Electability is a cynical political gesture—we can do better

March 1, 2020 | Associate Professor Kumi Silva

This is the first installment of the IAH Election Blog Series. The series aims to provide intellectual, humanistic and artistic insights on the 2020 U.S. elections. Faculty writers determine their own topic, looking to cover themes that foster conversations across differences and demonstrate the unique insights the humanities can offer.

Electability is a cynical political gesture—we can do better

Dr. Kumi Silva

Of course I am more sympathetic to ___________’s policies but we have to think about electability.”  When my friend made this statement a few weeks ago, I froze. I sputtered and ranted in somewhat incoherent outrage (there was wine involved), but the conversation drifted on to less sensitive topics and we never came back to it.  But I’ve sat with that interaction since, and keep coming back to those two words: of course, and electability. I cannot make a claim for what constitutes electability, but the perception of what and whom is electable and its rhetorical deployment is what interests me. The separation between social justice and electability that is implicit in the emphatic of course followed by the rest of the statement, has stayed with me for weeks; especially because it has been echoed by others in casual conversations, on forums online, and in the press. While what constitutes electability varies widely, one thing is consistent across all uses of the term: a casual evacuation of systematic social justice priorities as necessary—even central—to electoral decision-making in a democracy.

The resigned acceptance of a separation between social justice considerations and electability in my friend’s remark captures the ways that inequality, systemic racism, and white privilege are reproduced in the everyday vernacular of commonsense rationalism. I recognize that claims like mine can make people uncomfortable. To talk about white supremacy is to invoke a history of racialized violence, slavery, and civil war.  White supremacy calls to mind burning crosses, non-violent protesters being plowed by cars, or the Confederate flag. But, as I tell my students, white supremacy isn’t always overtly violent or as easily identifiable as a flag.

Case in point: when I tried to explain to my friend that while their use ‘of course’ to indicate support for a candidate whose social justice platform reflects their own avowed values, their use of ‘electability’—as a way to rationalize voting for a candidate who doesn’t share those values—compromises their ethical commitments, their response was that I ‘wanted too much.’ Their advice was that I modify my expectations, and that once there was an administrative change in the country’s leadership, we could think about other issues. This advice to demand less, with the promise of more trickling down at some future time, is the most oft-repeated advice to minority groups in the United States. It is a cynical and not-so-benign rhetorical violence that turns democratic representation, political expression, and social justice into unachievable and ever-forestalled goals. It is advice to keep quiet and maintain the status quo. And that is white supremacism.

We see and feel these peculiarities of American democracy even more keenly as we careen toward November elections in 2020.

My friend’s advice to demand less (in the hopes of trickle-down change) has me thinking about the relationship between white supremacy as the scaffolding on our society and its relationship to the rhetoric of electability.  In subsequent conversations with other friends about upcoming elections, electability emerges as a shorthand for compromise: we must compromise our politics by supporting a candidate who can appeal to the voting public with a veneer of civility and respectability while not challenging the status quo. It’s a simple premise based on adding and subtracting the political identities and ideologies of an assumed public and a candidate, based on sweeping generalizations, that produces such a compromise.

Mulling on this sent me back to something I wrote a few years ago in my book, Brown Threat: Identification in the Security State (2016)[1].  There I talked about race as an ideo-mathematical equation: a process by which identities are added and subtracted that seems to logically feed [race] biases.  I see this same logic in the debates and assumptions of electability. If we extend the aforementioned notion of ideo-mathematics to contemporary politics we see the search for a political response based in an uncritical and benign symmetry to the existing administration, rather than one that fully engages restoring democracy and social justice. The declaration of a commitment to social justice, at the same time that electability is extracted from that justice, is an example of how we make electoral decisions from a purely formulaic position. It’s a position that doesn’t account for historical exclusions or their continuing injustices, nor considers remedies for these systemic and structural wrongs outside the confines of existing hierarchies of race, gender, and class privilege. The commitment to some kind of imagined formula of ‘electability’ (read white, male, wealthy, and pro-capitalism, with appropriate ratio of ‘black friends’ to anti-black policies) is a prime example of the ways that these ideo-mathematical categories merge with the statistical dreams of white privilege, animating electability as a master term.

Essentially, when we argue for electability—even when we know that the person deemed ‘electable’ does not best represent our ethical commitments —what we argue for is to preserve the status quo. ‘Electability’ delimits what is democratically possible to that which preserves the economic relations, social hierarchies, and political practices that have already enabled the suppression of the popular vote. I’d like to believe that we can do better—and instead of passively lounging on a scaffolding that we know is unsafe, unjust, and unethical to many while it holds up a few—that with critical and deliberative political engagement we can create a kinder, gentler, more ethical society.

[1] Silva, Kumarini. Brown Threat; Identification in the Security State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

If you are a UNC faculty member and interested in submitting a proposal for the series, please email IAH Communications Specialist Sophia Ramos at sophiav@email.unc.edu.