“They’ll never win!”: On creating your own electorate

We often hear about how left-wing candidates can “never win in the general” because they’re “too far outside the mainstream.” Instead, we need candidates who can “appeal to the center.” And this may well be true — as long as you hold the electorate constant. Bernie Sanders probably is a little too extreme for the ideological “center” of the declining number of people who show up to ratify the depressing mediocrity that the major parties serve up, just as Jeremy Corbyn is likely to turn off those who relish the opportunity to choose between Tory Classic and Tory Lite.

One unique property of someone who is “outside the mainstream” in those terms, though, is that they can appeal to people who usually don’t bother to vote. We know that this works because it has literally happened in both of the most recent presidential elections, where the “unelectable” Barack Obama — a black man, with the middle name of Hussein, with Muslim family background, with ties to a radical black preacher who declared “God damn America,” etc., etc., etc., etc. — managed to get elected by reaching out to a good chunk of the people who have no time for the uninspiring products of the “rush to the center” strategy.

If he was running only within the 2000 or 2004 electorate, I have no doubt he would have been destroyed. But in a country with low voter turnout, you also have the option of creating your own electorate, which is what Obama effectively did. And I daresay that the left has more room to generate fresh voters than the right does, as evidenced, for instance, by the fact that it’s the right that’s trying to suppress voter turnout.

4 Responses to ““They’ll never win!”: On creating your own electorate”

  1. antwonyet Says:

    “the “unelectable” Barack Obama — a black man, with the middle name of Hussein, with Muslim family background, with ties to a radical black preacher who declared “God damn America,” etc., etc., etc., etc.”

    Come on. This is a little bit too one-dimensional. Obama won as a non-black black man, a racial triangulator politically as well as ethnically. He attacked that black preacher, his own pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and by implication the black radical tradition. Following Bill Cosby, before the NAACP Obama made the “bad culture” argument that blames the disproportional rates of poverty and crime among black Americans on the failure of family and personal responsibility, the failure of black men in particular. He coded himself politically white and blacks were/are willing to go along with it for the symbolism of power. Obama was no more a threat to the privilege of those children of white privilege weeping into their cell phones when he won than he was to the corporate power that vetted and backed him.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not saying that he was a closet radical (if so, I wish he’d finally come out of the closet), only that those elements normally would have disqualified him. Mobilizing black and young voters, even if on somewhat false pretenses in some cases, delivered him the election.

  3. Mike Grimshaw Says:

    Don’t forget the huge impact his wife and kids made- they are the aspirational first family: highly educated, professional, good looking, well-dressed, well-spoken. But I am also reminded of the way ‘authentic’ and ‘authencity’ are used on non-whites in a way they never are on whites. Fanon is very good on this.
    The Obamas could be ‘sold’ as they had ‘crossover appeal’ and american elections are very much about selling- and buying- votes.

  4. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I think this is good insight, about creating your own electorate, and seems to be Sanders’ approach. What is interesting to me is that Sanders’ appeal is not to the far left alone, but among my social circle some on the far right who vote on second amendment issues, as well, and hear someone speaking to the working/middle class.


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