures. It’s an implicit assumption that underpins everything from the punitive nature of our courts to our fragmented school system. Many of us would like to believe that if you present the right argument or information to someone, that that person will change their mind.
Disregarding for a moment that rationality is itself a poorly understood and contentious term, we now know that the ideal of the rational decisionmaker isn’t true. People make emotional, “irrational” decisions all the time. For example, humans have a habit of placing a greater emphasis on information that comes to mind more quickly. Studies have shown that a physician’s recent exposure to a particular illness increases the likelihood that they will diagnosis it in their patients. This phenomenon is s called the availability heuristic, and it is one in a slew of cognitive biases that impact how humans make decisions.
Likewise, most voters are not making electoral decisions by tabulating spreadsheets on what their candidates believe. Most voters aren’t well-informed on the issues at all. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that a third of people who voted in the 2018 midterm didn’t even know the names of the candidates in their congressional district. A 2016 Pew Research poll found that only about half of voters knew where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stood on the major issues. We’re talking about a presidential election here — elections that typically receive some of the highest turnout and attention nationwide. Knowledgeability decreases dramatically for non-national elections.
The truth is that political support for candidates and issues does not appear to be data-driven. Voters are not “rational.” While data is useful for some things, it doesn’t create political converts. To expand your political tribe, you need to build a narrative that people will absorb and regurgitate, and a key component to this is simple repetition.
“I’m right on everything,” they proclaim.
Repetition has an extraordinary effect on humans. For example, Professor Stefan Schulz-Hardt at Georg-August-University in Germany published a study that found a startling thing about repetition. The mere act of repeating specific information during a conversation was enough to change someone’s mind, writing:
“From a rational point of view, information repetitions constitute redundancy and, hence, should not affect the recipient’s decision. By contrast, in two experiments we demonstrate that selectively repeating information in favor of a particular decision alternative changes preference ratings in favor of this alternative and makes a decision for this alternative more likely.”
Politically speaking, a perfect example of this is Fox News. The conservative media outlet is rarely factually accurate, but they have had a tremendous amount of success with convincing Americans of their claims by repeating them over and over again. The media watchdog group Media Matters has an excellent article describing how Fox News used a joke on the FAQ section of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s website to erroneously claim that the Green New Deal would ban airplanes.
The Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution that is not a law, would not ban airplanes. Fox New’s consistent repetition of the meme in over 30 segments, however, was successful in having the false information spread. Fox News has had similar success with equally terrible memes such as when they made a large portion of Americans believe the Affordable Care Act would establish death panels, or that former President Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim.
“Can you prove he wasn’t?” they ask.
If you want an issue or candidate to be “electable,” then vocally supporting that issue or candidate publically, over and over again, is what makes them electable. The myth of electability would have you believe that support for an issue or candidate should come first, but any successful organizer knows that that support is first won. In the words of Republican Strategist Frank Luntz:
“There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”
Repetition is crucial in crafting a political message and winning over support. By the time your viewpoint is considered “electable,” the political battle surrounding it has mostly been waged and won.
This emphasis, however, doesn’t mean polling people about what they think is useless for campaigns. We still need to know what people’s perceptions are because how you frame an issue is extraordinarily important to becoming electable.
There are certain words, phrases, and concepts that people will automatically reject because they have been built up negatively in their minds. In psychology, this is commonly referred to as an “association.” All of us have different mental models for how we view things. For example, we both have a different image in our minds when we hear the word “tree.” We literally picture a different image of a tree in our minds. Imagine how different the images in our heads are when we’re talking about abstract concepts like “socialism” and “justice.”
“It is how I say it is,” they say.
We should care about perceptions of electability, not because they tell us what issue or candidate can inherently win, but because they show us what narratives will help our issues or candidates to win. The trick is learning how to navigate these associations so that we can gain support from people who would reject us under another framing.
A horrifying example of this is the Alt-Right, which itself is a reframing of the white supremacist label. Outright declarations of white supremacy are not (currently) popular amongst the mainstream public. Yet, far-right parties have had a tremendous amount of success in growing their base. The way they have accomplished this is by masking their policies with a more “sensible” veneer. As Sasha Polakow-Suransky wrote in The Guardian:
“These parties have built a coherent ideology and steadily chipped away at the establishment parties’ hold on power by pursuing a new and devastatingly effective electoral strategy. They have made a very public break with the symbols of the old right’s past, distancing themselves from skinheads, neo-Nazis and homophobes. They have also deftly co-opted the causes, policies and rhetoric of their opponents. They have sought to outflank the left when it comes to defending a strong welfare state and protecting social benefits that they claim are threatened by an influx of freeloading migrants.”
“We do have to be careful, though,” they add politely.
Racists such as French politician Marine Le Pen have distanced themselves from skinheads, neo-Nazis, and the more overt symbols of the hatred they represent. She’s still demonizing minorities, however. The substance of her movement remains unchanged from that of her late father, but it sounds different. When it comes to electability, we must be honest with ourselves and admit that that may matter more than the substance behind her rhetoric.
Through repetition and framing, any movement or candidate can be successful. When a politician says an issue hurts someone’s electability, they are gaslighting you. They disagree with your chosen viewpoint and are trying to silence your dissenting voice.
Refusing To Put In The Work
From Socialism to Fascism, any issue is electable. History has shown us that any norm can be constructed in a way that builds longlasting support among a plurality of the public. As Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote in 1986:
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
The concept that specific ideas are naturally unworkable is a delusional way of thinking about the world, at best. It is often an attempt by paternalistic actors to convince you that your political identity is invalid. If these political actors agreed with your policy idea, then they would be putting in the work to make it a political reality. They would be repeating your movement’s talking points or constructing proper frames so the public could eventually grow to accept your side’s messaging.
The fact that they aren’t doing this work, even passively, means that they don’t agree with you. While no one is obligated to agree with anyone, these actors go one step further into the realm of emotional abuse. Instead of stating their opposition to your policy positions, these electability trolls try to gaslight you. They deny your humanity and argue that your views and beliefs are inherently invalid.
“By disagreeing with me, you are being irrational. You don’t understand the way the world works. Your opinions are nonsensical, and will never succeed. You don’t know anything and are stupid, but also, at the same time, you’re dangerous to the point where you risk ruining everything. If Trump gets elected again, it will be your fault. So shut up and listen to me, because I, unlike you, know what needs to be done.”
That is the rhetoric of an abuser. It is the language of the powerful beating the will out of their opposition before true resistance ever begins.
Again, any idea can win. It is merely a matter of repetition and proper framing. Don’t listen to abusers trying to deny you your political autonomy.
They are terrified that they will lose their power over you.