How Electability Inhibits Women Running For Office

On 13 January 2020, CNN published an article stating that U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren (a fellow Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate) in 2018 that a woman could not become U.S. president. The comment was verified by anonymous sources and allegedly made at a private meeting. Warren confirmed the allegations on the day they were published, but the comment has been emphatically denied by Sanders. The tension between the two was highlighted in the open mic moment after the Iowa debate, in which each accused the other of calling them a liar on the debate stage.

Warren and Sanders are the two most highly-rated liberal candidates in the Democratic race. According to a Real Clear Politics average of presidential polling, Sanders holds 19.8% of the Democratic vote whilst Warren holds 16% (each trail moderate candidate Joe Biden, who holds 28.3% of the Democratic vote). Thus, Warren’s repetition of the claim is extremely political: it represents a swipe at a political opponent in a bid to increase her share of the liberal vote, in particular the highly sought-after women’s vote. Whether the claim is considered by the voter base as true and worthy of a vote, true but politically expedient, or simply false is yet to be seen. However, the most interesting aspect of this statement is not whether it is true, but rather its believability.

It is disappointing that a liberal man of such high renown potentially made a sexist comment of this sort, yet not entirely surprising to those of us following the 2020 election. From the beginning of the election cycle, the fact that Democrats plan to vote on the basis of ‘electability’ (i.e. who can beat Trump), rather than the candidate they actually support the most has been widely publicized (a Five Thirty Eight article from early 2019 succinctly described the phenomenon as “Democrats Care More about Winning Than Usual”). Additionally, according to an Ipsos/The Daily Beast poll, although 74% of Democratic and independent voters “are themselves comfortable with a female president,” only 33% believe that their neighbours are also comfortable with this possibility. Thus, Democrats are less likely to vote for a woman purely because they believe that others won’t vote for her, creating a vicious cycle.

This hinders advancement towards world peace in a plethora of ways. Firstly, equality is a hallmark of any truly peaceful society. The fact that women are seen to be less popular than their male opponents just because they are women highlights the gendered discrimination that is still so widespread around the world. By taking away the possibility of women being voted into positions of power, their potential solutions to complex world issues are also being discounted. Of course, it is impossible to say whether more women in power would lead to world peace (though the Women and Peace Hypothesis posits that it would) as it depends on the circumstances and of course the women themselves. However, by ignoring female aptitude for problem-solving in times of conflict and peace, we will never know.

Of course, there are still positives to take out of the debacle. As Sanders pointed out after Warren’s accusations, despite Donald Trump’s tendency to revert to sexism, there is still definitely a possibility of a woman being voted into the presidency, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s three million more votes in the 2016 election. It is hopefully this fact and the optimism it brings, which will preside in the minds of Democrats when it comes to the 2020 primary votes. The New York Times endorsement of both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for president as the “two most effective candidates” showcases the possibility of looking past the elusive concept of electability and we can only hope that it is policies which win the day.