“Maybe Next Time, Ladies,” the headline of a New York Times opinion piece put it this week, after it became clear that the 2020 Democratic primary would likely end with two straight, white, septuagenarian men vying to wrest the presidency from another straight, white, septuagenarian man. Is this outcome due to sexism and racism? Yes. Is it also due to other factors? Yes. The fact that both can be true at once—elections have a way of mingling prejudice with legitimate matters of policy and performance—lends galling currency to self-laundering lines like “I’d vote for a woman, just not that woman,” and “I’d vote for a person of color, just not that particular person.”
These explanations carry their own camouflage. And they are adjacent to another idea that has been wielded in the 2020 primaries: “electability.” “Electability” claims to be a benign and objective concern. It is neither. It merely outsources biases, rationalizing them by appealing to the moral failings of imagined others. It talks about neighbors, and “other people,” and “what the country is ready for.” It throws up its hands and washes them at the same time. And it suggests an especially insidious strain of sexism. The sexism of the political past has often been blunt and unashamed in its expression (“Lock! Her! Up!”/ “Iron! My! Shirt!” / “She-devil”). The sexism of the political present, however, is slightly different: It knows better, even if it fails to be better. It is a little bit cannier. It has lawyered up. It is figuring out, day by day, how to maintain plausible deniability.
“It’s impossible to know the degree to which gender factors into a candidate’s political appeal, or lack thereof, especially at the presidential level,” Michelle Cottle, a Times editorial-board member, wrote in her “Maybe Next Time” column on Thursday. The Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith explained Harris’s departure from the contest in December like this: “I cannot fully explain the collapse of a campaign that, as recently as four months ago, was shooting to the top of the polls after a uniquely vulnerable moment involving her personal history with race occurred on a national platform.”
Those assessments are refreshingly, and productively, honest. Punditry values stridency; when it comes to the ways that bigotry inflects itself on electoral politics, though, it is often most accurate to punctuate analysis with question marks rather than periods. The mechanics of American presidential politics will always be, in some sense, unquantifiable. “Political charisma” is a form of magical thinking. “Momentum” is a matter not merely of physics, but of myth. The question marks cast long shadows. Did Harris’s campaign end the way it did because of poor messaging, or because of her history as a prosecutor, or because she was a woman of color who was overly optimistic in her assessment that the nation was ready to be led by someone of that identity? Can Warren’s showing on Super Tuesday—which was foreshadowed by her lackluster results in earlier states—be explained by sexism? Or was it more that her Medicare for All plan had not been enough, or that her Medicare for All plan had been too much, or that she had taken that ill-advised DNA test? Was it something else entirely?